Five Design Decision Styles by Jared Spool


Many years ago I attended a talk by Jared Spool, where he introduced this way of thinking about design decision styles: 1. unintended design, 2. self design, 3. genius design, 4. activity-focussed design, 5. user-focused design. It resonated a lot with me and I find that awareness of this has helped me personally. It has often made it easier to get everyone on the same page and to make better decisions. I want to highlight this framework here in case someone else also finds it useful.

Note: the featured image is of Dieter Rams.

1. Unintended Design

This is the undesigned stuff. No one sat down and decided this is how it should be. It just ended up being this way. And no one is empowered to optimize it yet. This is the ‘cheapest’ form of design style. Not having one 🙂

Unintended Design happens when the team focuses on the act of development and deployment without any consideration of what will happen when people try to use it. Not all unintended designs are bad—some can be quite usable. It comes down to a game of chance. (Think of the old maxim, “Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every so often.”)

Jared Spool
Instructions papered on to a hard to use gas station pump
Keyboard not found. Press F1 to Resume

2. Self Design

This is when you decide you are the customer. You are designing for yourself and for people just like you. This is the fastest and cheapest way to get results from your design process as it can reduce a lot of overhead. But there’s a big risk to this style. Many people often realize too late that they are not the customer and that it’s easy to end up with blind spots. And the costs of recovering from those can be quite high.

It works best when the team members really are the primary users of the application. For example, many in-house bug tracking systems are self designed and quite good. They do exactly what the team needs without a lot of fuss.

Jared Spool
Building a tiny home for yourself to live in. But will someone else buy a replica or will they want their own customization?

3. Genius Design

This is a variation / evolution of the previous design style and it is a short-cut to the next design style. This style only works when the team members have prior experience designing for a problem in the same domain, similar user profiles, and have gone through the feedback loops, the bruises, the surprises etc and come away with real wisdom. This can work quite well, for example, in an agency that is focused on a vertical. But it’s important to have the humility to know when a design problem is different from prior expertise. However, this form of design can be efficient and cost effective whenever it can be used.

Genius design works well with very experienced team members. If you’ve already designed five different shopping carts, each complete with thorough research on the users and their scenarios and follow-up work to see how well the designs met expectations, then designing a sixth shopping cart without all that rigorous research will probably produce great results.

Jared Spool
A wedding planner designing the “perfect” wedding for a client. The “seen-it-all” style of design can be very efficient and produce great outcomes for everyone.

4. Activity Focused Design

Let’s say we have no background in medicine. And we have to design a note-taking app for doctors. The way to build that out properly will be to first understand the tasks we are looking to enable / augment and to understand all the activities we are designing for. This requires investing in research and there is a higher cost associated with this style of design. It’s important to note, however, that doing this process several times over can then enable the Genius design style at some point.

Teams need this style when the activities are new or foreign to the team members, and can’t rely on their own experience, like when using the Genius Design style. Often the research utilizes activity-based techniques, such as workflow diagramming and task-based usability testing. These simple techniques can provide important insights that improve the design decisions.

Jared Spool
A smartphone app for diagnosing cataract “in the field” in India. Need to really research the entire workflow and do field testing to get it right.

5. User-Focused Design

This is the highest touch style of design. Here we go beyond the “what the user is trying to do?” and get into the “why?s”. We invest in understanding the holistic context of how the design fits in with the overall goals and needs of all the stake-holders. It helps unearth insights that would otherwise be impossible to know. It creates an opportunity to leapfrog the problems we are trying to solve for and come up with a design that is more powerful and longer-lasting than the previous style. e.g.

People bought the milkshake in lieu of a bagel or doughnut because it was relatively tidy and appetite-quenching, and because trying to suck a thick liquid through a thin straw gave customers something to do with their boring commute.

Harvard Business School

This design style is the high-end approach and is necessary if the team is looking to create an excellent experience overall. To do that, the team will use user-focused techniques, such as field research and robust persona creation, ensuring the team understands the contextual nature of the users’ experience.

Jared Spool
A commuter buying a milkshake, because it’s the only food here that’s compatible with their long drive ahead.

When to use what?

The examples above lay out some of the pre-conditions that have to be met for a certain design style to be useful. In practice, I have found, that the styles often get mixed – sometimes even within the same project. It all depends on the overall complexity, the current focus, and opportunity costs of the reversible and irreversible decisions.

But being more consciously aware of the style being used can help avoid surprises and make teams more succesful.

Here’s a more recent example of what happens when the design process breaks down as incremental changes add up to larger problems that sometimes go undetected until it is too late.

How a 50-year old design came back to haunt Boeing with its troubled 737 Max jet (LA Times)

The problem with the Burger King video about Net Neutrality

Feature, General

This is a great example of a video trying to claim something but actually proving the opposite. The video starts by claiming that “burger neutrality” has been eliminated and now a Whopper will cost $20 if you want it right away or you have to wait 20min to have it at it’s usual price. Then it shows people being upset by this and then makes the connection that this is why we should care about Net Neutrality.

There is no legislation preventing Burger King from actually doing what they are joking about in this video. Yet they don’t do it. And that is because there’s fair competition in the fast food industry and consumers get to vote with their feet and their dollars.

So, if anything, this video shows that creating a free market, with fair competition and consumer choice is an effective strategy for ensuring Whopper neutrality. And that it would be quite ineffective to try and guarantee this by passing a Whopper neutrality law instead.

The video is trying to prove that we need net neutrality to protect consumers from unfair pricing, but instead, it’s proof that fixing the free market is a much better strategy to achieve that goal.

