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How Many Industrial Design Concepts is Too Many?

(This article was originally published on Core77.)

One question we get from new clients while drafting industrial design proposals is how many concepts they’ll be reviewing in the early phases of a project.

Every client and every project challenge is different but more often than not, we agree on an expectation of between 4 and 6 concepts for the first phase of design exploration.

Proposed effort and cost play into this decision, but the number of well-considered concepts we deliver is linked to more than that. Fewer than 4 to 6, and you’re probably not exploring the full range of possible outcomes; more than 4 to 6, and your client may be prone to make a poor selection — and end up with a failed product. This conclusion is backed up not just by our own experience over hundreds of projects, but by a healthy dose of cognitive research into the way people make decisions. More on that research, later.

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There are exceptions to the 4 to 6 concepts pattern, of course. Some clients are looking to generate a large number of design concepts (think 20-30) early on. These tend to be the more design-savvy clients with strong in-house creative teams who hire us to bring a fresh, external perspective to a problem. Here, we’re comfortable delivering a high number of often rawer concepts, knowing that the client has the experience and resources to filter that many concepts themselves.

The other exception is when functional and aesthetic concepts are explored in parallel during a design phase. Different technologies can stimulate widely varying configurations; different user interface control options can create numerous ergonomic layouts. Combine these with aesthetic variants, and concepts quickly multiply into the double digits. We find that focusing on functional, ergonomic, and interaction preferences first, followed by visual exploration second keeps the number of concepts manageable. This also helps by staging the decision process for the client.

The Potential Science Behind the Sweet Spot

In the retail world, The Paradox of Choice is something we’ve known about for years. Famously described by Barry Schwartz in his book (and TED talk) of the same name, The Paradox of Choice explains the paralysis that grips us when we try to pick one ice cream flavor out of an available 32, and why we’re often more satisfied after choosing a shirt from four options than from 40.

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The reasons are surprisingly straightforward: having more options can over-inflate expectations, gives more cause to doubt the outcome, and increases the mental work needed to come to a conclusion.

This principle works the same way in an industrial design concept review, where choice paralysis can be equally disastrous. The client who demands 20 or more concepts is likely to have a heightened expectation that more must be better even before they’ve seen the first concept. Schwartz described how higher expectations often lead to higher chance of disappointment (even if there are good options buried in those 20 to 30 concepts).

The client who demands 20 or more concepts is likely to have a heightened expectation that more must be better even before they’ve seen the first concept.

Besides having to spend more time simply learning about all of the possible design directions, the client’s choice is burdened by high stakes (significant production costs can ride on the outcome) and a reduced level of differentiation between the options. When people are faced with too many options, Schwartz found that they will begin to consider hypothetical trade-offs. Psychologically these become framed as missed opportunities rather than the potential of an opportunity, and the resulting negative emotion affects the level of satisfaction we experience from the decision. More often than not, the review ends with a confused compromise on a not-as-good alternative, leaving the best concept on the wall.

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By contrast, a concept review limited to 4 to 6 options lets each one stand boldly apart, so time need not be spent teasing out the subtleties between them. It also allows them to be directly compared in a way that makes it more likely you’re picking the concept that can be measured against the original goals and objectives of the project.

This is largely because of a cognitive mechanism called “Miller’s Law”, which states that most human brains are incapable of keeping more than seven or so unique ideas in immediate consciousness at once — fewer if the ideas are complex. Miller’s Law is why PowerPoint slides tend to top out at five or six bullet points, and why it’s easier to remember a phone number than a credit card number.

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It’s possible to evaluate more than seven items, of course, but only by “chunking” the options into subcategories, and winnowing them down through abstract comparison. This works okay when choosing salad dressing (eliminate all but the bleu cheese options), but when designing a product, it often leads clients to elevate certain concepts because they fit the right criteria, not because they’ll actually work better.

When a review team is faced with dozens of options, their first instinct is to narrow them down. False processes of elimination ensue. The team might cling to an abstract quality like “rugged”, “professional” or “Apple-like” (always a favorite) and eliminate options that don’t adhere to it, even if they’re ultimately more appropriate to the audience and the brand. It’s much easier to make deeper, and ultimately better, assessments when the options are limited to a more palatable handful.

When a review team is faced with dozens of options, their first instinct is to narrow them down. False processes of elimination ensue. The team might cling to an abstract quality like “rugged”, “professional” or “Apple-like” (always a favorite).

In all these scenarios, let creativity take its course and generate a plethora of rough ideas for internal consideration. For the client, filter them down to a digestible number that clearly stand apart and that can be measured against the original goals of the project. Or to paraphrase Einstein, make your design reviews as simple as possible, but never simpler.

I’m interested to hear if other designers have found a sweet spot with the 4 to 6 concepts approach.