UIEtips: 5 Design Decision Styles. What’s Yours?

Jared Spool

January 21st, 2009

You may know of Jason Fried and the folks at 37Signals, makers of the Basecamp project-management application, the Highrise contact-management application, and other successful web-based products. Jason spoke at last year’s Web App Summit, his basic philosophy is to focus primarily on designs he wants to use. When he builds something he wants to use, he figures there are enough people out there just like him, who will want to use it to.

During his session, Jason walked us through his thought process for several interesting design elements. He talked about the initial approaches, the problems they were trying to solve, and the path his thinking took to get to the final result. It was clear, from listening to him, that the design of these products isn’t accidental. It’s very deliberate and considered, relying on Jason’s (and the rest of his team’s) expertise and experience.

Jason admits they do very little user testing or field research. They don’t create personas to help validate their idea. Instead, they rely on the information they already have and their detail-oriented
approach to making the thousands of design decisions that go into every project.

Does this mean that every team could succeed without the traditional research techniques, relying on their own expertise and experience? That’s a question we’ve been researching for a few years now and finally have an answer: It depends.

In today’s UIEtips, “5 Design Decision Styles. What’s Yours?” I’ll walk you through the five different styles we’ve found teams use to make design decisions. I’ve outlined what each style is, the effort it takes, and how to decide when that style will work for your team.

Understanding how your team makes design decisions is critical. That’s why we’ve included it as just one piece of our new full-day Roadshow, Secrets Behind Designing Great User Experiences. This event brings together more than ten years of research into great design management. If you found today’s article interesting, you certainly want to attend one of the Roadshow workshops.

What design decision styles does your team employ? How do you decide which ones to use for any given project? Let us know your experiences below.

6 Responses to “UIEtips: 5 Design Decision Styles. What’s Yours?”

  1. Bobbyf Says:

    We employ “Genius,” or “Seen-it-all-before” style when designing what we call “commodity” features- those features that have been refined over time and for which many viable design patterns have previously emerged. When designing something really “new,” or something around a product for which we have insuffucient knowledge about user’s behavior, we do contextual inquiry and other user-centered research activities to inform the design. We don’t do a lot of personas. Personally, I think they’re mostly unnecessary unless designing for a highly-specific type of user whose circumstances cause them to behave differently than the mainstream.

  2. Aaron Irizarry Says:

    As much as i would like to say that we use all 5 types at the company I work for, more times than not we end up with #1-Unintended Design, I have been pushing for more user testing have actually used this article to speak to certain issues we have been having with user testing and pushing projects through.

    Thanks for a very useful and great read.

    ~ Aaron I

  3. James Says:

    Interesting read. Just to play devil’s advocate, is it possible that designing almost entirely by heuristics and instinct, as 37 Signals seems to, might be adding to some of the criticism they receive for being a bit aloof and arrogant?

    I’m not criticizing their products. I love Basecamp. However, they’ve often been pilloried for not taking user feedback into their development cycle, and now they admit it.


  4. Hienadz Drahun Says:


    37signals are getting user feedback in their own way. Instead of coming to users and asking them about the products, Jason is getting direct feedback from the posts on his blog. Is not this more effective?

  5. Carolyn Chandler Says:

    I’ve never glommed on to the “Genius Design” terminology – it implies something unattainable or elitist, which I don’t think is the intent. Glad to see “Seen It All” may be a different approach, but I tend to call this “Muscle Memory Design.” Like an athlete or a musician, practice (iterative research, in the case of design) gets you to the point where you can focus less on the mechanics of your work and more on the intent, or expression of meaning.

  6. Carol R. Says:

    I frequently hear that Apple’s best products of the past 15 years were the result of Steve Jobs’ genius rather than any user research or UCD. Does anybody know if this is true? As a UX Researcher I hear this quite frequently from colleagues who are skeptical that user research/UCD can lead to innovative, well designed products.

Add a Comment