Hi, I'm Dave Mulder. This is my website, where I write about user experience and product design.

Originally Published: January 9, 2010

What do we really know about design?

It is Tuesday morning. The phone ringsā€”a client wants your opinion on whether web copy on his site should be in serif type or sans-serif type. As a designer, you have heard the mantra that sans-serif is right for copy text, so you happily recite that knowledge as a recommendation. Life goes on.

Designers are expected to provide suggestions that make a webpage more aesthetically pleasing and usable. I consider myself a designer, but lately I have begun wondering what I and my colleagues really know. The answer is a lot less than we think we do.

Sometimes our design recommendations fail. When they do, we look like idiots and our credibility is ruined with a client. If the failure is large enough, our entire consultancy can go down the drain.

These risks are very similar to the financial planners most Americans seek out to manage their retirement fund. Portfolio strategy sounds like something to leave to experts, but in reality all these “experts” play the same game and expose themselves to the potential of blowing up. (For more on this specific topic, read Fooled By Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb).

Web design might not be any different than financial planning.

If we do not know anything, what should we be doing?

Let us begin by acknowledging our ignorance: no more recommendations. When a client asks for our opinion on improving a design, we should not give a straightforward report.

Instead, we can suggest testable changes. Thinking back to the client mentioned in the outset of this article, instead of recommending sans-serif typeface, we could say, “Let’s try both and see which one works better.”

For most designers, this represents a substantial departure from standard operating procedure; but it is a necessary one. We need to get out of the business of issuing sweeping recommendations. Design needs to be context-specific, and the right path to fitting that context comes from falsifying the wrong choices rather than praying you make the right ones.

Some simple tips to get started

  1. Avoid making recommendations.
  2. Avoid having strong opinions on what does and does not work.
  3. Suggest iterative, testable, and falsifiable changes.
  4. Do not be afraid to make bold change suggestions, provided they are iterative, testable, and falsifiable.
  5. Start with frameworks and libraries from web anatomy that works.

Note: I wrote a follow-up posting to this article.