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Why are design decisions so hard?

The blank screen is intimidating. Without the constraints inherent in designing for the physical world, we’re restricted only by what the browser or OS can render.

This is exhilarating, but also kind of scary. With infinite potential solutions to any problem, how do we choose the right one? Is there one true “right one?”

There are lots of reasons why design decisions can be difficult. For one thing, they’re often ambiguous — after all, if there were a clear right answer, there wouldn’t be much of a decision to make. Here are some other obstacles I find myself struggling with when trying to make product design decisions:

Success is hard to measure. The success criteria are hard to define, or it’s hard to tie the decision to a particular business goal. Small-seeming decisions are often like this; the placement of a certain button may be very important, but it’s hard to say if left-aligned vs right-aligned will really move the needle on a particular metric.

Feedback loops are too long. The time between making a decision and finding out if it worked is too long, making it hard to iterate and learn.

The stakes feel high. It’s easy to feel paralyzed by a decision when it feels like a lot’s riding on it, like when changing a fundamental interaction or introducing a major new layout

There isn’t necessarily a “right answer.” Design decisions can often feel subjective. Even if there is an objectively best solution for a particular problem, there’s no guarantee you’ll stumble upon it.

Research is inconclusive or impossible. Your user research may not provide a strong signal on the right direction, or maybe it’s impossible or impractical to collect research on a particular question. You may feel like you’re flying blind.

Overcoming these obstacles is why I’ve become fascinated by the decision-making process, the mental models that effective designers use, and the various ways designers cut through the ambiguity to design truly great products.

In the coming weeks I’ll start writing about those mental models, along with case studies about decision-making in the wild, interviews with designers about their process, and findings from my own reading on the subject.

Thanks for following along. Tell your friends!