Revisiting How We Decide What Is Useful

Justin Kunkel
Dec 1, 2015 · 7 min read

A few years ago I wrote a blog post for Andculture that has stuck with me. It sketched a rough tool to help people make hard decisions about the utility of things in their life and work. I’ve kicked around turning the concept into a book and/or a web-based tool, and I want to reopen it for discussion and move it to the front of my mind. I’m going to start by reposting it here so it’s not lost in the ether of job changes and web redesigns. I’d love to talk about it on twitter @justkunk. Here it is:

Like all people, designers are prone to nostalgia, guilt and other psychological hang-ups that lead to irrational decisions. These things manifest themselves in our personal lives and in our work. We pack our homes with nonessential objects. We bloat technology products with unnecessary features, processes with too many steps, experiences with superfluous fluff.

Unintentionally and subconsciously we fill our spaces, our processes and our lives with things we don’t need. We do this because we’re terrible at evaluating what’s worth keeping. We prepare for every possible contingency so we don’t have to make hard decisions.

There are costs to keeping unnecessary things. Storing physical objects costs us space, and space is expensive. Storing too much in our minds robs us of clarity, and clarity is priceless. As designers, it is our job to make things simple and usable. That requires careful editing around clear criteria. We need a framework to help us understand what is worth keeping and what should be thrown away — a taxonomy of object usefulness.

THE PROBLEM OF POOR CRITERIA

Most designers find simplicity and utility aesthetically and philosophically pleasing. Given the amorphous nature of our work, this is often the fundamental value that we can point to as an outcome. Getting there requires discipline and the willingness to prioritize.

Human beings are bad at making choices, and part of our struggle lies in a lack of clear criteria for evaluation. We don’t like being forced to choose from a huge display of toothpastes because we don’t know enough to make a reasoned decision. If we’re feeling introspective in the moment, we probably also realize that the factors we do end up using to make the decision are relatively meaningless.

Deciding what is wheat and what is chaff in our homes or our designs is even more difficult. We often lack clear criteria. Therefore, we tend to do it badly or not do it at all.

THE TAXONOMY

Let’s ignore, for a moment, WHY we choose to keep or include things that are not worthy of our time and attention. That’s a bigger cognitive question for another time and a different writer. I’d like to focus, instead, on a cold evaluation of whether we SHOULD keep things (or create them at all). Physical things and conceptual things, that is, though for simplicity’s sake, we’ll consider disposable, physical objects first.

I’d like to consider only two factors:

  • How regularly an object or feature is used
  • How integral an object or feature is to the task for which it is designed (1)

(Assume that all objects are effective in service of the task for which they are designed. Objects that were never effective or have worn to the point of ineffectiveness don’t fit because they should be discarded out of hand.)

These two factors are intertwined in a way that lends itself to a quadrants on a plane:

THE QUADRANTS

Quadrant One: Objects that are used regularly and are integral to the task for which they are designed. The primary pillows on your bed are an example. You use them every night and it’s really hard to sleep with no pillow. Clearly you can and many do, but these objects are “essentials” that you wouldn’t consider getting rid of. You keep them handy because they are integral to your life. Storage isn’t usually a problem because they are often “stored” only in the loosest definition.

Quadrant Two: Objects that are called for regularly, but are not vital to the tasks for which they are used. These objects are often tools that make jobs easier, more efficient or lead to a slightly better outcome. Using the personal example of a cocktail shaker, I can make a drink without one, but if handy, I’ll use it. Think, also, of objects like an electric toothbrush, a juicer or a rice maker.

Quadrant Three: Objects that are used infrequently, and are not vital to the tasks for which they are designed. A garlic press. A Valentine’s Day candy dish. Arguably, many of our DVDs and CDs.

Quadrant Four: Objects that are used infrequently, but are vital to the tasks for which they are designed. There are myriad examples: ski equipment, camping equipment or sporting goods of almost any kind. Tools like a tile saw. We often choose to rent or borrow these things instead of buying them in the first place.

So, how does this help us? Objects in quadrant one are integral to our lives. They should be kept and kept handy. Objects in quadrant two may be kept so long as they CAN be kept handy. If physical constraints mean that they must be placed somewhere inconvenient to readily access, they will rarely be used and become clutter. Objects in quadrant four force a difficult decision. If you want to go camping, you need a tent. If you make the decision to get rid of your tent, you are making the decision that it is no longer important that you be able to go camping. Objects in quadrant three can safely be discarded.

APPLICATION IN DESIGN

The beauty of applying this method of thinking to objects in your own home is there should be little guess work. You don’t have to interview anyone to plot your own objects on the plane (though you do have to be honest with yourself). When designing a product or experience, determining what will be used frequently or what is integral to the task at hand requires diligent research.

A while back, we worked on a dynamic case management system for customer support centers. There were more ideas for the product than what could possibly be built or even used by the average human being, and criteria for evaluating the relative importance of features was sorely lacking.

In this scenario, the quadrants work the same way.

Quadrant One: Features that are integral to running a call center and are used constantly. The product had a lot of them, like the ability to receive and route phone calls. If you’re designing an MVP, it should largely be features from this quadrant.

Quadrant Two: Features that are used frequently, but not integral to running a call center. The system allowed agents to create canned responses for quick use during live chats. This feature is found in other tools and is frequently used by CSRs, but they could certainly live without it. This type of feature must be prominent and quickly accessible in the interface if it is included at all.

Quadrant Three: Features that weren’t used that frequently and weren’t that vital to the task at hand. We culled these. Super advanced slicing capabilities for reporting, for instance.

Quadrant Four: Features that are not used frequently, but are important when called upon. This product included a built-in mechanism for handling SLAs and entitlements. Not every help desk was going to need this feature, and those that did might not use it all the time, but when they needed it, it was absolutely indispensable.

WHY BOTHER?

We are living in and designing in an age where we have access to and the capacity to create and store myriad physical, digital and emotional stuff. Differentiation isn’t about doing or having more, but doing and having the most important things. We understand that great solutions require prioritization and difficult choices, but human beings are bad at making choices and designers are human beings. We need to become better at both making choices and explaining our rationale in unemotional terms.

This is not a perfect system, but a common set of criteria is a start.

_____

1: There is clearly a degree of subjectivity involved here that I believe makes the framework more valuable instead of less.

There are also some outlying factors for which we cannot account. To name a few:

  • Objects without intrinsic utility. Things that are purely decorative or hold only nostalgic value are extremely difficult to plot, unless you want to consider “pleasing me aesthetically” the task of an object.
  • Quantity. There are diminishing returns on all objects. You need a few pillows, but you don’t need a few hundred. It would be extremely pedantic to plot every object in your house INDIVIDUALLY, but it would actually give you a more interesting result.
  • Supplies. I keep lumber in the house. I don’t know what I’m going to use it for, but I know there’s a good chance I’ll need it eventually. The same with flour. (back)

Justin Kunkel

Written by

Chief Design Officer, Benjamin & Bond

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