Design is no longer subjective. Data rules our world now.

The design world has always taught us to follow a design process whenever a new feature or product update is to be made. We’re taught to fully explore the issue; defining the problem, doing extensive research, and brainstorming all possible solutions before any implementation.

I’m not sure about everyone, but at least for me, there were times when the solution “instinctively” pops into my head when considering the business problem. However, I used to always convince myself that we should follow the design process for reassurance that it’s the right move — even if the process takes a longer time.

Yet, sometimes the solution we end up with is the very same one that “instinctively” pops up before the whole design process.

Does this mean that we should have trusted our intuition all along? Was the time spent on the design process wasted? Did our users lose out on a useful feature for all that time? Well, it might seem like that’s the case, but there’s a balance between trusting your instinct and following the design process.

The design instinct

Design instinct is a lot more than just having a good eye for pretty things. It’s the accumulation of past experiences and hard work. It’s based on the knowledge of best practices and guidelines. It’s developed through constant trial and error while learning from past mistakes.

Design instinct is the sum of all the tools you need to make great design decisions in the absence of meaningful data. — Benek Lisefski

It’s normally pretty hard to convince people when your designs are solely based on intuition. Your stakeholders are probably used to being presented with research data; evaluating the pros and cons of each design decision. In comparison, relying on intuition to make decisions seems rudimentary and lacks logic, with nothing except your instincts to back up your claims.

Yet, in some scenarios, your instinct might be a valid method in solving design problems. This is possible if you have had a certain degree of experience in your field of work. Those experiences will gradually help you make the best decision based on associations, pattern-matching, and assumptions — without the need to go through the entire design process.

For example, when you’re designing a login form, there isn’t really any need to go through the whole design process. You can rely on your past experiences, design theories, and user psychology in order to make accurate design decisions. The same goes for any common components that you have experienced designing before, and have been user-tested.

Instincts are made, not born

This means that your instincts can be developed and improved by constantly involving yourself with different design work and gaining new experiences and knowledge from them. This ability is called “adaptive unconscious”, which Malcolm Gladwell coined in his book, Blink. So the more you design, the more research you conduct, the more product you use, the better your design intuition becomes.

Our brain learned to optimize its resources by doing a quick synthesis of past experiences

No designer is born knowing exactly what the user wants, or how they will behave when using their product. Instincts are created through the accumulation of experience. Whenever you are exposed to something new, mentally dissect the problem, what design was involved, and how you would solve the problem. Each time you do this, you’re slowly building your design muscles — aka “instinct”.

Though relying upon your instincts can help save you a lot of time and resources, it isn’t the answer to everything. Even the most experienced designer isn’t an expert in every type of product or technology. As I mentioned above, instinct is built up upon years of experience and knowledge. Without those key factors, you’re merely mistaking instinct for unfounded assumptions.

It’s important to know when to apply your instincts and when to fall back to the design process. When unsure about which to apply, just ask yourself these questions;

  • Have you designed something similar before?
  • Are you confident about your instincts?
  • Is this a subjective matter where user research wouldn’t help?
  • Are you unable to decide between multiple choices?

If the first two answers are no, and the last two are yes, then you should probably rely on the design process.

It’s easy to rely on data-driven decisions, but overreliance would cause failure for certain objectives that aren’t easy to measure. It’s important to balance both of them when it comes to making design decisions. After all, instinct is built upon years of experience — which can be counted as data that are deeply integrated into our minds. By combining that with data-driven thinking, you will greatly improve your design decision making.