Data, design…and soul

Following up on the initial posting on Google’s “data-driven” ethos by web designer extraordinaire Doug Bowman, and the subsequent heated debate on data vs. design (on ixda, etc.), another web design guru, Luke Wroblewski has published a beautifully compact articulation pointing out the falsity of the debate (which the NYTimes even used in their article title over the weekend–hmm!). Indeed it’s not a conflict, but a parallel dialogue of approaches and viewpoints, working together.

As Luke says:

1. Data informs design
2. A handle on design builds credibility
3. Data is not the only way to make decisions


On the same topic, Luke Stevens published this lengthy read teasing apart the issues of “data vs. design”, largely defending data-driven design with thoughtful explanation, but avoiding the typical holy war of righteous indignation.

Ok, that’s fine. However, my issue isn’t really that data drives design or not, but the following:

1. What is meant by data? Seriously. This may sound like a naive question but certainly in light of ethnography, affective studies, personal storytelling, etc (and more from Jane Fulton Suri, Liz Sanders, Brenda Laurel, among others). I’d say the parameters of what constitutes “data” are broadening. I fear there is such rigid attachment by researchers, marketers, engineers to just numerical studies that there is a blind spot to other kinds of data…

In addition to the conventions of web analytics and statistically quantifiable numeric studies/surveys/measurements, there must be room for the data of past professional experience, evolved and applied patterns/principles/guidelines, and yes personal intuition via judgement and thoughtful insight (developed over time with exposure to projects, clients, etc.)

I suspect that a rigid adherence to only numerical data is actually just a snub of contemptuous disrespect for trusting a learned and experienced designer’s judgement, which is multidimensional and dynamic…and evolving.

2. What about the soul of a design? How does extensive numerical data studies enable the aesthetic character, the humanizing quality, the elusive wonderment that makes a design resonate with one’s dreams and desires? “To light a fire in the mind and breathe life into the heart”, as former Sony head of design once described some compelling design concepts, is not something numbers can do. It takes a genuinely inspired and talented human being to elicit forth such qualities in pixels and matter, through a complex messy amalgam of culture, expression, arts, language, style, and so forth. There is an ineffable quality that transcends mere numbers, suggesting a poetic graceful elegance…a kind of equipoise if you will. Hundreds of numerical studies will not provide this no matter how rigorous or detailed. Some of it may be of value, but as Doug Bowman says, “But we take all that with a grain of salt.” And remember… as Jared Spool said once, “any piece of data can be whipped to confess to anything.” It takes the judgement, inspiration, experience, and temperament of the designer(s) to resolve a cohesive blend of the rational and the imaginative into something that people will emotionally connect with and effectively use.

Marissa Mayer may unapologetically say “We let the math and the data govern how things look and feel,” but doing so only confesses the lack of humanity and soul in Google’s products, only a raw Terminator-esque ruthless efficiency embraced by triumphant engineering-centric glee. (Google Analytics–ironically–may be an exception, as is Google Chrome. IMHO per the recent bayCHI talk)

And finally, since when did a numerical quant study alone lead to some of the grand paradigm-shifting, breakthrough products of our time: the iPod, the Dyson, Tivo, Prius, twitter, youTube, blogs and of course the iPhone. Those dramatic jumps of insight more often involve multiple kinds of “data” mentioned above, and the recently recognized skills of abductive thinking (as Frog’s Jon Kolko described at Interaction’09)…with some curiosity and inventiveness and a good measure of perspiration, to hint at Thomas Edison’s old saying. Indeed, from the NYTimes article: “It is more from engaging with users, watching what they do, understanding their pain points, that you get big leaps in design.”

One Reply to “Data, design…and soul”

  1. Good post Uday. It bears repeating that “data” driven design tends to yield incremental improvements. Breakthroughs require synthesis and creation.

    Data is nothing without interpretation. It is information we crave.

Leave a Reply