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Should “it depends” be the natural response to any UX design question?

Should “it depends” be the natural response to any UX design question?

The other day, someone on twitter was opining that we shouldn’t be saying “it depends” when a client or stakeholder asks a question, and then providing all the variables — we should already know.

Well yes in an ideal world, one should have gathered All The Evidence and therefore be able to provide an evidence-based answer to every question. However, there are reasons why “it depends” is often the most useful initial response…

  • It demonstrates evidence-based thinking — It reinforces that everything in your design process requires evidence or at least a moment’s consideration before leaping to answers and conclusions.
  • It buys you time to think — The questions that need a moment’s pause are usually the early stage and are therefore less-informed, “should we do X?” questions. Using “it depends” as a response buys your brain about 10 seconds to assemble all existing rationales, risks and scenarios in your brain and play them out to your partner-in-conversation for discussion and alignment.
  • It reduces assumptions — The human instinct is to show off, especially in front of a client. Saying essentially “I don’t know, but here are some things that will effect it, so what do you think and do we have any other evidence?” makes you look like someone with a brain who is not going to fritter away the entire budget based on your opinions.
  • It becomes a way of thinking — Not just for you as an individual, but across your work and demonstrates the principles of your craft to everyone you work with as an evidence-based practitioner. I often make a joke of it so that people know that if they ask me a question, they are going to get a thought-through response. But in reality you don’t know everything. You’re not the user, you are a scientist as well as a designer, and you are allowed to act like one.
  • It supports the whole team and project It can permeate the team and end up with people bringing risks to you before they become massive problems later on. If you’re leading a design project, you’re going to want this.
  • It’s a brilliant training principle — In teaching people the craft of UX, it reinforces the way of thinking and their own humility when approaching projects — they are not the user.
  • It opens up discussions — It is actually a way of asking the client or colleague more questions — because it opens up discussions through clarification of their intent. Example —

Person 2: It depends.. if Y then yes.. if Z then no..

Person 1: No, I meant this other totally different thing

Person 2: Ah, so you mean…

And now you begin to hone in on the specific variables under discussion.

Once you have the understanding of the intent behind the original question, you can answer more accurately based on your refined understanding.

  • It generates research opportunities — If the asker of the question cannot add additional information to give direction to your It depends variables, then you have just demonstrated that more research is required. Hurrah!
  • It extracts stakeholder decisions and supports decision-making — This is the most important thing apart from making decisions based on evidence — making decisions at all, and getting someone to be accountable. If pausing and asking “it depends” gets your stakeholder to understand the design, user or project implications of the decision they’re about to make, then you have done your job.

Is it really the answer to every design question?

Well, almost. You can spend too long on theoretical discussions, especially when it comes to acting on evidence.

Should we do this thing that the evidence suggests we should do?

Yes — and we should observe the outcome and refine.

Should we make this thing accessible?

Yes — unless you are evil or want to be sued. (that’s a passive aggressive “It depends” — use with care)

The point is, that “it depends” does not slow down the process. It should be a 2 minute conversation that leads to a stakeholder decision or agreement on more research.

And if you know your UX best practice, your research methods and have actual live project experience, then you can usually predict 3–4 variables that will derail the whole project if they’re not considered — in response to any question.

So, if the question is any of the following:

  • Should we do more research?
  • Do we need more participants?
  • Should we produce X deliverable?
  • Should we change the design?
  • Should we skip the X stage?
  • Shall we engage X stakeholder?

Then you are at risk of assumption-based design.

The safest approach is to pause, quickly nail down the variables the answer depends on, answer them, and then move on in the knowledge that you didn’t leap to assumption that will come back later to bite you in the ass.

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