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  • Writer's pictureclara fairbanks

Related Thoughts: The Cascading Impact of Design Decisions

Unless you are working on products known by all and used by hundreds of millions, it's easy to feel like your product and design has minimal impact. Designers working on products with a smaller user base often feel that their decisions don't affect that many people. The phenomenon is exacerbated for designers working on internal tools, because our internal users tend to be naturally more forgiving.

Often junior designers and their stakeholders take a 'good enough' mentality - or a 'we'll ship it now, and fix it later mentality'. For many people, there is a natural misunderstanding of the value of design. The faulty paradigm is that design decisions only affect the primary user (the person using the product), and that said user is ONLY affected in the very moment they are using the product.

The truth however is that design, even on smaller products, has massive implications beyond the primary user. The affects of good design cascade into the users lives, and into the lives of the people they interact with. Each small improvement to design creates a cascading impact on the users.

There are five critical ways design impacts our users outside of the context of our products:

Cognitive Load

Design affects cognitive load. From the theory of cognitive load, we know that the brain can only process so many things at once, and can only work through so many things in a given time period. Because of this, we need to be mindful of what we are asking people to do. Our user experiences should be designed to reduce working memory ‘load’ in order to allow the user to achieve their original goals.

Put in other words, the more brain power our users spend trying to find that link or upload that thing or understand how your new feature works, the less brain power they have to work through the more pressing problems they are facing.

ALL products should work to help the user to achieve some end. ALL of them. If your design decisions challenge your users cognitive load, you are stealing that much energy from them that they should be putting towards their primary end.

Self Esteem

Design affects the confidence a user has in themselves. This is actually the most painful thing to witness as a product designer. I often see users blame themselves when they are met with the frustration of bad design.

My mom goes to look for a document on her phone, and when she cant find it she calls herself forgetful. My partner accidentally deletes a workflow he's been building in a marketing software and calls himself clumsy.... "I can't believe I'm so stupid!"... "I'm just bad with technology!"... "What is wrong with me!"... these are a few of the heart breaking things I hear people say about THEMSELVES when they are dealing with poorly design products.

Our users are NOT unnaturally stupid, forgetful, clumsy, or technologically averse. 99% of the mistakes people make with software are the fault of the software, but the user blames themselves. This degradation of self trust and confidence has a vast cascade of effects outside of the product.

Our design should work to make the user feel smart, capable, and confident. Because when it doesn't it can genuinely affect how a user feels about herself.


Design affects the amount of time a user spends trying to figure stuff out - which then affects how much time they have for other things. Along the same line as cognitive load - all of us have a limited number of hours in a day, and the more time our users spend trying to figure out our products, the less time they have to do the things they love.

Aside from our users own quality of life, giving time back to the user through intuitive design affects their efficiency in every other area of their lives. Imagine you have a user who happens to be great at creating art, curing cancer, driving poeple from point a to point b. Every second we take from them shaves off a second of their contribution to the world.

At a macro level, the difference between a product that enables a user to accomplish something in 30 seconds, vs 1 minute is actually massive. Multiply those additional seconds by the number of users, number of times they have to perform the action and number of years they are willing to tolerate this minute frustration and you'll get a rough calculation of how impactful that small difference really is.

Stress level

Ok I'm not saying this was my proudest moment, but I have had bad design stress me out so thoroughly that I literally had to do a full on system reset - including a walk, and a long rambling complain session with my work besty. I know I am not the only one here. When we expect one thing from a product, and receive something completely different... its stressful.

If you have ever felt your blood pressure rise as you try to book a flight, or upload a document, or enter a password, then you know what I'm talking about. Design affects the stress levels of our users. Bad design can be so frustrating - sapping the emotional energy of our users and again making them less effective and efficient in the rest of their lives.

Future Impact

Design affects other design. No matter how big your product is, I guarantee you that your design decisions will affect the subsequent design decisions made within your organization, AND outside of your organization!!

For better or for worse, designers reference each other. For one thing it helps the users to reference common design patterns. But this means each designer has the responsibility to carry the torch of making thoughtful and user centric design decisions.

One small design decision can save a user one second, or give someone a smile, or go completely unnoticed - but if you think about how many people that small change affects it might mean a massive impact.

It is said that with every interaction, we are either leaving someone better or worse off than they were before that interaction. This could not be more true for our design decisions. The smallest choice impacts your users and that has a rippling effect through the lives of all those they touch.

To be a good designer means to be conscientious of this principle, and work to the best of our ability to leave the user better off than how we found them in each moment of our user experience.


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