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#70:

How To Make a Decision Grid

Originally written: May, 2009. Latest update: June, 2016

NOTE: these articles are primarily aimed at aspiring game designers, but many of the concepts described herein also apply to those who aspire to other types of jobs in the game industry. This lesson is subject to changes and improvements; reader comments are welcome.


Which degree should I get? Which specialty should I pursue? Which city should I move to? Which job offer should I accept?

One of the hardest things in life is to make a decision between multiple options. Especially when the decision will have lasting impact. It can become more difficult when multiple conflicting opinions enter the picture, or new conflicting angles on the problem come to light and further complicate the decision. But take heart! There is a solution.

The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.

Mark Twain

The solution is to approach the decision in a scientific manner. All those seemingly haphazard and random facts and points of view can be categorized, organized, evaluated, and weighed against one another in order to reach the optimal decision. Because the world isn't black and white, it often happens that no solution can be perfect. But there can still be a best decision.

One of the best tools for decision-making is the decision grid. I discussed decision grids in FAQ 25 (how to choose between colleges), but this issue is so important, it's worth further discussion, broadening it to make other sorts of decisions.

How to make a decision grid

  1. Make a list of your options.
  2. Collect all the criteria - the pros and cons and unknowns - for each option.
  3. Gather more info about the unknowns as best you can.
  4. Then turn that data into a decision grid.
  5. The options go across the top of the grid.
  6. The pros, cons, and unknowns (the criteria) go down the left side of the grid.

Let's make one about choosing a degree program.

Blank Computer Science Art & Animation Literature & Writing
I'm passionate about it Blank Blank Blank
Applicability beyond games Blank Blank Blank
Expense Blank Blank Blank
Looks good on résumé Blank Blank Blank
Enjoyability Blank Blank Blank
Length of degree program Blank Blank Blank
Blank Blank Blank Blank

In the example above, the decision is between different degree programs. Somebody needs to decide between taking CS, art, or writing, let's say. Those options go across the top of the grid. Then the decision criteria, the things that can help him decide, go down the left. I've only listed a few possible criteria, to show you the general idea. And your decision might be between entirely different options (those things across the top of the grid).

In the example below, the decision is between different cities where game companies abound. Somebody needs to decide, say, between the San Francisco bay area, L.A., and the Seattle/Redmond area. Those options go across the top of the grid. Then the decision criteria go down the leftmost column. I've arbitrarily chosen the three cities, and I've only listed a few possible criteria as exemplars.

Blank San Francisco Los Angeles Seattle
Climate Blank Blank Blank
Cost of living Blank Blank Blank
Number of game companies Blank Blank Blank
Crime rate Blank Blank Blank
It's a pleasant-looking city Blank Blank Blank
Distance from family Blank Blank Blank
Blank Blank Blank Blank

Get the idea? You can do this with any major decision. Whatever it is you're trying to decide between, put those across the top. Whatever factors you've got to consider, in order to weigh the benefits of one choice over the other, you put down the left side.

Next, fill in the cells with words.

I call this the Level One Grid. Each cell is lined up vertically with an option (one of the things you're trying to decide between) and horizontally with a criterion (a factor for or against that option). Write something in the cell that puts the option into conjunction with the criterion. Write something that helps you differentiate between this option and the others, as regards to this criterion. For example, under "Seattle," in the row "Climate," you would write "rainy." Do that for every cell in the grid.

For some cells, you might not know what to write - you might have run into an unknown. When you run into an unknown, you should try to do some research, see if you can find facts that will help you make your decision. Many unknowns, though, will remain unknowns. So you have to try to find information, but you may have to proceed without knowing for sure (at least, as regards to this particular criterion for this particular option). A common fallacy is to try to determine the future, despite the fact that everybody knows that's impossible. In such a case, you can put in likelihoods instead.

Let's try an example decision grid. Let's say we want to figure out what's a better pet - a dog, a cat, a macaw, or a rat.

Blank Dog Cat Macaw Rat
Affectionate Very A medium amount Not much Not much
Needy of affection A lot A medium amount Only a little Only a little
Can help me attract girls Yes (but not cat-lovers) Cat-lovers yes; dog-lovers no No Definitely not
Easy to care for No Yes Yes No
Expensive to board if I have to go on a trip Yes Yes Unknown Unknown
Noise level Depends on the breed Low Very high Very low to none
Apartment friendly Not very (better to have a house) Depends on management Depends on management Yes, oh wait, but there's the smell
Blank Blank Blank Blank Blank

See how the grid works? You can do this with any kind of decision. I chose pets for the grid just to show you how it works. If I made the grid about which game city to move to, everybody who read it would think I'd already made his decision for him, and would just turn off his brain and later curse me for the city that I'd foisted on him. (^_^)

The grid can also be done to decide between paper and plastic shopping bags:

Blank Paper Plastic Permanent cloth bag
Environmental rep Bad Bad Good
Can be recycled Yes Yes Don't need to
Can be useful beyond the immediate use Yes (recycling container, wrapping items for mailing) Yes (catbox waste, recycling container, trashcan liner) Re-usable for shopping (that's the whole idea)
Costs me nothing Yes Yes No
Serves me sufficiently Yes (the store has enough bags for anything I buy) Yes (the store has enough bags for anything I buy) Only can fit so much stuff in one bag; may need to buy multiple bags
Good for carrying my purchases home Some types don't have handles; and wet/cold things can make a hole in the bottom They sometimes tear, need to be doubled up; long items stick out and can cause a problem You betcha. It's strong and has strong handles.
I have to remember to bring it with me No No Yes
Blank Blank Blank Blank

Okay, I'm sure you get the point now. The above is the LEVEL ONE GRID - it just contains all the facts. It doesn't yet give you a definitive answer as to which option is the one to go with. The way we do that is by taking it to the next level. You may have noticed that each example above has an empty bottom row. You'll see the reason for this very soon; bear with me.

