High-impact decisions: How design can help us make better life choices

Senior Design Strategist
Executive Design Director

About the salon

The decisions we make, whether big or small, can have a significant impact on our daily lives and long-term goals, from building better habits, making a career change, or choosing a new place to live. Design can play an important role in navigating these decisions – presenting information in a clear way, helping us balance emotional and pragmatic factors, and adapting to each person’s individual situation and abilities.

Virtual Smart Salon

Join the conversation

on today’s most important design-related issues

Virtual Smart Salon

Join the conversation

on today’s most important design-related issues

Our panelists

Shannon McGarity is a certified professional co-active coach (CPCC) and director of CX strategy and research at Signet Jewelers, the world’s largest retailer of diamond jewelry. She provides leadership coaching to designers, companies, and individuals to help them solve problems and face challenges.

Kate Rogers is a principal behavioral scientist at Zillow, the most-visited real estate website in the United States. In this role, she guides users to make the right decisions about selling and finding the right home.

Tim Wallack is the vice president of product design at Stash, a personal finance app that helps everyday Americans start building wealth and improving their financial life. He is also a former partner and vice president of strategy at Smart Design.


Our discussion was co-led by Smart Design’s Valentina Canavesio, a senior design strategist, and executive design director Danielle Frucci. They welcomed panelists with extensive experience designing decision-making tools in sectors including real estate and financial services, as well as life coaching. We discussed the different factors influencing decisions today, the best ways to overcome “decision paralysis,” and the role of values in decision-making.


Here are the evening’s key takeaways:

Values drive decisions

The conversation kicked off on a personal note when panelists talked about a big decision they’d made recently, and how extraordinary events such as the COVID-19 pandemic may have influenced their choices. Tim Wallack of financial website Stash noted that he re-evaluated his life during the COVID-related downturn. He took the opportunity to ask some of the essential questions—such as What’s important? and What am I looking for in my career? The answers led him to hone in on solving the problem of wealth inequality in America, one of the country’s greatest challenges. “I wanted to ensure that the work I was doing was able to make a disproportionate impact on that problem,” he stated. Doing so, he reasoned, would mean making investing and saving much more “tangible to everyday people who don’t have access to financial advisors like the wealthy do.”  

Kate Rogers’ big decision came a bit before the pandemic when she left a decade-long career in academia as a psychology professor to take a position at the real estate listings website Zillow. By switching to a fully remote job, she could change her work-life balance—unlike before when it was arranged around her work. Rogers, who is part of a cross-functional research team working closely with design, said the experience taught her that “you can figure out the life you want to live and how you want to work and how to get there.”

Shannon McGarity described the pandemic as a catalyst that “threw a lot of assumptions and biases into the air, like where we’re living and the work we’re doing.” As a result, this pushed people in new directions. For her part, McGarity decided to become a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach (CPCC) after being laid off. The move “provided clarity, creativity, and energy” during the lockdown because it involved learning how to coach both herself and others, she said, and help them navigate their careers and life changes. McGarity also pointed out that the panelists’ decisions were all based on values they were trying to elevate in their lives.

Dare to ask questions—and dream

Values have indeed become increasingly critical to decision-making today. Another motivating factor is how people are more likely to reach for and achieve their dreams, in part because they no longer need to be tethered to a specific place. “People are saying, ‘Oh, I could have this dream job, or I could live exactly where I want to live,’’ she explained. This has led them to reconsider and alter their life plans. Meanwhile, in today’s housing market—which she described as “bananas’ ‘—we’re seeing many people resort to risky decisions such as buying a house sight unseen or without a prior inspection.

Wallack added that Stash gained users during the pandemic as many people were wondering how to spend the money they were accumulating—and not spending—while watching others apparently profiting from trading on GameStop. “People were thinking, ” What should I do with the money I have?” he recalled. “It was a great awakening of the possibility of investing and saving.” Stash positions investing as a long-term proposition to build future wealth—rather than simply thinking about one’s money “as a casino, with trading back and forth.”

Design your decisions

McGarity introduced the idea that, in many ways, “personal change and personal innovation” are a lot like the design and innovation process. “What we’re trying to do is de-risk decisions we’re making [so] you don’t go to market with a product or service that hasn’t been tested,” she said. For example, if you’re thinking about relocating for a change of lifestyle or fresh perspective, check it out before moving to see what it feels like. In other words, utilize design principles such as prototyping, iterating, and testing for personal decisions. “Ask yourself, did I like this step? Did it work? If not, consider what you learned and go back to the drawing board,” she recommended.

