data or design?

11 May 2009|Lee Shupp

Can a company blunt its innovation edge if it listens to its customers too closely? This is the question that Miguel Helft posed in this Sunday’s New York Times. The article describes the departure of Douglas Bowman, a senior designer, from Google, who said on his blog that Google was unfriendly to designers, instead relying on customer data to make even the most minute design decisions. This raises an important issue in the age of real time web metrics and intensifying competition: what is the right balance between data and design?

Google, and many other tech companies, believe that data trumps design, with a few exceptions. There are good reasons to emphasize data if you are Google, Ebay, or FaceBook. These companies have streamlined, functional websites that have to appeal to the biggest possible audience to be successful. For Google to make money, it has to be the premier search engine that can attract the most possible advertisers. Ebay has to be the most popular auction site to enable the largest possible number of transactions. FaceBook has to attract the highest possible number of users to ward off other social networks, leverage the network effect, and attract the most advertisers.

When you are in a functional, high volume business, you become very risk averse, and want to make data driven decisions to ensure your success. Yet there is danger in this strategy; if the wisdom of crowds determines design, then everyone in a category ends up in the same spot, their design dictated by the design democracy of the datastream. This is a sure path to the commoditization of a category.

On the other end of the continuum is design by designers who thinks that they know best what people want, based on experience and intuition. This is much more legend than fact, as every leading design consulting agency has moved to integrate consumer insights into their practices (with varying degrees of competency). The few designers who truly rely on intuition tend to have a few big hits but many big misses, because nobody is able to keep their finger on the pulse of culture without any data. Flying blind makes absolutely no sense in a hypercompetitive economy.

The sweet spot is in the middle of this continuum, using data to inform, but not dictate, design decisions. Having solid, up to date data is critical to understanding user habits and practices. Having a strong design direction is critical to creating a strong brand, identity, and experience that enables a unique and satisfying experience.

There is often tension in finding the sweet spot on the data/design continuum. FaceBook has faced user revolts with almost every significant design change, sparking debate about whether FaceBook or its users should have the ultimate say. Ebay has had similar user rebellions to quell. This may be one reason that Google is so cautious, as rebellions create major pain, and do not make for good press. Yet even Google has small exceptions; I love the whimsy and creativity of the ever changing Google logo, and that little bit of creativity becomes a focal point on a web site as utilitarian as Google.

Find the place on the continuum that works best for you. Get great data to inform your decisions. Get great designers to push the envelope. Create a healthy tension between what people like, and what can stretch your brand, and take your customers to cool new destinations.

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