Change how clients think about design

Many of us have been in a situation where you put a design in front of a client and cursed the feedback (afterwards). Even with the best preparation, the best design, the sort of feedback you get can vary wildly and it often feels like you have to go back to the drawing board. Paul Boag recently talked about 'pain free design sign off', where he suggests that you should not simply put a new design in front of people, ta-daa style. The approach Paul outlines is to create the design based on a collaborative process that includes wireframing and mood-boards. Then when you present the design, focus on the elements that fulfil the goals the client had for the design. It is something we've been doing for a while as part of an overall user-centred design process, but it's a must read if you've not come across it before. On the other hand, if you toil away in private and plonk the design down in front of them with a "Wadda ya think?", things are likely to go down hill, here's why.

Pick a poster

The simple act of asking "What do you think of this?" can change what people think. You don't think so? Imagine the following two pictures were posters, and you were going to choose one to take home and put on your wall.

Traditional Painting Funny Picture
Monet's impressionist painting of a bridge over a pond of water lilies. A cat is posed seated on a chair in front of another cat operating a camera.

Which did you pick? This is similar to an experiment in the early 1990s by Timothy Wilson et al [1] where people were asked to choose a poster they would like to keep. Two groups of participants were given the choice between five posters. Two posters of paintings by Monet and van Gogh, and three 'humorous' cat pictures. The first group were asked to rate the posters from 1-9, and choose one to keep. 95% chose a Monet or van Gogh. The second group were asked why they liked/disliked each picture, then rate them, then choose one to keep. Around 50% chose a Monet or van Gogh. A few weeks later each participant was asked whether they were satisfied with their decision, and funnily enough, 75% of the people who chose a cat picture regretted it.

Justification changes your opinion

So what is it about asking 'why' that can change people's opinion? When making a 'rational' decision that you actually think through consciously, you can only focus on a few factors at a time. For example, when selecting the poster above, you might focus on aspects you can explain, such as it being funny, that you have cats too, or liking the vintage camera. This style of decision making is also why so many products compete on numbers (e.g. memory in computers), as they are easy to rationally compare. However, when making a decision about something essentially subjective like art or design, this is a sub-conscious (emotional) process. Applying a rationale to a subjective decision can create a focusing effect, where you focus on one or two pieces of information at the expense of others. Trying to vocalise a justification means that you focus on the aspects you can explain, at the expense of what you sub-consciously like.

But I'm an expert!

You might be thinking that you can easily explain the differences between designs, this sounds silly. You might be right: if you are an expert in design. The effect described by Wilson does not apply to people who have built up expertise. A previous study by Wilson and Schooler [2] compared expert's ratings of Jam with their students ratings. The enjoyment of Jam (Jelly to those from the US)  is complex enough to be subjective, but simple enough to rate. They picked several Jams from a list created by Consumer Reports that had been ranked by expert taste-tasters. The results showed that:

Students who analyzed why they felt the way they did agreed less with the experts than students who did not.

Students who went with their gut matched the experts in rating, but as soon as they had to explain themselves, their ratings fell apart. When your brain has built up experience over time in a particular field, it is a trained neural network. Like the experts tasting Jam, with experience or training you can learn to justify decisions without affecting them.

What to do?

If you are faced with a complex or subjective decision in a domain you are not an expert in: go with your gut before you try and justify it. If you are putting designs in front of non-designers, don't ask them what they think, or why they do or don't like it. You can prevent that scenario happening at all by following Paul's advice on pain free design sign off and use a collaborative approach to the design process. If you are running a study that tries to compare designs, you could ask for a simple rating first without asking for reasoning. It just goes to show: The saying "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like" is actually pretty accurate for most people.

If you enjoyed this...

If you like this sort of research, you might like Jonah Lehrer's book "How we decide".


  1. Introspecting about Reasons can Reduce Post-Choice Satisfaction
  2. Wilson and Schooler