An Uncommon Definition of Common Sense

Jared Spool

December 7th, 2011

Over at the User Interface Conference LinkedIn Group (which you should join, as we’re having lots of interesting conversations over there), a discussion popped up about Lean UX. In the discussion, one group member, Lorena, posted what she’d been doing, which sounded a lot like what I’ve heard folks are doing in Lean UX.

She concluded her post with this comment:

I’ve grown tired of people taking common sense, labeling it and then trying to christen it as a new process.

What jumped out at me was her implication that, just because it’s something she’s been doing, it must be common sense. I’ve heard this sort of thinking a lot. I guess it depends on the definition of common sense that you’re using.

There are two definitions I can see here:

  1. Common sense is what I know to be true and how I judge the world.
  2. Common sense is what is most commonly believed to be true and how most people judge the world.

These two definitions can only be simultaneously true if I believe the same things as the majority of people out there. Otherwise, they are in conflict.

Now, I’m at an interesting vantage point. As a researcher, I study what people believe. One area I study is what designers believe, particularly about creating great designs.

What I’ve learned in my research is that there are lots of different beliefs out there. Finding a majority belief is rare. And often, when we do, it’s not something that makes for the best designs.

Many folks are looking at Lean UX right now and saying what Lorena is saying: “It’s something I’ve been doing for years. What’s the big deal? Why do we have to give it a special name?”

But it’s not something the majority of teams I study are doing. Most are doing something more waterfall-ish, even when working in an Agile or Agile-ish environment. To them, this thinking is new. It’s novel. And it’s certainly not, from their perspective, common sense.

There’s an old saying: “There is nothing more uncommon than common sense.”

I’m wondering if we play the “it’s just common sense” a little too quickly and if that hurts our work.

4 Responses to “An Uncommon Definition of Common Sense”

  1. Dave Malouf Says:

    I think you make a good point re common sense.
    As a big critic of LUX, I don’t think I’ve ever said exactly that. What I did say might be construed as similar but widely different. What I have said is that there is nothing new in LUX that isn’t already being done under other practices. That is to say, I know there are teams that could do well by learning from SOME of the messages of Lean UX, and maybe the fact that it has a bow tied around it will make the right audience listen.

    BUT! That is not even an important criticism, bc getting ppl to listen to good advice is hard regardless of labels & salesmanship should never be discouraged.

    I more importantly just take issue with some (not all) of LUX’s key messages, especially around removing design up front (not research, but some DESIGN). I also have a problem with the anti-deliverable perspective, which comes across intentionally or not as a rhetoric of designer must be producer to be valued. But most importantly is the message in the salesmanship of snake oil, whereby this elixir known as LUX is a cure-all and will “fix what ails ya” regardless of your team’s culture or the context of the project as a whole.

    But yes, the “common sense” card is thrown too often, indeed.

    – Dave

  2. Donald Cox Says:

    I think one might also fairly suggest that we as a culture or an industry (at just about whatever scale you choose) play the “it’s innovative and game changing” card too quickly as well. Let’s hear it for the middle way.

    I wonder if the LUX proponents are falling into a variety of the common sense trap as well in thinking that whatever they were doing before LUX, and are reacting against, was common sense or the standard. I feel like they present it that way some times.

    I don’t agree with the second clause in your second definition. I think common sense is something that has to be available to most, even if they don’t avail themselves of it. I don’t think it has to be the first answer that 50%+1 would give.

    Jared, in your criticism of “because I do it” as a criteria for being common sense, I am hearing echoes of the debate around small N in usability studies. Back when this was an issue, one of the arguments for the validity of small samples was that it was very unlikely that the people you got were unique and unrepresentative, at least in the core of what mattered. Essentially that common sense does exist.

    As UX professionals, we know that users (which includes us on occasion) are not always good at articulating our actual needs and desires. While the common sense card may be more rhetorical than substantive, I think it would be wise to try to hear the underlying needs or goals.

    As we know from the Net Promote Score research, detractors are much more effective per capita than promoters. In so much as the LUX promoters want to “put a dent in the universe” versus carve out a market niche, I would love to have them to take this feedback into account and adjust how they are presenting their claims of innovation.


  3. Nyckie Pineau Says:

    Jared, do you think that believing what we do is “common sense” is a side effect of Unconscious Competence?

  4. Jared Spool Says:


    I think there’s something to that. I think it’s definitely in the unconscious category, so it could be competence or incompetence.

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