Options & set-based design

A lean framework for eliciting and testing out the best, weirdest ideas.

Options & set-based design
Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN / Unsplash

We 🧡 options

People really love to have options—whether expressed as alternatives to choose from,  cash in hand, or ability to switch things up. We aren't meant to be confined.

Take a "what is it like to be a human" moment and investigate your own feelings about options and why it's so important to have them. I bet you'll uncover a few things:

  1. First, the idea of having options feels more important than any of the different options on the table. We always want to have a bunch of options, but we rarely choose differently than we did before.
  2. Second, that we overvalue the options available to us, in a lot of situations. Sometimes the grass is greener on the other side, but only sometimes.
  3. And the fear of losing the options we have matters more to us than it probably should. This isn’t just about loss aversion. It’s the idea that we are clinging to things that were illusory, or didn’t have much value, to start with.

People spend so much time keeping their options open, spend energy examining and choosing between alternatives, that it gets in the way of doing good and being good. It’s like the Liverpudlian philosopher said:

Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.

Options are expensive.
Not having 'em is costly

The task is to preserve options—but not to let the upkeep and maintenance of too many options become a kind of distraction, or cost, or other waste.

When you go too far the other direction and get into a mode of just pursuing one idea at a time, getting on that mule and riding it whichever direction it pleases until it falls over dead in the dust,  swapping it out for a fresh mule, and, well you get the idea. Too many false starts and dead ends, mule rides spent going nowhere.

What does all this mean when it’s time to work together to make things and do things as a group? How do we fit these characteristics of how we deal with options into a continuous improvement mindset?

Set-based design

If you're designing products or services, consider trying set-based design. This is a key lean method because, due to some boring contingencies, the lean methods most commonly copied are those having to do with production. Bad things happen when people take continuous improvement frameworks for maintaining and improving production and try to apply them to design. (This is the underlying mistake of “agile” practice in software.)

Set-based design is a way of managing trade-offs and exploring options. You’ll start with a broad set of options, and then experiment and prototype in order to quickly kick out ideas that won't work, eventually narrowing down to the one or two options that everybody can live with and that you’re going to proceed with. It can help you develop consensus, avoid expensive rework or mistakes, and explore riskier, longer-shot ideas alongside less interesting, more conservative, options.

The go-to book here is Lean Product and Process Development by Ward and Sobek. Make sure you get the second edition, which has some good case studies and so forth. It’ll give you everything you need to get started.

If you don't want to commit to a book, the authors had a decent intro in the Sloan Management Review back in 1999.

And if you want to try it out, this 2016 CIRP paper by Ström, Raudberget, and Gustafsson lays out a streamlined approach that I've successfully used to plan set-based design activities for my clients.

As humans, we value options highly. Too highly, I think—but that’s OK. We can use this quirk to our advantage by adding just enough structure to the design process to help us keep our options open for exploratory analysis, and then discard them in an orderly, inexpensive way as we go along.