A Designers Approach to Decision-Making

Elections, policies, and practice change all represent massive opportunities for designers to make a difference.

All policy platforms aside, there is a lot of similarities between elections and pandemic management.

Both involve enormous amount of decisions involved in what is presented, what is believed, and what is followed and seen as valuable. In politics, public health and combined we see the confluence of many different decisions that come together.

These decisions involve weighing evidence — to various degrees in quantity, quality, and completeness – and socialization. Both involve outcomes that are tied to what we decide as individuals and collectively. What is often missed, neglected, or ignored is that both are highly designed.

Design and decisions

Consider what goes into an election or public health decision. The following is an incomplete list of shared qualities:

  • Evidence** from third-party sources (e.g., scientists, relevant practitioners)
  • Personal experience (e.g., direct observation, memory, participation in past actions)
  • Assumptions: Filling in gaps between what we see, hear, read, and experience and what we need to know
  • Socialization (e.g., others’ opinions, commentary, stories)
  • Availability of choices (e.g., physical, societal, and legal constraints)
  • Ability to exercise choice (e.g., physical, proximal constraints)

All but the last of these these factors is designed, even if that work is largely unconscious or done poorly. And even then, we can design around those constraints.

We can generate better evidence at the outset, by exploring the methods and tools we use. We can use a design thinking approach to explore different possibilities and ask better, different questions at the outset so we get different, maybe more appropriate answers.

Our personal experience is shaped by bias and cognitive distortions, yet it’s also our own story and contains deep, personal truths about the context in which we’ve come to know and value things. We can design ways for us to tell, retell, and explore these stories in greater depth to make them clearer to others. We can foster ways of seeing things and doing after-action reviews that allow us to better capture and codify information after an event to ensure highsight bias doesn’t creep in right away.

Our assumptions are things we can interrogate. Systems mapping is another option where we illustrate the systemic boundaries, conditions, and relationships in a visual way to help us explore our assumptions with others and expand our perception of them.

The social psychology of decisions are vitally important to understand as much of what we do is influenced by others and the norms, rules, cultural practices, and shared history of the people around us. We can design interactions that allow people to exchange ideas, experiences, and cultivate empathy.

The context in which we make our decisions is influenced by what we have available to choose. Algorithms that funnel certain information to us at the expense of others, representations of data through visuals and errors of commission and omission, as well as the way we simply design our choices (e.g. consider the remarkable power of ballot design on who people choose to vote for).

Lastly, the ability to exercise choice is an exercise in accessible, inclusive design. We may have physical limitations or geographic ones, but with technology, sensitivity, and user-focused, values-driven design and evaluation we can overcome these. Use of interpretative sign language, barrier free access to clinics or voting booths, and plain-language writing are all ways in which we can make something more accessible and useful — whether it’s public health information or voting details. In some cases we have things like voter suppression or the lack of availability of public health measures like masks for those that can’t afford them, contraception, or safe places for drug use when tackling addiction.

To illustrate the simplicity of showing accessibility and design consider the two examples below of public health messaging with the one on the left which is about ‘flattening the curve’, which requires much explanation including a basic orientation of statistics, distributions, populations, and time horizons. The one on the right simply requires you have experience with peeing and pants — something everyone has.

So when you go to make a decision or shape a decision think like a designer.

If you do, you might change your vote and wear a mask.

Be safe everyone.

** Evidence means in this case some form of empirically derived information that is transparent, methodical, falsifiable and verifiable, and open to scrutiny. It means real evidence, not something made up.

Photo by Tiffany Tertipes on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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