Data vs Design

The New York Times has a great summary about recent buzz about one of Googles main designers, Mr. Bowman, leaving his amazing job for a very simple reason. Design was being trumped by data. This is not to say data is wrong or bad, but sometimes data is not how choices should be made.

I’ve had this exact emotion when decisions are made by some sort of point system rather than by a gut reaction from experience. First off, not every data point has equal value, and even if data points are given different weights, it’s just wrong to do this from a design perspective. Emotions can’t be quantified. And every time I tell this to an engineer they ask why not and the answer is exactly what I said, you can’t quantify an instinct, emotion, hence you cant ask me why.  I’m sure emotions can be broken down to hundreds of dynamic elements, but to do so would just take to long to process, and data does not factor in reaction and adoption to well.

I’m not sure if it’s something that is taught in design school vs a more technical field, but I’ve experienced so many industries that depend on some point system to make huge decisions which frankly makes me confused. This is not to say that the best choice doesn’t come forth using this methodology, but to make it a means is just not right. When it comes to something say more mechanical, I can understand why since robots are robots, machines are machines, but when it come down to something that deals with a human, it’s an incredibly different field since humans are so different, humans change, evolve, and most importantly we don’t even understand ourselves to determine what we do, understand, like, hate, etc… we are not robots, so don’ try to quantify us like a machine.

I love data, and I’m not saying data does not help drive decisions, but take a step back and remember we as humans process quite a bit of data that can not be explained simply. Be instinctive with decsions and don’t alway look at pie charts, graphs, axis comparisions, numbers, or what the past tells you. Be a human if you are making products for a human. Data can predict pathways, but rarely can they see massive adaptive changes.

Full nytimes article after the jump.

Douglas Bowman left his position as top visual designer at Google and said that designs there lived or died by data on consumer responses. He now is creative director at Twitter.

Published: May 9, 2009

CAN a company blunt its innovation edge if it listens to its customers too closely? Can its products become dull if they are tailored to match exactly what users say they want? These questions surfaced recently when Douglas Bowman, a top visual designer, left Google.

In a rare display of independence among otherwise tight-lipped current and former Googlers, Mr. Bowman laid out on his blog the reasons for his abrupt exit, creating a bit of a commotion in the technology blogosphere. There was no sugarcoating. Mr. Bowman essentially said that Google was not friendly to designers.

Mr. Bowman’s main complaint is that in Google’s engineering-driven culture, data trumps everything else. When he would come up with a design decision, no matter how minute, he was asked to back it up with data. Before he could decide whether a line on a Web page should be three, four or five pixels wide, for example, he had to put up test versions of all three pages on the Web. Different groups of users would see different versions, and their clicking behavior, or the amount of time they spent on a page, would help pick a winner.

“Data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions,” Mr. Bowman wrote.

Google is unapologetic about its approach.

“We let the math and the data govern how things look and feel,” Marissa Mayer, the company’s vice president of search products and user experience, said in a recent television interview.

The Web, of course, offers designers and innovators an unprecedented and powerful mechanism to test their ideas. They can mock something up, throw it up online, and get immediate feedback from users. Better yet, they can mock up multiple designs and test them quickly. Then, they can repeat the process until they home in on the design that seems to be most popular.

The approach may be the ultimate experiment in crowd-sourcing — letting users collectively design products. But experts in design and innovation say the approach has limitations and downsides.

“Getting virtually real-time feedback from users is incredibly powerful,” said Debra Dunn, an associate professor at the Stanford Institute of Design. “But the feedback is not very rich in terms of the flavor, the texture and the nuance, which I think is a legitimate gripe among many designers.”

Adhering too rigidly to a design philosophy guided by “Web analytics,” Ms. Dunn said, “makes it very difficult to take bold leaps.”

And as much as it may sound jarring, the customer is not always right.

“Customers sometimes do not know what they want,” said John Seely Brown, the co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for Edge Innovation, a research and consulting organization based in Silicon Valley. “It can be dangerous to just listen to what users say they need.”

None of this means that input from users is unimportant. Indeed, Ms. Dunn, Mr. Brown and others say designers must find a multitude of ways to understand users’ needs at a deeper level.

“It is more from engaging with users, watching what they do, understanding their pain points, that you get big leaps in design,” Ms. Dunn said.

That approach informed a redesign at Cooliris, a start-up whose software offers a way to view pictures and videos on a three-dimensional virtual wall of thumbnail images. In the new version, which Ms. Dunn helped design, the company includes headlines and other text next to images.

“Even though it changes the visual impact, it is critical that people have access to that information as they are scanning the wall,” Ms. Dunn said. “Now that it is out there, we can do the kind of micro-testing that Google talks about. But the broad design decision was not made that way.”

It is hard to criticize the results of Google’s data-centric approach. The company is hugely successful. If a certain hue of blue causes users to click on ads at even a marginally higher rate, it can translate into millions of dollars flowing to the company’s bottom line.

What’s more, many of Google’s products are utilitarian. They are meant to help people complete tasks quickly — not to dazzle them the way, say, an iPhone dazzles users.

Even Mr. Bowman insists he never meant to slam Google. “Google’s approach works really well for Google,” he said.

BUT Mr. Bowman has found a place that better suits his sensibilities. He is now the creative director at Twitter, where he says he has a greater opportunity to shape the look and feel of the service. Already his team has unveiled a major design overhaul. On the margin of users’ pages they added a search box and a list of “trending topics,” subjects that are most popular with tweeters at a given time.

He has also found a new way to listen to customers: reading their tweets in reaction to the new design features.

“Using data is fundamental to what we do,” Mr. Bowman said. “But we take all that with a grain of salt. Anytime you make design changes, the most vocal people are the ones who dislike what you’ve done. We don’t just throw the numbers in a spreadsheet.”

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