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The Graceful Degradation of Decision Making

I’m a huge advocate of making informed decisions. This belief permeates both my personal and professional life, helping to arm myself with the knowledge to choose the best course of action in situations where my knowledge is limited. On a personal level, this could be as simple as cross-referencing a movie recommendation from Netflix with the average score it holds on IMDB. Anything less than a 7/10 and I keep looking.

I could pick a movie based on more arbitrary factors, like it’s cast or even the DVD cover. Or I could simply bow to what Netflix recommends for me based on my previous viewings.

But there is one huge, gaping problem with this strategy – is all just guesswork. By cross-referencing the movie with another, highly reliable data source, I’m more informed and therefore much less likely to feel like I’ve wasted 2 hours of my life at the end of it.

Informing yourself

Of course, the example I’ve used above can only rely on data so much. Rarely is a film objectively good or bad; we’re gauging public consensus in order to come to our decision.

As a design agency predominantly in the digital sector, we’re often tasked with designing interactive experiences, and a common misconception about the word “design” is that it refers to how something looks. In actual fact it runs much deeper than this.

Form is the cosmetic layer that sits above function.

To accurately design something that satisfies both the objectives of the business and the end-user, you need goals and content. By understanding the goals and having actual content to work with, you can design the cosmetic layer on top of this. But how do you know if your visual design is going to fulfill its objectives? You use data!

Designing with data

I wrote an article about designing with data some time ago and its focus is on looking at demographics, use cases and design conventions. Unfortunately, data is not always available to you, and this really harks back to the title of this article.

In web development we have a (now largely deprecated) methodology called graceful degradation. The idea being that we design and develop a website with all the bells and whistles, but when it is being viewed on a device with limited capabilities, these bells and whistles are removed.

We can adapt this to a similar methodology for decisions making, like so:


Quite simply, the above flow means that we give the greatest credence to data, if this is not available to us, we bow to public consensus, if this is not available, we go with our personal taste or experience.

Problems arise when a designer opts for personal taste and doesn’t consider the vast repository of information at their disposal.

Finding data

Unfortunately data for specific cases is often limited but thankfully there are various industry figures that open source their analytics or user testing results. People like Jakob Nielsen and Steve Krug should be high on your list, but keep a look out for innovative digital companies kindly publishing their findings to the community.

Finding public consensus

This is huge and there is no excuse for not doing a bit of research. Personal experience is dangerous, but the collective personal experience, intuition and preferences of a huge global community can guide you well. Communities such as Dribbble and Tavern enable you to get feedback on your design ideas and help you to reach more informed conclusions.

Personal experience

Going with your gut or bowing to your own experience is often given a lot of credence. But when you’re tasked with developing something that is going to be used by a range of different people, it falls way short. Consider the fact that your personal tastes; things that you think work either visually or functionally, may be built upon hugely incorrect assumptions.

This is when you begin to realise that data is your best friend.

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