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Do Something, Even If It’s Wrong: Dealing with Ambiguity in Design Decisions

March 14, 2015

When I was a kid my dad and I built a treehouse together. He was holding some boards in place when he dropped his hammer. He was standing on a ladder, holding this board in place, and unable to do anything himself. I didn’t know what to do and just stood there looking at him in indecision. Should I try to help him hold the board? Should I pick up the hammer? What was the right choice? As the board started to get heavy, he quipped, “Well… do something! Even if it’s wrong!” This was actually a common phrase of my dad’s. The sentiment is that sometimes it’s not clear what we should do, but it’s almost always better to do something rather than nothing.

The Design Decision Hammer

I wouldn’t suggest applying this logic to too many of life’s important decisions, but it’s often the case that design discussions end without any clear resolution. Sometimes even when we press hard to get people to make decisions, we are still not able to agree or move forward. Perhaps no one is willing to speak up in front of other stakeholders. Maybe no one really cares about one particular design element. What’s common, is for no obvious solution to appear to be the right course of action. No one is really sure what to do and so no one does anything at all.

In these cases, I recommend simply making a decision yourself and communicating it to the rest of the team in your follow-up. It’s better to do something (even if it’s wrong) and give your team the opportunity to speak out for or against your choice rather than deal with stale decisions and a stagnant design process. Sometimes you just have to decide and tell everyone else what you’re going to do in order to force them to speak up.

McDonalds TheoryThere’s a similar idea out there with the McDonald’s theory, proposed by Jon Bell. If you’ve ever had the experience of standing around with friends trying to decide where to go eat, then you know this feeling. Everyone is trying to be polite and no one seems to really care where they eat. As a result, you all continue to stand around and not make a decision. According to the theory, you should suggest eating at McDonalds – make the decision for the group – and suddenly everyone has an opinion about where to eat. Jon says, “Anne Lamott advocates “shitty first drafts,” Nike tells us to “Just Do It,” and I recommend McDonald’s just to get people so grossed out they come up with a better idea.”

One of my developer friends, Mark, does the same thing with CSS in his projects. Since he’s not a designer (and not very good at CSS) he wants to be sure the designers will make it better. However, he’s had too many experiences where his CSS was seen as ‘good enough’ and never polished to the degree he knows it should be. Rather than have to explain to everyone what needs to be done, he simply applies appalling colors to every element: bright red, hot pink, and putrid brown to be sure that anyone who sees it will insist that the designer re-style it appropriately. Sometimes the best way to get everyone’s attention is to make a bad decision.

Sometimes the best way to get everyone’s attention is to make a bad decision.

The same thing happens with design decisions. No one is quite sure what the right solution is. Everyone wants to be polite. These are your designs, after all, and people may not want to hurt your feelings. If you’re faced with indecision or ambiguity, take the lead and make the decision for everyone else. Find the choice that you believe is best and then communicate that to everyone. Be specific, provide examples, and give them a deadline. Say something like, “If I don’t hear back from anyone by the end of the day, I’m going to move forward with this design.” You may not hear from anyone, but often people will suddenly have stronger opinions and start a discussion about a better solution. It’s not a perfect science, but it’s a great way to keep your designs moving forward. So when it comes to design decisions: pick up the hammer and do something, even if it’s wrong.

This is an excerpt from the book Articulating Design Decisions: Communicate with Stakeholders, Keep Your Sanity, and Deliver the Best User Experience. You can pre-order the print version on Amazon.com or get early access to a draft of the eBook from O’Reilly.