First of all, as you probably know, what we are actually talking about is a Title II classification for ISPs, making them utilities rather than Information Service Providers. This classification was achieved by passing an Open Internet Order in 2015 and the marketing name of that Order was “Net Neutrality”. It’s not really a net neutrality law – if we had to actually pass a law for actual net neutrality, it would have to involve many more provisions and the consequences would be quite more drastic and pretty far reaching.

There are two main problems with ISPs and it’s worth teasing them apart.

1) The monopoly problem: There isn’t enough competition between ISPs in the US which results in a lack of choice for consumers, less affordability, and slower innovation.

2) The anti-competitive practice problem: An ISP can use their unchallenged competitive advantage to distort and suppress the internet, biasing access and services towards their special interests.

Problem no 1 is fairly validated in practice. We can do a lot better here.

Problem 2 is mainly hypothetical. Prior to 2015, for the *entire* history of the internet, there was *no* real net neutrality law in place. If an ISP tried to engage in any anti-competitive practices – like blocking services or traffic shaping – then the FTC stepped in and set things right. What we are mainly arguing on both sides of the Title II classification now is whether we should empower the FCC instead to police the internet, or whether the FTC is still capable of doing this job. There’s no real “repeal of net neutrality”, it’s the switch between the two gatekeepers. Each gatekeeper comes with its own pros and cons, for sure.

Coming back to the Burger King video. It claims that without neutrality, we will have to wait longer for a burger unless we are willing to pay more for faster service. And yet the way it stands, for as long as we can all remember, whenever we get an internet plan, we can choose our download speeds (and/or sometimes bandwidth) and pay different prices depending on our needs. If we pay more, we can download files faster, our voice calls are clearer, and we can stream music and videos at higher quality. But if we just want to occasionally browse the internet – then we can choose to pay less. We are all very familiar with this differential pricing, it’s literally the first decision we have to make when we get a new internet connection. This has absolutely nothing to do with net neutrality – definitely not the Open Internet Order 2015 that Burger King is claiming to be talking about. Passing that order doesn’t have any direct effect on this type of pricing at all.

If we wanted to use an actual Burger King analogy for what the world could be if we had real Net Neutrality, here’s what it could entail:

“BK is now a utility that can’t discriminate between the services it provides”

[Price list at your local Burger King]

– Whopper $3.49

– Whopper Combo $3.49

– Just a side of fries $3.49

– Want to use the bathroom $3.49

– A soda $3.49

And if we wanted to use an actual Burger King analogy for what the Open Internet Order 2015 achieves, here’s what it would entail:

“BK is now a utility that can’t limit access to any other food services”

[Price list at your local Burger King]

– BK Whopper $3.49

– McDonald Big Mac $3.49

– Wendy’s Hot ‘n Juicy $3.49

– Soylent $3.49

The pros and cons of each are a separate, almost philosophical, discussion but the BK video doesn’t get there.

Here are a couple of related things to consider:

When I’m on a flight, there’s an ‘N’ MBPS connection being split between 200 passengers. My airline blocks all streaming and media-heavy applications so that everyone can have unlimited access to their webmail, documents etc without any risk of running out of bandwidth. They don’t do this for anti-competitive reasons, they do this to help me, the consumer.

I used to have a radio when I was younger. As long as my radio had power, I could hear music 24×7. Now I use Spotify for all my music. And instead of FM radio signals from the terrestrial towers in my city, I use data streaming over cellular networks that are hooked up to the internet. I want the same 24×7 music that I was used to with FM. But I keep running out of data. I don’t want to have to think about my bandwidth limits. I just want a guarantee that when I turn it on, I hear a sound, just like my FM radio. My ISP tells me, if I pay $X/mo, I will get unlimited music streaming on Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, and many other similar services and I never have to run out of data for those services. My regular internet, however, like browsing, hot-spotting etc is still subject to bandwidth limits. This is called “zero-rating”. They are not offering me this plan for anti-competitive reasons. They are doing this to help me, the customer.

Does the Open Internet Order 2015 keep zero-rating or does it prohibit it? Can you guess how many people with strong views on Net Neutrality seem to know the correct answer to this question? Most people can’t even agree on whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Net Neutrality and the Open Internet Order of 2015 are not as simple as I first thought they were. Until recently I donated a lot to fight *for* net neutrality. I have signed countless petitions and called my representatives several times to help ensure net neutrality. Then 3 months ago I started to actually look beyond the marketing name and all the hypothetical arguments that I had used to convince myself. And that led me to change my mind. I realized that bias is actually in the very fabric of the internet. TCP packets are treated differently from UDP. QoS is a thing. We all laughed when someone revealed their ignorance and called the internet a “bunch of connected tubes” and yet the Title II classification we all seem to be now arguing for is literally starting with that assumption. Not all bias in the internet is anti-competitive. Some bias is pro-consumer. The only way to distinguish between them is to review them on a case-by-case basis.

I think neutrality should definitely be our intent, but the true way to enforce it right now seems to be on such a case-by-case basis – with our rules and principles guiding us to make sure no anti-competitive practices are allowed and innovation is protected. This is for Problem 2.

The Open Internet Order of 2015 does nothing to address problem 1. We should do whatever is necessary to increase the competitiveness of the ISP marketplace. The same system and market forces that actually keep Whopper pricing neutral are what we need for our ISPs. This would further our goals more efficiently and more effectively than a misinformed order that achieves little and creates new risks.