Reevaluating Criteria for Decision Making

Illustration by Lorry Jamison. Learn more about our illustrators.

Reevaluating Criteria for Decision Making

Any design process involves making a series of intentional choices: which opportunity to address, which idea to prototype, which prototype to iterate, which features to prioritize, and which prototype to develop into a pilot are just a few of the choices along the way. These decision points are sometimes unacknowledged, but each of these stage gates are critical to shaping the direction of the process and deciding where attention, energy, and resources are focused. 

Decision making is nothing new to creators and teams of all sorts, but we think there’s an opportunity to better align values and actions by reevaluating the “whys” – the criteria used to guide decisions along the way.

The Design Council uses the Double Diamond as a visual illustration of decision points in the design process, where divergent thinking narrows through convergent thinking to a decision, and then repeats. For example: you start with a challenge, diverge by learning about it from lots of different people, converge on an opportunity area to address, diverge by exploring lots of new or existing ideas that could be useful, and converge again by testing some of them out on a small scale until you decide on the set of ideas to invest in for implementation. 

We like to modify the Double Diamonds to show that each iterative design cycle is not just diverging and converging, but also actually making intentional choices that narrow the possibilities of what you will do. At the beginning of a design process, possibilities are vast and that openness can feel confusing or prompt decision paralysis. But as we flow through, the design process forces us to make decisions about which pieces we can address because there’s only so much we can focus on at once. Each “diamond” sets the direction for the rest of the work ahead and while there’s still space to explore, the possibilities are intentionally narrowed.

In each of those phases of narrowing, we’ve found it helpful for teams’ decision making to be supported by intentional criteria. Here are our thoughts on getting started with or reevaluating your team’s criteria:

Making your criteria clear
There’re always some guiding reasons behind decisions, though often they’re left unspoken or assumed. Sometimes teams prioritize what feels easiest or closest to what’s been done before or what someone in power wants to do. Those can be valid criteria depending on the circumstances, but there are probably others to consider based on the values of the team or organization. By making the criteria you’re using explicit, you can more robustly explore and communicate the tradeoffs inherent in prioritizing, say, ease of implementation over potential for long-term impact. Having a clear set of criteria upfront helps a team have a shared language for discussing the decisions in a tangible way. 

Co-Selecting Criteria
For teams and organizations seeking to build buy-in or share power, there’s an opportunity to intentionally involve more people in the process of selecting the criteria. Having a team that is already working together creates a venue for discussing, selecting, and utilizing prioritization criteria. For some partners, involving more people might also mean including those who are actually doing the work on the ground, like staff or volunteers. For others, it may mean including people with lived experience of their programs or the relevant issue area. 

For a co-selection process to be successful, it must be clear that the input and voices of the participants in the process will be heard, respected, and incorporated into decision-making. For groups where narrowing choices and making decisions have typically been made top-down or behind closed doors, it can take time to build the additional trust with folks who haven’t had a voice in decision-making before. Set expectations with the group ahead of time, including cases when they are making decisions or advising on decisions that will be made by others. 

During our processes, we involve teams in selecting criteria together at multiple points, including when choosing a particular frame to focus on, which ideas to prototype, and what to take into action. Revisiting these decisions as a group ensures that the direction is still moving towards the end goal. 

Balancing facts and feelings 
When we co-select or co-design criteria with partners, we frequently start with a standard bank of criteria, including: 

  • Desirability: Would the intended audience want it? 
  • Feasibility: Is it possible to do? 
  • Viability: Is it likely to sustain? 
  • Distinction: Does it offer new and unique value? 
  • Excitement: Are you motivated to work on it? 
  • Accessibility: Is it inclusive of a wide range of people? 
  • Impact: Would it make a positive change? Does it have the potential for harm? 
  • Relevance: Does it connect to the specific challenge or opportunity you’ve defined? 
  • Alignment: Does it support or tie into an existing priority or initiative? 

Sometimes folks are surprised to see excitement as one of the starting criteria. For us, feelings are as important as the potential for impact – because if there isn’t enthusiasm for taking an idea forward, it’s never going to actually get done. 

Not choosing impact as your top criteria does not diminish the kind of impact your future work can have — prioritization criteria are not the same as metrics of success or evaluation. After we’ve moved an idea forward, we still need to evaluate if what we did worked — and what we learned from it.  We’ll have another post about evaluation in the future! 

What criteria do you use to prioritize? How do you work with your team to decide where you’ll focus your energy? Let us know in the comments, or send us a note at hello@publicdesignbureau.com.

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