Convert the words to binary numbers.

Make another copy of your grid next. This is the Level Two Grid. Each positive (each criterion that indicates a "pro" for the option) gets a 1. Each negative (each "con" for the option) gets a -1. Some criteria are neutral, and get a 0. If you still have some unresolved unknowns, put a question mark in the cell. Let's do this with our pet decision grid:

Blank
Dog
Cat
Macaw
Rat
Affectionate
1
1
0
0
Needy of affection
-1
1
0
0
Can help me attract girls
1
0
0
-1
Easy to care for
-1
1
1
-1
Expensive to board if I have to go on a trip
-1
-1
?
?
Noise level
0
1
-1
1
Apartment friendly
-1
0
0
-1
Total
-2
3
0
-2

Converting the words to binary numbers requires a bit of thought on your part. Note that I converted the dog noise level cell to zero. That assumes I don't know if my dog (if I get one) will be the loud kind or the not-so-loud kind. You have to make a judgment call when converting some cells to numbers.

And notice what we have now at the bottom. Because now our cells contain numbers, we can total them up and get our results. Cat wins easily. Note: your results will vary. For instance, note that I didn't include the criterion "protection from burglars," which would have given more value to the dog. In other words, your criteria may well include things I didn't think of when I was making my grid.

Just for fun, you should try filling out the "paper or plastic (or buy a cloth grocery bag)" grid.

Blank Paper Plastic Permanent cloth bag
Environmental rep Blank Blank Blank
Can be recycled Blank Blank Blank
Can be useful beyond the immediate use Blank Blank Blank
Costs me nothing Blank Blank Blank
Serves me sufficiently Blank Blank Blank
Good for carrying my purchases home Blank Blank Blank
I have to remember to bring it with me Blank Blank Blank
Total Blank Blank Blank

So, what did you come up with? Next time you're at the grocery store, will it be paper? Or plastic? Or are you going to buy a cloth grocery bag? See how this works?

The Level Three Grid - Weighted Values

When you're making a really important life decision, sometimes ones and minus ones are insufficient to convey the importance of a particular criterion to you. You might have listed minor criteria together with major criteria. To assign a numerical value of 1 to a major criteria makes it only equally important as a minor criteria that you care less about.

You want to consider minor criteria as well as major criteria, so the way to consider them properly is to weight them -- to use higher and lower numbers than just +1 and -1.

Let's say, for example, you are trying to decide between multiple schools, and expense is a HUGE factor in your decision. At the time of this writing, we're in an economic crisis, after all. So the cost of the school would have to weigh more than, say, whether or not the school offers courses in how to play guitar. So if your decision grid had a "cost" row and a "guitar" row, you might use ones in the guitar row, but fives in the cost row.

Let's try the pets grid with weighting.

Blank
Dog
Cat
Macaw
Rat
Affectionate
1
1
0
0
Needy of affection
-1
1
0
0
Can help me attract girls
3
1
0
-3
Easy to care for
-3
2
1
-1
Expensive to board if I have to go on a trip
-1
-1
?
?
Noise level
-2
1
-4
1
Apartment friendly
-3
1
1
-1
Total
-6
6
-2
-4

So for me, even though the fact that regular dog outings in the park could help me meet women, the dog is quite a bit more trouble than a cat, and the dog is probably more noisy and less conducive to my home life than a cat, so the cat wins by a wide margin. When YOU are filling out the same grid, you'd apply your OWN values to the cells, and YOU could well arrive at a DIFFERENT result than the one I arrived at. That's why the decision grid is important. And that's why nobody can tell you which way your decision should go -- because YOUR criteria are individual to YOU. And that's the whole point of why I recommend the decision grid for making those important life decisions.

To review:

There are three levels of grids:

Level 1 - words
Level 2 - ones, minus ones, and zeros
Level 3 - weighted numbers

Note: when your decision is between just two choices, it often occurs that the answer is "both" or "neither" or "it depends" (as I wrote in FAQ 52). If "both" is an option, then the decision grid is unnecessary. Just do both. Obviously, the grid is moot if the answer is "neither." The grid is really only needed when the answer is "it depends." Figure out what it depends on, and go from there.

Parting thoughts. If you can't figure out from the above how to create your own personal decision grid to resolve the decision that's vexing you currently, then you may not have the creative spark needed to become a game designer. If that shocks, angers, or depresses you, then re-read the article and think on it.

That there are imperfections in a properly made decision is just a fact of life.

Dr. Laura, August 28, 2009

This world we live in is imperfect. Hardly anything in this world is perfect. The decisions you make are usually between different imperfect options. Choose the best option, the one with the fewest known imperfections, and move on with your life.


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© 2009, 2016 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.