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Moving UX design decisions from principles to particulars

Moving UX design decisions from principles to particulars

“It depends” sits in the pantheon of UX design industry clichés alongside post–it notes, sharpies and overpriced lattes.

It is a well–intentioned response by the design community to avoid generalities, to be suspicious of black and white answers and to acknowledge that nearly all design decisions involve trade–offs and subtle interdependencies. It compels designers to fully explore the problem before considering a solution, controlling our worst urges to overconfidently jump to the conclusion.

So “it depends” solves the designer’s problem of avoiding any manner of bias. But it doesn’t solve the enquirer’s problem of having their question satisfactorily answered. At some stage the designer needs to leave their ivory tower and address the question in hand. And that’s the bit that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves.

“It depends” cautions us against the bluntness of principles.

“It depends” encourages us to explore and understand the particulars.

So that is exactly how the enquirer’s question should be addressed – the designer should lead a conversation which descends into the particulars. Here are some methods by which that can be achieved.


Casuistry is a framing technique used by philosophers and religious leaders to explore novel moral problems. It does this by extracting or extending theoretical rules from a particular case, and carefully considering how similar or dissimilar those rules are to the dilemma at hand. Casuistry is an effective tool in the designer’s armour too, as it provides a method of identifying potential design solutions from problems which are quite like this one, offering the designer a frame of reference from which to draw a conclusion.

Designers therefore can get beyond “it depends” by exploring comparative design solutions which solve a similar problem and investigating their relative performance.


The very best questions explore context and consequence. Designers use techniques such as persona development, jobs to be done and features vs goals to ask good questions. However, when exploring a specific problem, we should look not just at current context, but also at future consequence. For example, imagine a designer has been asked if a new link should be added to the first or second level menu. Good consequence questions include the following:

What items will that deprioritise or dilute?

What additional cognitive load will that put on the user?

Will that add additional clutter particularly on smaller screens?

Questions such as these empower project teams to consider all of the implications of what has been asked for, outline the broader impact of the change and ultimately come to a position on a potential solution.

Designers therefore can get beyond “it depends” by asking questions related to context and consequence.

Structured consensus gathering

At the centre of good consensus gathering is ensuring that the design doesn’t become a diluted beige summary of lots of people’s preference (design by committee) and that it isn’t unduly influenced by seniority or personality type. Frameworks such as Roman Voting and Fists of Five alongside established techniques such as the prioritisation matrix provide excellent mechanisms for measuring options across a range of criteria.

Designers therefore can get beyond “it depends” by facilitating consensus conversations in a way which overcomes known causes of bias and poor decision–making.


Self–evidently, evidence trumps everything when it comes to making design decisions. Pre–design research provides us with important information around user needs, goals, behaviour, context, needs, priorities, persuaders and blockers. Post–design prototyping and iteration lets us see how humans interact with our design in the real world and ultimately that is the environment within which our design decisions will live or die.

Therefore finally, designers can get beyond “it depends” by being the voice of the user in the conversation.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

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