Autonomous Decision Making in Design

Autonomous Decision Making in Design

Every designer has been in a position where they needed to make a project-changing decision, only to find their design process coming to a standstill. Why is it that even the most seasoned of designers have a hard time making a decision? We will explore the different facets that make autonomous decision-making a stumbling block for designers.

I’ve been there and found myself in situations where I was unable to make the decisions I needed to go forward. Even today, as the CX/UX Lead in the company I work with, I find myself struggling with this issue. I don’t think it’s a question of experience in my case, though it could be for fresh graduates. Was it confidence? If you know me, you’d know at least when it comes to design, that’s not the case.

It bodes to ask this question then:

What makes autonomous design decisions hard to make?

Corporate Hierarchy

Don’t we all love that word?

I know exactly why I had problems making decisions. I needed a clear understanding of where I stood when it came to decision-making power. Company will at times place a UX/CX designer in this twilight zone where the designer doesn’t answer to other departments but also answers to all departments at the same time.

I knew where I stood concerning my juniors: They come to me for approval, I approve, and the process continues. There are no problems at this point, and for most parts, there will never be any problems until I need to make a decision that will create an extreme change. I knew I had the final say on the design direction in the Product department, but things became murkier when I had to work with other departments. If I worked on a project with Marketing, am I a partner or a subordinate of the marketing director? I report directly to the CEO, but I’m working on a marketing project headed by their director. Disagreements in these situations will very quickly turn into warzones. You don’t want to overstep your boundaries, but you also need to make sure you do your job well.

When there’s no clear set hierarchy, you’ll find yourself asking “Am I an advisor and not an actual decision-maker?”

The solution to this, thankfully, is simple. Just ask.

Clear the air, and make sure you understand what your responsibilities are by asking your direct superior to clarify your scope.

I discussed this topic with a colleague of mine, an architect based in the United Arab Emirates. I asked him if he had ever found himself in a situation where he couldn’t make a decision. I was expecting him to cite hierarchy as an issue, but his experience was different. He knew where he stood and how much he was allowed to take care of autonomously.

His answers came twofold.

Lack of Experience

My friend faced this issue early on in his career, and I’m sure many of us can strongly relate to this. His initial lack of experience meant he was never sure if what he was doing was right or wrong. He found himself stumbling in the dark too often.

The easiest way to navigate through a situation like this is to ask your colleagues for advice or find a mentor figure within the company who would be willing to help you out. You might find yourself in a situation where you can’t find a mentor, nor are any of your colleagues willing to lend a hand. If you can’t get help for whatever reason, that’s fine, don’t fret it!

Here’s the biggest secret out there:

Nobody knows beyond a shadow of a doubt if what they’re doing is going to be the “Right Thing”.

At some point my friend and I both realised that all our colleagues were doing the same thing: They made something, analysed how it went and moved on. We can call this process experience-based design. Don’t mistake the phrase with experience design!

Experience-based design decision making is the process of making decisions based on past experiences. Your past experiences will reinforce your abilities, and help you make decisions more confidently. The idea here is, if you did something terrible, you’re probably never going to repeat it. You might iterate on it and change a few things, but you’d never use the exact design pattern again. If you did something successful, you learnt from it, and you’d be more likely to use it in future projects when applicable since it was a tried and tested method.

It’s great to learn from experience, but why not learn from someone else’s experience first? Never be afraid to ask for help or to find someone to mentor you. If you can’t find a mentor or a helping hand in your workplace, search for it online or through your social circle. Most importantly, never be afraid to ask for help.

Job Insecurity

The one thing that can make even the most adept of designers freeze, or any professional for that matter, is job insecurity. If you find yourself in a position where you’re unsure if your company will have your back, or if there’s too much riding on a specific decision, you might find yourself freezing on the spot.

There’s a fair amount of studies out there that explain the effect of job insecurity on your decision-making abilities. Full disclaimer: I’ve read none of them, but a quick Google search will list them out for you. It doesn’t take a scientist to figure out that if you think you’re at risk of losing your job, you’re not going take bold decisions.

The first step to determine the source of job insecurity is discussing it with your superior. Is the position itself insecure, or do you feel that your team does not have your back? Clear the air.

If it’s an issue of actual job security, then take the necessary steps to find a situation where you can land a more secure position.

If it’s an issue of not feeling confident within the team or with the stakeholders, then it’s something you can deal with through honest communication. One solution is to invite your stakeholders into the process. You’re not asking them to play the role of a designer, but for you to get a better idea of what they’re expecting out of you.

Using the Wrong Tools

You can’t drill a wall using a hammer, and the same concept applies to the tools you’re using while designing. Your “tools” can limit your design process within their constraints. Some constraints might have a workaround, but you will eventually hit a hard limit.

