Death to ‘it depends’

Lately I find myself on a mission for mass simplification. Possibly over simplification, but I’m not sure it matters.

It’s one of the things I care most about at the moment – how can we simplify what we are asking people to do so that there is nothing else they can do but start doing it, instead of following their natural inclination to make a list, hire a consultant, write a white paper, do anything but doing the thing.

It requires that I stop saying (or even thinking) one of the things I have probably said most in my entire working life – ‘it depends’. That’s hard, but I think it’s the right thing to do.

It depends is paralysing.

It is a stop sign. It tells people they can’t do anything yet. That it is complicated.

And it presents things as  complicated at a time when the person asking the question usually doesn’t have the capability to understand they subtleties you are trying to explain.

Of course, most things are complex and it usually does depend (on context), but knowing what to do in the face of all of that is less important than just doing something now. Ideally something that gets you on the right track to having the ability to ask more nuanced questions, to have a more sophisticated understanding of the thing you’re doing and the context you’re doing it in.

What does this mean? For me, at the moment, this means trying to create a massively simplified message for teams across government about how they should start doing user research.

Lots of different teams, different projects, different audiences – a whole world of it depends.

Forget all of that. What’s something massively simple that all of them can start doing right now.

Here’s an idea.

  1. Start doing some research in every iteration (we’re all doing agile)
  2. Start by getting 5 or 6 people in a lab, give them the thing you’re making and a task and watch them use it. Talk to them about what they find difficult. Maybe also ask them about how they use the internet in real life, what kind of interaction they’ve had with government before. Don’t explain your thing.
  3. Get as many of your team as you can to observe (hence the lab). Aim for 2 hours every 6 weeks for everyone as a minimum.
  4. Capture what you hear and see on post it notes. Do affinity sorting to analyse research. Write down what you learned (your insights) and what you’re going to do about it. Do those things, come back and do the same in two weeks.

Now lets all start saying this to everyone, every chance we get.

It won’t be the best thing for every project to be doing all the time, but it is way better than doing nothing.

As soon as you start doing this, you will start to learn about different and better things that you can do (if for no other reason than because you’ll need a user researcher to do this and they can tell you. Before you start this, you probably won’t have that person).

Now we just need to do this for all the things…

Related: I watched this video from the ever grumpy but rather clever Russell Davies the other day. He’s scaring the pants of people who are studying to become Planners in the advertising industry and telling them that the best strategy is not the most creative one but the one that actually gets anyone to actually do something.

There’s an interesting section on the value (or not) of research as well.


  1. Michel Jansen July 16, 2014 at 5:40 pm

    Good advice! I think there are plenty of scenarios where it’s completely appropriate to say “it depends”, but it depends (ha!) on who you are talking to. To the right audience, “it depends” means that you are not a person who believes in “best practices” and is willing to investigate.

    I’d like to propose a death to the ellipsis that often follows “it depends…”. Death to the cop out and yay for getting to the bottom of WHAT “it” depends on and that’s something that doesn’t depend on anything and can be done right now.

  2. Tony Santos July 16, 2014 at 7:48 pm

    I’m conflicted about this message, because I use “It depends” a lot to get to exactly the kind of action you’re describing when it comes to research. There are clearly times when you just need to do something, but those times are not as often as many claim. “It depends” is a valuable way for me, as a designer, to get time to figure out what the solution to a problem is or more often when that actual problem is when I am otherwise expected to be able to walk into a room as spit out an answer off the top of my head.

  3. Pingback: Death to ‘it depends’ – disambiguity | Public Sector Blogs

  4. Jared M. Spool July 16, 2014 at 9:49 pm

    I used to use “it depends” a lot. In fact, we used to give away a t-shirt with the phrase.

    About a decade or so ago, I stopped using it and we retired the shirt. I felt it wasn’t helping the teams we were working with. As Leisa mentions, it stopped conversations short. It would freeze the discussion.

    I now actively avoid saying it. I start by saying we can find out. Then talk about simple research strategies (including just polling domain experts locally, as a starting point).

  5. Cyd Harrell July 20, 2014 at 3:17 am

    Thoroughly endorse. The basic method is powerful and quite accessible; you almost always get useful information from the first time you use it. Most other research methods are really variations on the theme of carefully observing what people are doing with your product/design/thing.

    I find myself saying all the time “sure, if you’re me you might refine these techniques across years, but I can teach you the basics in less than 30 minutes”. I just want them to start.

  6. Jonathan July 20, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    I’m not sure I understand. If people say “it depends”, how does that prevent them from doing research?

    My understanding of user research is that it’s a precursor of design, not design itself.

    Or is that not what Lisa is saying here?

    1. Leisa Reichelt July 20, 2014 at 9:43 pm

      Saying ‘it depends’ is a signal of complexity – it’s realistic complexity, but for many organisations it is also a signal to stop doing anything and start writing a list, creating a steering committee, or hiring an (often unnecessary) consultant rather than actually moving forward to solving the problem.

      Perhaps I’m only talking about a particular kind of (very common) organisation that would rather do a powerpoint deck and a spreadsheet about possibly doing something rather than actually taking action. This post is about trying to help them act more quickly and effectively. I’m talking about research, but you can apply this to almost any discipline (except powerpoint deck making and spreadsheeting, I suspect).

      1. Anthony Green July 21, 2014 at 9:31 pm

        The Cynefin framework provides a typology of contexts that guides what sort of explanations or solutions might apply in Simple, Complicated, Complex and Chaotic domains.

  7. Bex Tindle August 4, 2014 at 11:32 am


    Nice article! I actually read this as encouraging users or customers to do one single thing rather than (or perhaps as well as) creating long complex articles or tools to deal with multiple actions that relate to solving a problem. Perhaps that isn’t what you intended and I read it that way because I’m thinking about behaviour change or influencing behaviour to improve people’s lives. Perhaps it’s relevant to everything and everyone and in that way can be interpreted in a number of ways.