Opinionated Design — Make More Decisions And Leave Fewer Options

What does it mean for a design to have an opinion? How about a design that doesn’t have one? Is either better than the other? Always or only under some circumstances? If a design has an opinion, where did it come from?

As you might guess, today I want to talk about how designs can have an opinion and whether or not that’s a good thing.

Opinion page in newspaper

Design is Decision-Making

Whenever I think about what it means to design something, I find myself back at decision-making. Design involves a lot of decision from defining the problem to be solved to the choice of a background color for some random element.

Every design decision comes with tradeoffs. For example, setting something as blue means it can’t be set as green or red or any other color. It’s blue.

Perhaps that doesn’t sound like a huge tradeoff, but how about the decision to add images and media to a site at the expense of performance? How about the decision to reduce navigational items at the expense of some visitors not finding their way around the site?

Some decisions are relatively easy to make, while others are more difficult. Designing a website means making decisions regardless of the difficulty. Sometimes though, designers will offload decision-making to the end user through preference settings and options panels.

In some cases the offloading comes from wanting to avoid the decision, but more often than not, it’s designers wanting to provide more choice to the people who will use the design. Sounds like a good idea, but is it?

What Are Opinionated and Non-Opinionated Design?

Opinionated designs are those where decisions have been made for the user and fewer options are available for making changes. Together the decisions suggest how the product should be used and who should be using it. They suggest a best way to use the product and doesn’t really care if you agree. Your choice is to use the product or use something else.

Non-opinionated design makes fewer decisions for the end user, preferring to let those using the product adjust settings to their liking. Non-opinionated design attempts to please more people, because anyone can tweak the design and tailor it to suit their tastes and workflow.

Opinionated design makes decisions without apology. Designers make decisions according to a vision about what the product is, how it will work, and what it should look like. It starts by identifying the essence of the thing being designed and making decisions that stay true to that essence. If you start with a vision you strongly believe in, you don’t need to apologize for following your vision.

Both opinionated and non-opinionated designs make decisions in advance and leave some decisions to users. How much of each is what determines how opinionated or not the design is. There isn’t so much of a hard line to cross from one to another as there is degrees of opinion a design might have.

The Pros and Cons of Opinion

Both opinionated and non-opinionated designs have their place and will appeal to different types of people.

Most consumers just want the things they buy to work. While there are always some who like to optimize preferences and customize products for their own needs, most people just want the things they buy to work. They aren’t interested in fiddling around with settings and having to make decision after decision.

If you ask them they might say they want more choice, but their buying habits and the principle of choices suggests otherwise.

Not everyone using a product is an end user, though. Some will use the product as a starting point to build on to create something else. Think web designer and CMS theme for example.

As someone who customizes WordPress themes often enough, I prefer themes to hold fewer opinions, because it provides me more options for customization. With an opinionated theme I often find myself telling clients, the theme won’t allow for something without significant additional costs. I hardly hear myself saying that with a less opinionated theme.

When using certain tools I prefer having more choice in the environment I’ll be working in. Typically these are the tools I use every day and mean the most to my work and life. I want to have some control over the editors I use to code or write. At the very least I want these tools to look a certain way, because I spend so much time looking at them.

Opinionated design:

  • is unified under a single vision
  • is more consistent with choices in every detail
  • is usually easier to use out of the box
  • requires little work to use the product

It also:

  • narrows who would like the product
  • removes critical features for some
  • requires better decision-making through the process
  • leads to additional costs in time and money

An opinionated design won’t please everyone. It doesn’t try to. Opinionated design understands only people who hold a similar opinion will likely want the product. Those holding different opinions will need to look elsewhere.

Those people an opinionated design does please are much more likely to love than like the product and they’re much more likely to become loyal customers of the product and the brand behind it.

Non-opinionated design:

  • gives customers more choice and flexibility
  • allows users to add their opinion to the design
  • can potentially please more people
  • generally costs less to produce

However:

  • it lacks conviction and vision
  • it usually requires some initial work to set up
  • it leaves more inconsistencies across the design
  • in trying to please more, it can often please less

Not everyone is interested in adding their opinion to a design or wants to do the work necessary to add it. Most people just prefer things to work as expected right out of the box.

Some people do enjoy setting preferences though, and some insist on it before buying. Most may prefer not to tweak settings, but most isn’t all. Plenty of people want to tweak things or at least don’t mind going through settings once to turn a product into something more suited to them.

I’d guess when you consider any market, the high end contains more opinionated products, while the low end has more non-opinionated products. I suspect this is because it costs more to add opinion than options.

Defaults as a Compromise

Few, if any, designs are 100% opinionated or non-opinionated. Even opinionated designs provide some options and even the least opinionated designs don’t allow end users to make every decision.

New users are more likely to want the decisions made for them. Advanced users have more confidence with the product and more skills using it. On the path from newbie to power user they formed their own opinions about how the product should work and look. The more advanced the user, the stronger the opinion and the more likely to bump up against the opinions in an opinionated design.

Defaults can help. Instead of the opinion being the removal of options it could be in the choice of default options. Newbies get the same opinionated design, but as they become intermediate and advanced users, they have the option to add their own opinion. The majority will never move off the defaults, but those who want to make changes can make them.

A design can’t offer opinion entirely through defaults. Some choices have to be made by the designers. The choice of blue or red can be left to the user. The decision to add a power hungry feature or to leave it out in favor of a longer lasting battery is something better left to the vision of the product.

Closing Thoughts

Every design has an opinion about what it should be and do and look like. Designers get paid to have opinions and make decisions based on an overall vision of the product. The more each decision is in harmony with the vision, the stronger the opinion. A unified design is an opinionated design.

Some of the best and most popular products hold strong opinions. The stronger the opinion, the more loyalty it will inspire from those who share a similar vision. Not everyone will share that vision, but those who do will feel more loyalty towards the product. Opinionated design inspires passion in customers, both positive and negative.

A sometimes compromise between opinionated and non-opinionated design is through default settings. Anything that reaches consumers should be opinionated, at least in its defaults. Allowing end users to change the defaults allows them to change the opinion should they desire.

I generally think opinionated design is the better way to go. Most designs should have a strong opinion, though they should also provide some measure of control so end users can tweak some things more to their tastes and preferences.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

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