Consensus is for Consent
This story is about the Usability of the design profession, and why decisions are more important than opinions.
What do you think of the image above? The one that headlines this article. Do you like it? Do you hate it? What fuels your opinion? What do you think might work better? Should I ask you? Should I ask others too?
Most important of all, why should I care what you think?
Decisions requiring subjective opinion — as with design — can be hard to make, so there seems to be a prevailing opinion that getting more opinions will make these decisions easier, even better. Is this true?
Or is that just another opinion?
Thinking that we can simply vote with our opinions about what is true or not is a logical fallacy known as argumentum ad populum. Also known as, the fickle crowd syndrome.
There is a Chinese proverb, “Three Men Make a Tiger,” which tells the tale of an official of the ancient state of Wei, a man named Pang Cong, who was embarking on a trip but worried that people would speak ill of him while he was gone. So before he left, he went to the King of Wei and asked, “Your Majesty, if someone were to tell you that there was a tiger roaming the markets, would you believe it?”
The King replied, “No. Of course not!”
“What if two people told you there was a tiger in the market?”
“I might be suspicious, but I would not believe it,” the King replied.
“Three people?” Pang Cong asked.
The King pondered and said, “Yes, then I would believe it is true.”
To which Pang Cong propounds, “Three men do not make a tiger.”
We seem to require 9 out of 10 dentists to agree on a toothpaste before we will buy it, but oddly, we gladly defer to the opinion of 3 out of 7.6 billion people when making a decision about design. Maybe those 3 are customers of the product, or maybe even the only customers, or perhaps those 3 are the ones paying for it (which apparently gives them über-opinion), but are those 3 considering the opinions of others? Their customers? Their customer’s customers? Are they taking into account every intent and repercussion of every idea and possibility? Probably not. When we are asked for our opinion, we usually give it. Based entirely on our own opinion.
It is often considered audacious and arrogant when a product designer makes a decision on their own volition, yet why is it not also audacious of a customer to then hate it? Full stop. Sometimes based only on a shrug of their shoulders.
In the grand scheme of things, a customer’s and designer’s opinion are at least equal, but as much as the customer believes they are the one who is always right, it is always the designer’s role to weigh WAY more evidence than just that.
The customer may always be right, but since no two customers ever agree, which one is the right one?
Since 2005, author and designer Debbie Millman has produced a podcast, Design Matters, devoted to interrogating people who employ creativity in their work. Each ~1 hour episode is intent on uncovering why an interviewee got into their business and how they have managed to prevail. Among the guests are artists and designers, of course, but also playwrights, musicians, even social workers. Listen to enough of these and you will discover that success in creative work is a serious job requiring unremitting study and dedication, and usually a penchant that goes way back to early childhood. IOW, they did not just fall off a turnip truck.
Now, of course, being a so-called “designer” does not give a person a license to do whatever they want, and this is true for the simple reason that being a so-called “designer” means that it is their job to know what people want, and also how to give it to them, and also a million other things too. A designer does not become successful satisfying a party of one (themselves), which is why they dedicate their entire career to satisfying everyone else, and how to do that most effectively and efficiently.
It may be difficult for non-designers to appreciate, but design requires the knowing of many things about appeal and appeasement and balance and contrast and deciding which should be which. If a designer’s job is merely to ask enough opinions and keep score of which wins, design would be a very simple job indeed. But, it’s not. Which probably explains why so few people want to do it. “I can’t draw,” they say. Big-time cop-out.
Yet another parable, this one from the philosopher, Alan Watts:
A farmer ordered a help man to come ‘round. He was an extraordinarily efficient worker. The first day he put him on sawing logs, and he sawed more logs than anybody before him. But they were all done in one day so the next day the farmer put him on mending fences, and there were all kinds of broken fences around the farm. In one day he had the whole thing done.
The farmer had no clue what to do with that guy. He took him down into the basement, and explained. “Look, here are all kind of potatoes that are from this harvest. And I want you to sort them in three groups. Those that we sell, those that we use for seeding, and those that we throw away.”
At the end of the day the laborer came back and said, “Well that’s enough mister, I quit.” The farmer was shocked, “You can’t quit,” he said, “I’ve never had such an excellent worker! I’ll raise your salary! I’ll do anything to keep you around.”
The worker said, “No thanks. It’s alright mending fences and chopping wood. But this potato business is decision after decision after decision after decision!”
Many jobs have decisions to make, but often these decisions can be based on logic or evidence or long-established rules of certainty. But in most creative endeavors — as with potato-sorting — there is really only opinion, and unfortunately an opinion is not a fact. Even worse, creative work is usually about making something from practically nothing, and so there are very many decisions to make — none of them for certain, but every one worthy of more than just an opinion.
It’s okay to not be a designer but to do designer-y things. It should even be encouraged. But just remember that three people do not make a tiger, and if you are have no choice but to ask around, be sure to ask three people who should know. And then just remember those are only opinions. And be sure to think for yourself because your opinion should matter too. Then decide. And move-on to decide on the next thing. And do it again. And again. This is your job now. All the others say they can’t draw.
This is one in a series of articles meant to relate Design and Usability concerns to anyone who may not be experienced with such things but needs to use them anyway. These articles have a particular emphasis on how to make data visualizations and PowerPoint presentations more usable for an audience — because the audience is the most important reason we make these things.