Priority of design inputs
As you may already know, I’m a nerd for design principles. I collect them. I did a podcast episode on them. I even have a favourite design principle. It’s from the HTML design principles. The priority of constituencies:
In case of conflict, consider users over authors over implementors over specifiers over theoretical purity.
It’s all about priorities, see?
Prioritisation isn’t easy, and it gets harder the more factors come into play: user needs, business needs, technical constraints. But it’s worth investing the time to get agreement on the priority of your constituencies. And then formulate that agreement into design principles.
Jason is also a fan of the priority of constituencies. He recently wrote about applying it to design systems and came up with this:
User needs come before the needs of component consumers, which come before the needs of component developers, which come before the needs of the design system team, which come before theoretical purity.
That got me thinking about how this framing could be applied to other areas, like design.
Designers are used to juggling different needs (or constituencies); user needs, business needs, and so on. But what I’m interested in is how designers weigh up different inputs into the design process.
The obvious inputs are the insights you get from research. But even that can be divided into different categories. There’s qualitative research (talking to people) and qualitative research (sifting through numbers). Which gets higher priority?
There are other inputs too. Take best practices. If there’s a tried and tested solution to a problem, should that take priority over something new and untested? Maybe another way of phrasing it is to call it experience (whether that’s the designer’s own experience or the collective experience of the industry).
And though we might not like to acknowledge it because it doesn’t sound very scientific, gut instinct is another input into the design process. Although maybe that’s also related to experience.
Finally, how do you prioritise stakeholder wishes? What do you do if the client or the boss wants something that conflicts with user needs?
I could imagine a priority of design inputs that looks like this:
Qualitative research over quantitative research over stakeholder wishes over best practices over gut instinct.
But that could change over time. Maybe an experienced designer can put their gut instinct higher in the list, overruling best practices and stakeholder wishes …and maybe even some research insights? I don’t know.
I’ve talked before about how design principles should be reversible in a different context. The original priority of constituencies, for example, applies to HTML. But if you were to invert it, it would work for XML. Different projects have different priorities.
I could certainly imagine company cultures where stakeholder wishes take top billing. There are definitely companies that value qualitative research (data and analytics) above qualitative research (user interviews), and vice-versa.
Is a priority of design inputs something that should change from project to project? If so, maybe it would be good to hammer it out in the discovery phase so everyone’s on the same page.
Anyway, I’m just thinking out loud here. This is something I should chat more about with my colleagues to get their take.