Hacking Your Design Habits
Designer, Promote Thyself

Permission Granted: The Heuristics of Design Decisions


Clip out the above coupon, pin it to your corkboard, and fill it out and use it whenever you're struggling to commit to an idea that just feels right.

These past few weeks, a number of people have shared with me truly game-changing design ideas. Most of those people were on the fence regarding whether they should execute on them. There was a fear that their ideas needed to scrutinized more closely before they were made real.

In every single case, without reservation, I told them to go for it. Not just because I thought their ideas were great (though they all were). My actions were grounded in recent research into heuristics, and how they can apply to design thinking.

Heuristics are methods that we use to make decisions. When we say that we're "going with our gut," that is often shorthand for a disguised internal process or "rule of thumb" (a.k.a. heuristic) where our subconscious mind has transcended conscious decision-making to provide an answer to a problem.

Research by psychiatrists such as Dr. Gerd Gigerenzer have radically shaped our understanding of decision making (and led to bestsellers such as Malcolm Gladwell's Blink), but what is most interesting to me is the influence that heuristics have on design decisions.

When we need to design quickly, we seek out economies in our decision-making processes and call that intuition. In that process, we're often drawing upon the heuristic called "One Good Reason." This is a quote about it from Dr. Gigerenzer's book Gut Feelings:

Intuitions based on only one good reason tend to be accurate when one has to predict the future (or some unknown present state of affairs), where the future is difficult to foresee, and when one has only limited information. They are also more efficient in using time and information. Complex analysis, by contrast, pays when one has to explain the past, when the future is highly predictable, or when there are large amounts of information.

I think that this heuristic also explains why designers have so much trouble creating self-promotional work. We end up defaulting to complex analysis due to self-awareness and a high volume of information about our previous decisions, which is rarely a factor in paid client work.

People can design and ingrain their own heuristics as well. My friend Ric Ewing created a rule of thumb where, if he was trying to decide whether to take action on an idea, he would take out a coin and toss it -- heads for yes, tails for no. If he looked at the coin after the tos, it was tails, and he had any hint of wanting to go for best of three, he knew his answer.

Now, I'm not suggesting that you run out and start saying "Yes!" to every single thing you're told. That would be silly. I'm saying that the crucial hallmark of choosing to acknowledge this type of heuristic is that you're making a design decision and you've already formed a working hypothesis. When your mind flips from pure intuition to trying to apply complex analysis, when you start to chip away at your idea with logic instead of emotion: this is often where you're wasting your time.

So the next time you start triple-guessing an idea, you have permission to accept it and give it a try. You just might discover a new way to enjoy the act of designing...


Michael Kozakewich

"My friend Ric Ewing created a rule of thumb where"

Wow, I do the exact same thing. It's a bit more difficult when you have a choice between A or B, but the idea still holds true: If you force yourself to choose one and only one, and you notice that you feel regret, you should probably go with the other.

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