Rogers related this concept to house hunting. The process of searching and matching properties can help you envision not only a realistic picture of your priorities but also what is possible. Should I buy or rent? Upsize or downsize? A design approach to these questions allows you to “highlight what’s available, and where, and give you ideas about what to expect in a certain area.” Design can also help you organize, sort through, and compare the vast amount of information you gather—Rogers uses a notebook and spreadsheet to track key data—which can be overwhelming when buying a house.

According to Wallack, one of the big questions facing consumers is when to begin investing and saving, which is why Stash lowers the barriers to entry. “We make the big questions small, or present them as a series of small things to answer so that it’s easy for people to get started,” he said. Instead of buying a full share of a high-priced stock, for instance, customers can buy a fractional share. To encourage investment, Stash has also reduced the amount of upfront money required to get started and simplified making continuing investments and managing a diversified portfolio.

Overcome decision paralysis

Our panelists concurred that new technology and data sources are putting people in a good position when it comes to evaluating information. But it also creates challenges that can lead to “decision paralysis.” All too often, Rogers commented, “you have too much stuff in your head, you can’t keep track and weigh it appropriately anymore.” Or there are so many options “you just can’t do anything right.” At the same time, many people are just not comfortable with metrics and understanding what percentages mean, such as the happiness quotient, a model that allows people to measure their happiness based on multiple aspects. That’s where design and behavioral science can help, “by making sense of the numbers and putting them into a context that is meaningful.”

Wallack agreed that presenting the right information in the right way is critical for consumers to avoid information overload. Traditional financial graphs, he contends, may not be incredibly helpful for many people. So for its part, Stash continually redesigns its visuals. It pays particular attention to what information is needed at different life stages—from opening a custodial account for a kid to buying property and retirement planning—as well as their progress toward a financial goal. Stash is also building a dashboard based on the customer’s mindset—a “mental model” containing the most valuable information users need.

In her role as a leadership coach, McGarity also recommends some low-tech strategies to aid decision-making. These include daily reflection, journaling, habit tracking and stacking, as well as asking important questions of oneself at regular intervals. “Sometimes we just cruise and coast on assumptions about things that we knew were true three years ago, but don’t always check in with ourselves,” she explained. If you know your current state and can visualize an aspirational future, “you can make some connections between what things were before and how the current reality measures up.”


Integral to decision-making is setting goals and making commitments, whether health-related or concerning financial responsibility or career changes. Stash, for example, makes signing up easy and allows users to identify and make a commitment from the get-go and also adopt an incremental approach to investing, rather than taking a more aggressive goal that can become demotivating. As Wallack noted: “by keeping the barrier and commitment level low, you’re trying to encourage positive behavior.”

Smart starters

Understand the decision-making process
Consider the most important aspects of making decisions to guide product development and improve decision-making for users, keeping in mind that human behavior and cognitive processes can be tricky and sometimes difficult to fathom.

Create targeted educational materials
Design decision-making tools that are easy to navigate and based on user needs and capabilities, and target information to each person’s life stage, goals, progress, and level of commitment.

Facilitate the first step
Utilize interaction models that encourage users to sign up and commit and then continue engagement through smaller tasks and actions, eventually leading to an automated process.

Prioritize “good “decisions
Explore the wide range of good—and even great—decision options that become available and may require some compromise, knowing that there’s never going to be a single perfect or right decision.

About Valentina Canavesio

Valentina Canavesio is a Sr. Design Strategist driven by a curiosity about people and a passion for storytelling. She brings over a decade of experience as a filmmaker to her work as a researcher and strategist. Before joining Smart Design, she led research at Designit and has worked across a range of industries including education, culture, and healthcare. Her notable clients include Fresh Air (NPR), DuPont, and LG. She holds a BA from the University of Southern California and a MA from Sciences-Po Paris.

About Danielle Frucci

Danielle Frucci is an Executive Design Director who thrives on being involved in purposeful work that challenges and inspires her. She brings expertise in UX research, digital strategy, application design, and integrated digital experiences, with notable clients across sectors such as Johnson & Johnson, and Verizon. She holds a B.A. in Graphic Design and Visual Media from American University.

Let’s design a smarter world together