The Illusion of Precision

“We are searching for some kind of harmony between two intangibles: a form which we have not yet designed and a context which we cannot properly describe.”

— Christopher Alexander

For me, the hardest part of any project is the beginning, when I have nothing yet but good intentions. When writing a post such as this one, I usually start in front of a (mostly) blank screen with a blinking cursor that taunts me: “Go — Go — Go — Go — …” Go! But what? No, that’s stupid. What about this? No, that’s not grammatically correct. “Go — Go — Go — Go –…” Sigh. Eventually, something clicks: I start typing, and words start flowing. Relief! Invariably, the result is what is technically known as a “shitty first draft.”

Shitty first drafts are very important to a project, whether it be a blog post or the information architecture of a website. It’s much easier to improve something that exists than to conjure it up in the first place. The simple act of attempting to articulate a form reveals insights into the context you’re trying to address. The first draft may be completely off the mark, but at least now you’ve got something to react to. You can get a sense of how the form measures up to the context so the next form will get a little closer as your understanding grows. It’s a virtuous cycle, and it takes time.

Although getting to the first draft is always intimidating, at least I’m aware of the process; I expect this step and know the first thing I make won’t be definitive. This helps me relax so I can get the ideas out of my head and onto a tangible form I can test.

Doing this by myself is not necessarily easy, but doing with other people is much more difficult. For one thing, we all tend to be protective of our self-identity. What if they think this is stupid? Will I lose credibility? Will my reputation suffer? For another, the tools we use — especially in digital design — can encourage us to jump to higher levels of fidelity sooner than necessary in the process. I have no problems understanding my quick Sharpie sketches, but stakeholders often want to see hard-lined documents. Also, much of the work in information architecture revolves around lists of words. These are easier to produce and iterate using computers than pen and paper, but putting them in an Excel spreadsheet or an OmniGraffle diagram anoints them with a level of firmness that can be misleading.

The result is a cognitive bias I call the illusion of precision. This is when something looks so polished that it leads you to believe it’s been thought through, when it actually hasn’t. It’s not a final proposal, only a first stab at the form that will address the context. Unfortunately, the way it’s communicated leads people to misinterpret it as more stable than it actually is. The illusion of precision is dangerous because it can lead people to treat shitty first drafts as though they’re something more than that. An example of this is when a stakeholder reacts to a wireframe by commenting on the font selection. The artifact is so rich it causes them miss the point entirely.

Still, you must start somewhere. First drafts will be rough, but they must still convey meaning. The right level of fidelity will depend on what the thing being designed is and the needs of the teams involved. As a design leader, it’s important that you set expectations clearly, so people don’t assume they’re looking at something more polished than it’s supposed to be.