SXSWi Panel: Anatomy of a Design Decision

It’s been a week since South By Southwest Interactive ended, and now that I’m finally back into a routine, I wanted to share some of the amazing stuff I learned through the conference.  I’ll be posting a new one each day this week.

Today’s topic: Anatomy of a Design Decision, presented by Jared M. Spool.  The audio of the presentation is available and I HIGHLY recommend listening, because the guy is freakin’ HILARIOUS.  Seriously.  My friend Richard, who has about zero interest in design, tagged along and thought Spool was an awesome speaker.

My notes can not possibly translate how entertaining this was, but I’ll attempt to boil it down to the nitty-gritty.

Basically, there are 5 different design decision styles. They all have their place, but some are more desirable than others.

  1. Unintentional design
    This is what you get when the design happens on its own.
    It works when users put up with whatever you give them and developers don’t care about support costs or the pain from frustration.
  2. Self design
    This is when you design for yourself.
    It works when your users are just like you and you regularly use the design like your users.
  3. Genius design
    Designing when you’ve previously learned what the users need (you know what works)
    It works when you already understand their knowledge, experiences and problems.
  4. Activity-focused design
    Designing something you’ve never designed before that researches the users and their activities
  5. Experience-focused design
    This goes beyond just looking at the user’s activities and seeks to fill the gaps in between the activities for the entire user experience.  It’s the highest level of design.

Design decision also come in one of two flavors.

Rule-based vs. Informed

Rule-based (style guides, etc.) prevents thinking, so it fails on exception cases and NEVER WORKS!

Informed decisions require thinking and works with both normal and exception cases.  It uses techniques and tricks to build a better design, rather than methodology or dogma.


  • Every style has its its purpose
  • Great designers know which style they’re using
  • Great designers use the same style for the entire project
  • Great teams ensure everyone uses the same style (No “swoop and poop!” from the CEO)

He asked the audience what kind of design we wanted to create?  Of course I want to be an experience-focused designer, but it will take practice and lots of research.  No time like the present to get started!

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