Designing for Decisions in Social Business

“What separates a good design from a bad design are the decisions that the designer made.” Jared M. Spool, Anatomy of a Design Decision.

During his SXSW Interactive presentation, Jared Spool entertained with audience with classic examples of web design fail. The audience enjoyed a good laugh in judging poor web design examples based on the final product. But after the ice breaker, Spool challenged the audience to think about all of the decisions a designer made that led to that final design style. The most insightful part of the presentation was Spool’s reference to his research at User Interface Engineering about what separates successful from unsuccessful companies as it relates to designing user experiences. Spool entered the research project with the hypothesis that successful companies would have the best design methodologies. He left the research project with vastly different findings. The results showed that the most successful companies actually lacked methodology while the ‘struggling’ companies were the ones trying to put methodologies in place.

Spool rationalized the results stating that methodology is a systematic, repeatable approach to a process based on following specific set of rules. He found that design rules did not work for designers. According to Spool, rule-based decisions prevent thinking. With rules, designers appeared to fall apart when faced with an exception. Designers of the successful companies were on the opposite side of the spectrum (shown below) in that they relied on tricks and techniques. In the case of successful companies, designers were left to their own devices to make informed decisions rather than follow hard and fast rules.

Source: Jared Spool, Anatomy of a Design Decision, SXSWi 2011 featured speaker presentation. Posted on Twitter by @kennethkunz from Yfrog.

Spool’s dissection of design decisions applies to what we refer to at Dachis Group as social business design. Successful companies trust and empower all employees to make informed decisions, not force them to follow strict, top-down methodology and dogma. Dave Gray’s The Connected Company blog post points to research supporting this concept.

“It’s not about design for control so much as design for emergence. You can’t control a complex system, but you can manage its growth, and there are a lot of things you can do that will position it for success…Design by connection is not a top-down activity so much as bottom-up. Complex systems just don’t work that way. In a complex system, you need to pay attention to small things and make little adjustments along the way.” Dave Gray, The Connected Company, 2011.

During our recent Social Business Summit, John Hagel explained how the problem businesses face in today’s information age is that current knowledge is diminishing in value at an accelerating pace. Knowledge workers need to constantly refresh knowledge stocks. Businesses can no longer rely on competing with one piece of proprietary knowledge. Businesses must participate in a larger marketplace of information exchange to maintain a competitive edge.

According to Hagel, the key to a successful business is “small moves, smartly done” that lead to a cascade of change. If we apply Spool’s teachings, we discover that each of these small moves are a result of many smaller decisions. The insight that emerges is the most seemingly unimportant decisions lead to small moves that combined over time have a huge impact (good or bad) on business. So I’ll make a leap in making the following statement:

What separates a successful business from an unsuccessful business is how it supports the millions of decisions its employees make.

There’s compelling evidence for companies to trust employees’ workarounds on established methodologies to solve business problems.  If you don’t trust your employees to make informed decisions, you need to look more closely at your hiring practices and training programs.  Trusting, supporting and empowering employees to make their own informed decisions is the most powerful way for the enterprise to scale operations and allow for the flexibility and innovation required to be competitive. Design for open business cultures, ones that are networked to support the sharing of employee expertise and learned techniques at scale.


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