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Deciding

The problem with over testing, experience, and intuition

Designing something is about making a choice. Right or wrong.

There’s a common situation where teams become afraid to make decisions and they become paralysed by over-testing.

Barry Briggs shared his thoughts with me about this on Twitter earlier this year:

[I’ve] seen design teams paralysed by over-testing. Afraid to make an informed decision & over-reliant on testing all ideas. A culture of validation by testing is great, but when a designer is scared to make a call between 7 different ideas you have to wonder about the value of their expertise. Design confidence [can be] damaged by culture of over testing. [The] lost ability to throw away some ideas & prioritise other ideas.”

I agree.

The process of designing great products isn’t as simple as just doing lots of testing. It’s easy to drift into reliance on overtesting which can be damaging for teams. They stop being agile, becoming dependent on validating before they’re prepared to decide. This makes them slow and less adaptable to change.

In reality, intuition and experience is an important part of any design process. It’s how we make decisions.

User research, not user testing

User research should mean, first of all, that we test ourselves.

We test our own ideas, and the decisions that we’ve been brave enough to make. We find out if we’re right or wrong when it matters. When people use our products and services.

When I worked with Leisa Reichelt at GDS, she explained to our team that:

It’s user research. Not user testing. We don’t test users, we test ourselves”

This means that we test our decisions and designs with people. We test against their needs and expectations after making design decisions.

Trusting people

The ability to make the right decisions is why we hire experienced people.

It’s important that we enable young designers to make mistakes by encouraging them to try things, make decisions, and take risks.

The challenge is to create a culture of ‘deciding and testing’ not just a culture of ‘testing’. Most of all, this means that we need to redefine failure as learning. Mistakes that are the result of deciding, are ultimately okay. It should all be learning.

When we trust our teams, we allow them to fail, but we trust them not to make the same mistake again. We’re trusting them to keep learning as they keep moving towards delivering a product or service.

The answer is what really happens

To summarise: we have to be willing to make a decision. We have to be willing to be right or wrong. And we have to move on, repeating the process over and over.

There’s an end point for intuition and the act of deciding in any design process. It’s ‘what really happens’.

There’s always a countdown towards ‘what really happens’. It’s when we find out if we were right or wrong.

Either way, it’s okay. We keep making decisions. The important thing is that we keep deciding, we keep testing ourselves, or we stand still.

This blog post is part of an experiment where I’m writing and publishing something everyday. This is day 13: everyday is an opportunity to write something – previous blog posts.

Ben Holliday is an experienced design leader, writer and speaker. This is his blog (started in 2005). You can follow all of Ben's blog posts by subscribing to the RSS feed, or follow him on Twitter for more regular updates.