4 Decision Making Tools for Better UI Design

In a previous post about how to design for brain quirks, we identified well-researched flaws in the human brain and decision making tools for mitigating these flaws to make better design decisions.

In this post, we’ll extend this discussion by identifying what Decisive authors Chip and Dan Heath refer to as the four villains of decision making. We’ll then outline four decision making tools designed to mitigate barriers to good making good decisions, especially in the design space.

The Heaths outline four common barriers to sound decision making:

  1. Narrow framing or the tendency to define our choices too narrowly to see them in binary terms.
  2. The confirmation bias, the all-too-human tendency seek out information that re-affirms existing beliefs.
  3. Short-term emotion
  4. Overconfidence: We think we know more about the future than we actually do, and we mistakenly believe that we are right when the facts say otherwise.

The Heath’s solutions consist of WRAP: Widen options, reality-test assumptions, attain distance, and prepare to be wrong. Below, we draw on the Heath’s ideas and introduce some of our own.

Decision Making Tools — #1 Widen Options

decision making tools

Narrow framing refers to reducing our choices to either/or. For example, we ask whether we should buy a new car or not instead of how we can spend money to make the family better off. This binary or either/or approach spotlights one alternative at the expense other choices.

The Heaths advise us to be wary of whether or not decisions. Rather than ask whether or not to buy the new iPhone, we could ask how else we could allocate our funds. For example, we could buy a less expensive Android and use the remaining funds to purchase a subscription to Spotify.

Fortunately, design work lends itself to widening options. As every designer knows, it is common practice to present three options to clients. Not surprisingly, clients often request a blend of all three designs, picking and choosing what they prefer and think will work best from each of the presented options.

As designers, we have the ability to widen options even further. Rather than presenting three designs, we can offer a variety of user scenarios based on research and couple these scenarios with focused mini-designs. The subsequent discussion will focus on how best to meet user needs in certain situations rather than limiting the choices to A, B, or C or some blend of only those three options.

Decision Making Tools — #2 Reality-Test Assumptions

The confirmation bias refers to the tendency to seek information that reinforces what we already believe.

To mitigate the confirmation bias, consider the opposite of whatever you have initially decided. We’ve written about this before (as have many others), but it bears repeating because the confirmation bias is insidiously prevalent and persistent. The human brain dislikes uncertainty. This discomfort, coupled with the desire to be viewed as decisive, contribute to our drive to arrive at a decision quickly and stick with it.

Decision making tools like considering the opposite are powerful and straightforward. For example, one way to consider the opposite is to confer with colleagues with whom you often disagree. Enter the conversation assuming positive intent and recognize that these co-workers will make suggestions that will initially strike you as odd, uncomfortable, or unworkable. Resist the urge to retort. Instead, ask questions that will continue to surface contrary information.

Imagine that you are designing a mobile app to help utility customers monitor progress on restoring power after an outage. Through extensive interviews and fieldwork, you’ve learned that customers report a willingness to remain patient as long as the utility reps explain why the outage occurred. In other words, customers don’t expect miracles, but they want to understand the why.

Based on these findings, you draw some rough wireframes with an emphasis on literally showing customers the problem. You’re convinced that transparency is best for the customers and the company. In fact, you’re more than convinced. You’re excited about this fresh approach to serving customers.

Amidst your enthusiasm, you pause in order to consider next steps. Wisely, you decide to talk to colleagues in legal, compliance, and engineering. And boy, do you get an earful. “You can’t tell the customer why there is an outage!” they exclaim in unison. “We’ll get sued. The company will go under.”

This reaction may well be extreme, and it might no mean that your idea won’t work. But you should congratulate yourself for applying a basic decision making tool, reality testing your assumptions. This may sound simple. Yet, many decision makers don’t use such decision making tools on a regular basis.

Decision Making Tools — #3 Attain Distance

Rather than take time to consider a variety of approaches to a new product design, we often base our decisions on a “gut feeling” about what might or might not work.

decision making tools attain distance

In Decisive, the Heaths refer to the 10-10-10 technique described in a book by the same.  The idea is to consider how we will feel about our decision 10 minutes from now, 10 months from now, and 10 years from now. The three time frames provide an elegant way of forcing us to attain some distance from our decisions though perhaps 10 minutes, 10 days, and 10 months would be more appropriate for UI and UX design work.

The point is that 10-10-10 levels the emotional playing field. What we’re feeling now is intense while the future feels fuzzier. Mentally shifting into the future places short-term emotions in perspective.

UI and UX design decisions are often subject to emotion. While teaching a UX design course for a Fortune 500 company, I was told that every site and application had to be responsive. I asked why. The response? “Because a VP said so.” “Okay,” I replied. “But do you know if your customers will want or even be able to complete complex tasks on their phone?” What do the analytics tell you? What does your market and UX research suggest?” According to the students in this class, the research did not matter.

The point is clear. The VP had made an emotional decision for fear of being left behind. Certainly, responsive design is often necessary. It pays, however, to find out if users and customers will actually use their phones for certain tasks.

Decision Making Tools —#4 Prepare to be Wrong

Overconfidence is a serious and persistent problem in business. Authors J. Edward Russo and Paul J.H. Schoemaker cite a straightforward example in their book Winning Decisions. A manager at a Fortune 500 company examined completion times for more than eighty projects. He compared the actual completion times to the original estimates. For projects where the firm tried to do something new, completion times averaged 18% longer than the original estimates.

Tales of late projects and budget overruns abound. One solution is to set a trip wire. The Heaths argue that trip wires encourage risk taking by carving out a space for experimentation. For example:

  • If your spouse wants to start a new business on the side, the two of you can agree not to invest more than 10,000 from savings. Or, if there are no paying customer within six months,  discuss a Plan B. Trip wires allow you to stay on course and then assess your progress when the trip wire is reached.
  • The good news for UI and UX designers is the existing emphasis on iteration. User research, wireframes, more user research, prototypes, and usability testing all lend themselves to the prepare-to-be-wrong mindset. This mindset keeps us humble allowing us to better serve users and customers.


Apply the WRAP decision making tools to enhance your designs.

  • Widen options by considering a variety of scenarios rather than just two or three designs.
  • Reality test assumptions by consulting in-house subject matter experts to challenge your ideas. Conduct additional user research to assess early-stage designs.
  • Attain distance by applying the 10-10-10 technique to let the emotional dust settle.
  • Prepare to be wrong and plan on many design iterations.