Showing Our Work: Design Economics

Showing Our Work
Photo by Irving Rusinow [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
You start a new project and receive a heap of content from stakeholders. Your shiny new stack of content arrives with an expectation from the project owner that you deliver that content (every ounce of it) to the mental doormats of their audience. In an attempt to do the right thing, you dutifully conduct an analysis of the performance & skills that the program you’re helping needs to address. You get to know the audience. You frame a set of performance objectives around a reasonably rigorous analysis.  Despite this effort, you’re still stuck with big pile of content.

The tail wags the dog. You dive into the rabbit hole head first. You search for aesthetically pleasing layouts and graphics that will grab attention. You look for ways to make an awful experience less awful. Soon you’ve invested a ton of time trying to engineer treatments for content and you’ve lost sight of the purpose of the solution (if ever there was a purpose).

Sound familiar? You bet. When you enter into a battle with content treatments, it’s easy to get lost in the noise. That noise makes it easy to lose sight of the things we can do to really make the biggest difference. Unfortunately, this unenviable situation is far too common. It seems unfair to give information this much of our attention, doesn’t it?


In the performance solutions field (ISD, learning experiences, whatever you want to call what we do), we often look at other fields of discipline for guidance and inspiration. We often examine other design disciplines or areas of media production, looking for better ways to position and polish our communication. As helpful as these fields might be, we may be overlooking an important, albeit less sexy, discipline. The field of economics may hold one key to making solutions worth the effort we put into them.

Economics is a process that converts inputs that have economic value into outputs that also have economic value.

In design, we deal with many factors and artifacts (currencies). Ideally we’ll weigh all of the inputs we can to make decisions that provide the best trade-offs and consequently the best outputs and value for all stakeholders, given the inputs we have to work with. Content is just one of these currencies. Other currencies include:

  • Target accomplishments
  • Tasks that enable the accomplishments
  • Skills that enable the tasks
  • Components of the skills that enable the tasks
  • Audience factors
  • Environment factors
  • Technology supports / constraints
  • The client’s wants
  • The client’s needs

An experience itself is defined by economics. Good experiences consist of moments that drive towards the design intent or the goal of the solution. That’s a deep one, I’d rather go down that route in another post.

Good economics supply greater value in the outputs than the inputs, making the outcome worth the effort. While it’s not as sexy as User Experience (UX) or game design, doesn’t economics sound like a field worth looking into?

Make the outcome worth the effort.

Often, maybe too often, we make decisions that seem to draw magic lines between content and solution without consideration of the intent of the aggregate of those decisions. Starting with purpose in mind is a sensible guideline. It’s easy and intuitive to point to this and say “Yeah, that’s the right way to do it” but it’s challenging to follow in practice. I guess that’s why we call it a discipline.

Here are two suggestions you can use to battle the magic leap and increase your effort to outcome ratio.

  1. Look at your solutions as economic problems. Map the structure of your problem so you can know exactly how the structure of your answers matter in the big picture. Understand the structure of the task down to the skills and all of the factors that shape the execution of the skill. Know what concepts drive the skill. Know common interpretations of a rule that influences the execution of the skill. Use this structure to validate your decisions. If something doesn’t stick, dump it.
  2. Don’t start with content. Don’t get hung up on content. While content is often an important artifact, it’s the wrong starting point. And in many cases it hadn’t earned the effort we often invest in it. Getting lost in the (often horrible) noise of treating content is a great way to lose sight of the big picture and is a terrible way to deliver value. It’s hard to win the performance war if we tie all of our energy up in a content battle. Content is a means to an end. Starting with a focus on content will make it a slog for you and a slog for your participants. Pick another starting point.

Everything we do and every choice we make has a cost. Every cost stacks debt. That debt can manifest as time, money, disappointment, or simply things you need to fix to make it work (costing time, money, and disappointment). This debt adds up. Design is an economic problem. How do you account for your design debt?

In follow-up posts, I’ll talk a little about a process I’ve been exploring to expose a deeper look at the currencies we use in design and a way to change the tendencies we have that give so much weight to content.

How are you showing your work?

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