You can find the introduction to this post here.
Ok - so we know data’s taken the driver’s seat for design given the term “data-driven design” even exists today, and if it’s reducing risk and increasing efficiency, what’s the big deal? Well, let’s go back to the first tension that’s resulted from it - that we’re focusing way more on optimization than innovation.
You may remember incidents like that of the distracted woman above from recent years. Someone is paying attention to something very interesting on their phone and walks forward. We can presume they feel each step as they move forward and perceive that there’s a path ahead to be walked. Except by focusing on what’s right in front, and only right in front, they take a giant and unfortunate crashing step into a fountain.
We’ve fallen into a similar habit with optimization where we focus heavily on upfront, incremental changes that can improve our lives, our situations, our resources. But they don’t help us foresee the larger picture of what could be or what’s to come. And there can be unforeseen costs to that lack of perspective.
Tony Fadell (founder of Nest, instrumental in creating the iPod and iPhone) shared some of his feelings about helping mobile rise to its current omnipresence, saying “I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking, what did we bring to the world?”.
When we consider his quote, we can infer that while data was used to help design these experiences – it was only incremental enough to push for adoption and engagement, not the larger potential effects.
And he’s not alone - other designers instrumental in the rise of digital adoption are starting to reflect on things in the same way. In this same interview, Faddell continued to share, “A lot of the designers and coders who were in their 20s when we were creating these things didn’t have kids. Now they have kids,” he says. “And they see what’s going on, and they say, ‘Wait a second.’ And they start to rethink their design decisions.”
There’s also the impact to our mental health and culture. With our creativity siphoned so heavily through data focused on attention and engagement, we’ve optimized once innovative concepts (like apps) to hog our time at the potential cost of our happiness. See the image above from The Center for Humane Technology, née Time Well Spent.
Aside from ethical and emotional impact - prioritizing data above design and constantly optimizing has also opened us up to dangerously complacent and conservative tendencies in the ways we work.
In regards to complacency - Optimization can become dangerous because the smaller the decision we’re making, the more complacent we as humans are in determining proof. Things like confirmation bias can run rampant in our analysis and collection of data. It’s abuse of data in favor of efficiency or avoidance of conflict.
Also, with smaller decisions to be made, we become more conservative in our design decisions or might only make it to our “local optima” – the concept of getting stuck in small sets of data and small, incremental optimization loops that prevent us from ever finding our actual best case scenario.
“Copycat design” could also be a result of our conservativeness with data. How many sites and experiences have you seen that promote the same design patterns? Is it a phenomenon because we are so focused on incremental change that we’ve normalized data across scenarios and experiences? Are we flattening out our problems and therefore our designs because we don’t want to think beyond the immediate measurements?
What do we do?
So, I know that all this sounds like a slew of glasses half full about data – but I’m not trying to wag my finger at data itself.
I believe that the tension we’re facing between data and design results from the change in value and importance we’ve created between the two – (primarily putting data (objective, retroactive, measurements) before design (subjective, proactive, ideas)). We got here because of tactical, cultural, and business developments that happened through the advent of software / digital design. We’re feeling a slow death or fading of innovation - in favor of optimization - because of this shift in the relationship. It’s leading us into emotional quandaries, conservative designs, and complacent behaviors. See my previous post for more on this.
So - what do we do? Well, I don’t have a silver bullet, but I do have some thought starters and suggestions to try:
Data ≠ Truth. Data = Tool
The first thing we need to do is stop treating data as ultimate truth. Data is a tool in our design arsenal or toolkit, amongst others, and it’s objective only until we use it. We can preserve objectivity by avoiding complacency in its analysis - challenging how it relates to other data, or whether it can usurp our intuition.
Steve Jobs had a good point when he said – “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
So instead of asking “How can you prove it?” with data. Ask “How do you know it won’t work”? Use data to find pitfalls and risks instead of blocking opportunities. Instead of being afraid we will get it wrong, we should be afraid we don’t get it at all!
We also need to measure things more holistically. We are so hyper focused on behavioral metrics like awareness, engagement, retention - that we forget the other aspects of emotion embedded in the humanity of the experiences we’re building. There’s definitely safety in focusing on behavioral metrics because we can assume predictability and focus on maintaining it with an individual. That in turns leads us to more sustainable models for relating revenue to design.
But we don’t behave the same way all the time - we’re not robots. Don Norman of the Nielsen Norman Group (leading international, design research group and key driver of many UX principles today) identified a more rounded set of dimensions that we could measure to help us understand what would lead to successful connection with people.
- Visceral = is obtained through intuition rather than from reasoning or observation. This level is influenced significantly by appearance, texture and sound of objects.
- Behavioral = the one we’re most familiar with and prioritize these days. ie. The actions or reactions of a person, usually in relation to the environment, to an object or person. It’s conscious and unconscious, overt and covert and voluntary and involuntary. It’s all about functionality and is influenced by pleasure and effectiveness of use (accessibility and usability).
- Reflective = refers to the capability of quiet thought or contemplation. This level is influenced strongly by self-image, satisfaction, memory and the meaning of things. This is more important as products mature.
Break the Bubbles
Finally – we must try breaking down the walls of insulated thinking within the walls of our companies or organizations, roles, demographics, and communities in order to create balance with design.
The above diagram from Adobe about the importance of data in design seems to echo this sentiment. Data is just one facet, and not the only driver in decision making or creative thinking.
Getting to empathy and vision requires us collaborating and understanding groups beyond what we normally work with. While we should get data from our customers and audiences, there’s also just understanding the larger vision of your company by talking to other teams, other groups.
As companies grow and scale, we see greater delineation of responsibility and boundaries of accountability in the development of experiences. While this may help us be more efficient in management and production - it means nobody gets to see the full picture. So, get out of your team space or floor and visiting others to see what they’re working on or what they can bring to the table.
Another way to think about it is “Nemawashi” from The Toyota Way. The Toyota Way is a set of principles and behaviors that underlie the Toyota’s managerial approach and production system. It consists of principles in two key areas: continuous improvement, and respect for people. The specific principle of “nemawashi” (literally translates as “going around the roots”) is the informal process of quietly laying the foundation for some proposed change or project, by talking to the people concerned, gathering support and feedback, and so forth.
And as for empathy, as sociologist Judy Wacjman mentions in an article – “Silicon Valley is notorious in particular for not being family-friendly…It’s notorious for being full of young male designers. It’s great that they’re thinking about this now that they’re having kids, but I wonder if one could envision a different design community full of people of different sexes, full of people of different ages.”
While she points out the need for greater demographic empathy, there’s also industry wide empathy. Meeting with designers who aren’t just other product designers, or speaking with people who aren’t in design or your industry at all – can help build the empathy to help better understand, and reflect, upon any data you may acquire.
So, what now?
So, thinking of data as a tool rather than truth, demanding more than behavioral metrics, and breaking our bubbles at work are just a few ways we can start to challenge the way we think about and use data to help rekindle the amount of innovation and creativity we had in design.
And if we start here, and keep thinking and continuously improving, hopefully we can move away from this imbalance of data-driven design, where data chokes out exploration, holistic sentiments, and human potential.
Let’s get back to a healthy relationship, where data shares a seat at the table, with design and with us.