Posted on November 25, 2013 by

Design is not subjective

Design solves problems. When we trust design is not subjective, we make better digital experiences.

Imagine being in the last round of prototype reviews. No one agrees and out of frustration someone quips, “Isn’t design subjective? Let’s just put this to a vote.” Even if not said aloud, this is the elephant in the room when consensus can’t be reached or when a new designer comes aboard.

Subject, objective, so what?

The problem with thinking design is subjective is that it makes us lazy with our user experience decisions. Final designs fall to a vote which means the user experience depends on who showed up that day or who had the loudest voice in the room. Our users, if we hope to keep them, need more.

There must be some subjectivity, right? You bet. If our designs are meant to shape user experience, there’s a lot out of our control. The user’s expectations, goals, and past experiences all influence their perception.

That said, we’re better off approaching design as if it were entirely objective. When we focus design on specific problems, and test for effectiveness with user scenarios we can predict, we have a reasonable approach to creating better experiences.

For the remainder of this post, we’re talking about design and all it’s cousins: user experience design, interface design, interaction design, etc. They’re all the same here. 

The bigger picture

A common reason design seems subjective is because we mistake it for appearance. To an unaided client, design decisions get lost in what’s seen on screen. The same is true for other industries. In architecture, I can see an exposed cedar beam but have no idea how it distributes the roof’s weight. In automotive design, the new Jetta grill looks classy but I don’t have a clue about its aerodynamics.

Appearance traits on their own, like cedar beams and grills, are quite subjective. Preferences in colour, texture, font, and animations are similar. Looked at alone, they depend on the user’s situation and seem haphazard.

Design, on the other hand, has a purpose and solves problems that we can measure against. In this light, design isn’t subjective, it’s either more or less effective at doing what it’s supposed to do. Going with a serif or non-serif font should be based on readability. Deciding to underline links should be based on accessibility.

The genie effect

Let’s use Mac OS X’s genie effect as an example of how we can approach design decisions. The genie effect is a swirly animation that occurs when you minimize an open window. The window shrinks like a genie going back into its bottle. Cool.

If we just look at the genie effect’s appearance, it’s not hard to imagine some folks at the design table not liking it. It’s a bit whimsical for today’s interfaces and it’s not a common animation that folks would be used to.

However, when we consider what it’s meant to do – to show users that their minimized window went to the dock – we can focus on effectiveness. From this perspective, it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t grab the user’s attention while showing them where their window can be found. Design becomes less subjective.

This isn’t license to stop and not improve the genie effect. Perhaps a simpler animation would work just as well. The good news is that this approach keeps us on a user-centered path towards improving the experience.

What it means for us

If we can agree that design is not subjective, it has implications for clients and designers:

For clients, our new approach to design means we have a better decision-making process. We can debate and test designs based on how well they perform their intended tasks. Does the Buy Now button encourage more sales? Does the navigation menu help people find what they’re looking for? This makes decisions less personal and more user-focused.

For designers, this approach requires that our designs are actually based on the client’s objectives – not what looks best in our portfolio or follows the latest trends. We need to be ready to explain these decisions when showing our work to clients.