By Frank Spillers

Forestfortrees_1 Whom this applies to: Designers, Marketers, Developers, CEO's

If you design something for your company, organization or department, or help influence the direction of a design, it regularly can become very difficult for you to separate yourself from the design. And chances are, you are not even aware of it most of the time!

This entry looks at why this seems to happen and what you can do about it (if anything at all).

Identifying the problem

One possible answer as to why we loose objectivity when we create or contribute to a design is rooted in the Gestalt Psychology phenomenon of figure and ground:

The phenomenon of figure and ground in perception has been explored
extensively by gestalt psychologists. A classic example is that of a
picture that either appears to be a light colored chalice on a dark
background, or two dark faces against a light background, depending on
what aspect of the picture is focused on as ‘figure’ and what is
perceived as ‘ground’. (see Figure 1)


Figure 1: The "Vase Faces" illustrating the "Figure-Ground" phenomenon. Is it a face or a vase?

The closer you get to an object (figure) the more blurred it becomes (ground). Figure/ground remind us that perception is relative and not absolute.  Or the more time you spend in internal company meetings discussing a design, the more blurred your objectivity becomes.

It's a symptom that is probably responsible possibly for 95% of poor usability design choices.

Let's call it Heisenberg's Rule of Design: The closer you are to a design the less objective you become.

The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa. --Heisenberg, uncertainty paper, 1927

When knowing "too much" can blind you

Every designer goes through this process of becoming consumed by his or her design ideas and assumptions dictated by style, taste or personal preference when creating the look and feel of an application.

Every developer experiences this when he or she tries to "skin the
UI", code the GUI or add the User Interface to an application after a
long day of coding.

Every marketer experiences this when he or she tries to map new features, new ideas, new ways to engage the customer to the functionality requirements.

Every business analyst experiences this when he or she tries to specify requirements based on business processes, system responses and user/group work flow.

Every VP or CEO experiences this when he or she drops in on the design team and projects the original vision, strategic direction, or business needs onto the design (mixed in with a little personal preference or as Jeroen van Erp put it at last year's Design and Emotion conference, design can be directed by "the CEO's wife").

To figure out how our perception blinds us, let's look at the stages of this "Forest for the Trees Syndrome"...

The Stages of "Forest for the Trees" Syndrome

Translation for International Readers: "Forest for the Trees" means you loose sight of seeing the "big picture" in something, because you are too close to the details.

Stage 1: Attached to the design

During this stage you become attached to your design. This is typically caused by spending too much time with the design and refinements. In a sense the design becomes a part of you and you necessarily feel like defending it because it makes sense to you.

Motto: "I don't see anything wrong with it".
Action: Argue for the design.

Stage 2: Blinded by the design

During this stage you are so exposed to the design (company objectives, brand, issues, constraints, history) that you can't even see that you are biased. Having argued for the design, you are now completely bought into it and are completely blinded from any other information.

Motto: "This is the only way to go".
Action: Fight for the design.

Stage 3: Hypnotized by the design

During this stage, you are so far gone the design has become second nature- like the furniture in your office. You don't question, you don't even think about it or feel that anything is wrong. You can't look at the design with a fresh set of eyes either because you are too patterned from over exposure or by now it seems perfectly fine or justified.

Motto: "This way seems normal".
Action: See any criticism as unfounded and unfair.

Is there a light at the end of this tunnel or are we stuck with tunnel vision?

The field of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) where Usability, Information Architecture and User Centered Design fall out of- represents a way out. User-centered Design (aka UCD), combines a set of methods, techniques and approaches that creates more objectivity in design by leveraging user data, user needs, user issues, user insights and user advocacy. User-centered design is a methodology (popularized by Donald Norman e.g. see his early book User Centered System Design) that triangulates technology (systems) and marketing (features) centered approaches with an outside look at what the user wants and needs, expectations, desires and requirements.

The User Centered Design approach (an industry standard usability methodology) provides several techniques to help "see the forest for the trees". From a usability standpoint, the forest is the  user group. The trees are the features that sit between the application architecture and the user.

What does User Centered Design do that helps bring more objectivity to a design: (or at least ways we have found to help our clients at Experience Dynamics at leading user centered design firm based in Portland, Oregon):

Usability reviews: Analyzing a design from the perspective of users and their tasks with best practices (research based)
Outcome: Advocate for user needs around confusing, annoying, frustrating or difficult to use design elements in order to make better decisions about the direction of the user experience.

Usability testing: Having customers assess a design to detect confusion points and uncover areas of the design that mismatch their expectations.
Oucome: Bring user verbatim feedback from usability testing data direct to the design room.

Field Studies: Going to the user's natural environment and observing their world: seeing, hearing and feeling what they think, want, need...and learning how they construct and prioritize experiences.
Outcome: Incorporate research-based customer personas into the interaction design by seeing how Persona "X" or Persona "Y" will use the design.

Is User Centered Design a sure fired way to prevent seeing the forest for the trees?

No. Especially not with your own design. That is what motivated me to share this with you. Every time I work on a design for my own company (Experience Dynamics) I run into "Heisenberg's Rule of Design" or "Forest for the Trees Syndrome". At this point I know it's:

  • Time for a second opinion
  • Time to get user feedback
  • Time for a break
  • Time to advocate for the user
  • Time to stop seeing trees and get back to the forest

Which reminds me to ask, is the glass half full or half empty?

Best Wishes,
Frank Spillers, MS