I like the example of designing architecture using Revit or Rhino.

Revit is a 3D modelling program that uses Building Information Modeling (BIM), to summarise Revit in simple terms allows you to model a building accurately and create construction documents simultaneously. It’s a program that’s very well-grounded in reality and has many constraints built-in within it.

Rhinoceros is a 3D modelling program with practically no real constraints other than being NURBS based. What makes Rhinoceros different than Revit is that you don’t have to be grounded in reality, and you can push the limits as far as you want.

Each tool has it’s an opportunity cost, and if you limit your design process to one or even the wrong tool, you’ll eventually find yourself struggling to make tangible progress. If you already know what your final design will look like, then Revit will be an incredibly powerful tool to use; however, if you’re trying to experiment with complex geometric forms, then you best look elsewhere. It’s the equivalent of trying to create a GIF using Paint, you probably could do that if you use another program to assist you, but you’re going to be miserable doing that.

The tool/medium you use has a specific mode of thinking associated with it because of how you interface with it.

My best advice for when you find yourself stuck in the design process is, to change the medium you’re using and to make sure you’re using the right tools. If you find your ability to make a design decision is getting blocked, then perhaps its time to either change the programs you’re using or better yet: Leave the digital, grab a pen and paper or make a physical model. You’ll get fresh ideas and activate different modes of thinking, and as a result, different perspectives on the design.

Time Constraints

Time is money, and it’s troublesome when you have too little time, and far too many projects.

If you’ve worked for a start-up or a brand new design studio, you’ll know just how stressful the environment can be. Your studio/start-up takes on more than it can handle, time becomes a scarce resource, and management ends up asking you to create half-assed designs to appease clients.

At one end, time and stress are great teachers when it comes to time management. We used to joke around because in university, and granted I understand it’s a bit mean, but we would say “it’s either time management or design management”. The implication being, if you didn’t very quickly understand how to manage your time, you wouldn’t qualify past the design foundation year, and your only choice would be to change your major to design management. There’s a bit of truth resonating in this statement when it comes to design school, the vast majority of us entered in hopes of becoming designers, and those of us who didn’t make the cut ended up going the design management route to stay in a related field.

I digress.

If you’re working as a designer/architect, the assumption is you know how to manage your time, so the issue isn’t you. When you find yourself drowning in projects, it’s time for you to speak out and create a clear channel of communication. If you stay quiet, you’ll be facing a constant barrage of projects, until you eventually crash and burn, so nothing good comes out of stay quiet. Speaking out, however, might make management aware that they need to redistribute projects or push deadlines if necessary.

If management refuses to take on the role of project/traffic management, then you need to make tough decisions. You might have to decide that you will no longer indulge in the design process as deeply as you’d have wanted. You might also decide that it’s worth working post-work-hours to complete everything (hello unhealthy stress levels!). Whatever you do decide, you need to be aware that you’ll also be training management’s expectations of you.

You might need to set up a team meeting and introduce a workflow that allows for efficient project management and workflows. Work to solve the core problems causing severe time/traffic management issues, and help your team devise a plan to address it.

Unclear Requirements

It’s hard to make a decision when you have nothing to base it on.

Branding and advertising studios are very guilty of this point. They’ll come up to their designers, tell them “Hey we need ideas for the XYZ campaign! Go wild!“. Where do you even begin? You have no budget, no project brief, no idea what the goal is, but you have all the rope you could use to hang yourself and the company with you.

Campaigns cost money, and there are many ways to address an advertising campaign. Using AR technology can be very pricey but also very memorable, but printing out a few banners is much cheaper. When management/your client tells you to ‘go wild’ with a design, they’re wasting your time. Get a clear brief from management/your client to better understand what is realistically achievable.

When you set clear expectations from the very beginning, you’ll be able to make better design decisions. You’ll also save yourself the hassle of having your client tell you “that was not what I asked for!“.

Final Thoughts

Making design decisions isn’t an easy feat, especially when teams and clients are not communicating well. We can break down many of the issues we face down to two main branches: Intrinsic and Extrinsic.

  • Intrinsic issues

    • These are the obstacles we face personally through our skillset, experience level, the tools we use, our work environment, or our frame of mind.
  • Extrinsic issues

    • These are obstacles we face through what we can consider miscommunication or the lack thereof.

Most issues that you will face can be overcome through honest communication, be it asking for help, asking for clarification, or preaching for a better workflow. There is a difference between talking and communicating. Talking makes sounds, communicating delivers messages and tries to find solutions.

We will always face hurdles that will block our ability to make design decisions. What we can control is how we identify the source of these obstacles, and how we address them.