Designing with Data or Intuition

By | March 24, 2015

Yesterday, a colleague asked my opinion about the Data vs. Intuition debate amongst designers. Should a designer rely on data or intuition to do their job? It seemed to me to be a false choice.  These are not mutually exclusive ideas. Great design requires both at different times.

When a new feature or product begins, there is an iterative cycle that happens. Usually hundreds of times between start and sunset, this loop goes round and round.

When you are learning about the requirements, the market, the personas, the technologies, the constraints and more, it is critical to put your intuition away and absorb the data. Don’t assume anything is true, research, ask, observe if it is true.  This is where product managers often try to give you THEIR intuition, but it is important to stay focused on the facts.

Unfortunately, learning by itself, isn’t all that useful to the customer.  They want action, products and services. Something needs to be made, whether that is a mockup, a storyboard, a prototype or the real product. So you need to create something.

The creation process is not like learning. It’s more like discovering. You take all of your learning and put it in a box and shake it up. You apply previous skills and experience come up with – an idea.  This is an intuitive exercise similar to painting or writing a book. You have facts and data, but that isn’t an idea. The idea comes from the creative combination of different previous ideas and the data you gathered.

Once you create something, you can show it to people. Thus, you can gather more data.  Whether that is hallway testing (“hey dude, look at my screen”) or formal usability testing or web analytics, it is essential to see your creation through the eyes of others. Ultimately, it is about empathy. You can’t have empathy without other people. Always try to get to the WHY of the data.  Without WHY, data is just numbers.

So to summarize, when I am learning, it is all about data.  When I am designing, it is all about intuition. The whole debate doesn’t hold water. Designers need to be able to come up with better ideas than normal people. This is the job.  They also need to be able to gather data about their ideas, so they can make even better designs. Now, I feel my blog is becoming circular. -fin

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