Thresholds of design decision-making

Lately this word “threshold” has appeared in my readings and co-worker discussions. Threshold may be to be a very potent concept for designers to bear in mind. While principles serve as aspirational touchstones and lighthouses to guide a team towards what’s appropriate with deeply held values/goals, thresholds help with the reality of decision-making, gauging various levels of acceptable compromise.

A threshold is a kind of transition space, a crossing over (just like from room to room), from acceptable to not, risky to not, costly to not, failure to success, but with varying degrees of latitude along a continuum, not a strict binary either/or choice. It’s like a sliding scale for paying for a one-act theater performance, but how does one know what’s acceptable for a collective shared effort? And how is that point determined–through singular fiat or team vote? Thresholds help with choices, and design is all about making choices (or decisions). Sussing out the threshold for a team or project is not easy, but principles can help structure the overall conversational trajectory.

Thresholds appear when there’s that moment of uneasiness, awkwardness, or tension in the room about a decision, where it’s not obvious how to proceed, in terms of making the “right decision”. It’s very fascinating to see each stakeholder, via their own perspective and biases, brings their own level of thresholds (not to mention the actual threshold variables themselves): the Project Manager cares mostly about resource/scheduling, the Business Manager is focused about costs and markets, while Engineers are concerned with complexity, feasibility and risk, while UX looks at appropriate pleasure/pain levels for users, per user goals and contexts.

Often these are the types of issues that arise in project planning and design reviews that have a threshold factor:

– What’s the level of acceptability for…
– What’s risk/benefit in pursuing…
– What’s the level of pain users will tolerate…
– Are we getting enough value from this feature-add, what’s the acceptable cost…

Stakeholder maps (aka actors/ecology maps) and bullseye diagrams help as specific design methods for visualizing these conflicting tensions and anchoring conversations around such sensitive threshold moments. 

Again, there’s no one right decision or standard formula/prescription that can solve this. A threshold is not some magic number or found in a book. Arbitrary numeric scales, holding a “game” where each person has “tokens”, and so forth…such methods might help in the short-run. But each situation and question must be evaluated on their own merits, per shared or accepted values and principles. Thinking about thresholds might hold the key to a better compromise where the ideal state is unattainable, but with traversable difficulties.

Add comment

Recent posts

Older Posts

Let’s go meta