I read an interesting article in the New York Times yesterday called ‘Data, Not Design, Is King in the Age of Google‘ about the recent career of Douglas Bowman. The debate in the article is if a company will lose its innovative edge if it listens to its customers and the data their behaviors generate too closely in creating new designs and functionality. After reading the article I wanted to add my 2 cents to the debate over data vs. design.
My position is that the data documents the road behind you and that 20/20 hindsight can teach you a lot about what works, what people respond to and what just isn’t doing it for them. That being said when you it comes time to move forward and create something that innovates I think you have to use the data as a base to ground the new work in something they will respond to but then rise above it to grow those previous behaviors into something new and better.
As a creative director or designer in the interactive creative process you have to be an evangelist and filter.You will be challenged at several points in the process to steer your client through the temptations of the previous user data when you pitch your concept, or the focus group results after you have visual designs, or the user testing data when you have your prototype because that is the safer and more comfortable path.
You have to be an evangelist because when you boil it down as a creative a large part of what you are selling is confidence in you, your team and most of all your idea. Not all clients can see the final results of how the idea will turn out as easily as you can so you need to put in the work to maintain that confidence throughout the project.
Next, you have to be a filter to go through the data, focus groups results and user testing behaviors to be able to sort out what are results that need to be acted on versus something that the new concept will address or a behavior that can re-shaped for the better. I also think that it is essential to define what will be considered a successful outcome before each of these exercises so the results are put in context. For example if you are testing a new experiential site and you know only 15% of your audience engages in that type of content then you need to set the expectation for user testing that 7 out of the 10 participants may not like that new functionality but the resulting 30% engagement is a 100% improvement over the audiences current behavior. Since you studied the previous data you can serve as a filter to set that expectation so your client will not see a 70% failure rate and kill the concept and design direction instead of seeing that it is doing its job.
So in the end I think that if you just follow the data without the benefit of your knowledge and filtering then you will have your consumers and even your clients defining the direction of your work and I don’t think you can consistently find great ideas and innovative interactive experiences that way.