This article originally appeared in Wired.
For many tech companies, design is no longer subjective. Instead, it’s all about data. Analytics click and hum behind the scenes, measuring the effectiveness of even the tiniest design decisions. This constant data-stream plays an increasing role in determining what new products we will use, and what forms they might take. And when we think about the future of design and technology, we bump into an uncomfortable question: do human design instincts even matter anymore?
In the design world, there’s always been a dichotomy between data and instinct. Design departments — think Mad Men — were once driven by the belief that some people are gifted with an innate design sense. They glorified gut “instinct” because it was extremely difficult to measure the effectiveness of designs in progress; designers had to wait until a product shipped to learn if their ideas were any good. But today’s digital products — think Facebook and Google — glorify the “data” instead; it’s now possible to measure each design element among hundreds of variations until the perfect outcome is selected.
For designers, this influx of data can be frustrating. If you thought you were hired for your good taste, you’ll quickly get discouraged in a culture where tech companies meticulously test 41 shades of blue. Imagine convincing a team to trust your gut instincts when cold hard data says you’re wrong. How do you simplify a crowded homepage when the data scientists agree it’s ugly, but tell you it signs up customers faster?
From my perspective working with over 80 product teams, data is important, but there’s no replacement for design instincts built on a foundation of experiences — including failures. As engineering and design become ever closer collaborators, the biggest challenge is to make decisions through a careful balance between data and instinct.
Design instincts matter
One of my first projects at Google was to design the “Google Checkout” button, which would soon go on to help people quickly purchase goods and services around the web. Designing a button is usually easy, but this one had a unique requirement: Customers could choose between several checkout methods, so our button needed to attract attention on a busy page.
With each wave of design feedback, however, I was asked to make the button bolder, larger, more eye catching, and even “clicky” (whatever that means). The proposed design slowly became more garish and eventually, downright ugly.
To make a point, a colleague of mine stepped in with an unexpected move: He designed the most attention-grabbing button he could possibly muster: flames shooting out the side, a massive chiseled 3-D bevel, an all-caps label (“FREE iPOD”) with a minuscule “Checkout for a chance to win”.
That move reset the entire conversation. It became clear to the team in that moment that we cared about more than just clicks. We had other goals for this design: it needed to set expectations about what happens next, it needed to communicate quality, and we wanted to build familiarity and trust in our brand.
We could have easily measured how many customers clicked one button versus another, and used that data to pick an optimal button. But that approach would have ignored the big picture and other important goals.
While it’s tempting to make design decisions based on the data we have at hand, the best teams recognize that some goals are hard to measure. While data is incredibly useful for incremental, tactical improvement, it must be tempered by another factor: our instincts.
Instincts are made, not born
We all know that following your instincts is sometimes a bad idea. A quick look at Apple’s infamous round USB mouse or Segway’s first weeks should be enough to warn designers and business leaders alike that having too much confidence in one’s “design instincts” can be dangerous.
No designer is born knowing exactly what their customers will want, or how people will behave when faced with a novel design. Instincts are learned. And they’re best learned by paying attention to the world around us. Luckily, the human brain is an incredible pattern-matching machine that develops and hones our instincts every time we’re exposed to a new design and the data about whether it worked.
Designers constantly pay attention to the world around them and notice when experiences fall short. We notice when door handles signal you should push, but require you to pull. We notice when the font on road signs change. We notice that little button on your phone that’s just a bit too hard to find while driving.
Trust me: paying this much attention to the details can get annoying. Not just for designers but for those around them, too.
Still, there’s a benefit to being so aware. Whenever designers notice something is difficult, we mentally dissect why that’s happening, what design was involved, and how a different design might solve the problem. Each time we do this, we’re slowly building our design muscles — what people commonly refer to as “instinct.”
This introspection only gets us so far. And that’s because the audience for our designs are often so different than ourselves. Users might be older, younger, bring other cultural contexts, expectations, or be different in so many other ways.
Even when designers think they are exactly like their users, there’s one sure difference: Designers are experts in using their own product, while new customers are seeing and experiencing the product for the first time. Since there’s no way to unlearn what one already knows, it’s essential to do user research and see the world through our customers’ eyes.
Watching customers use a product through user research is the absolute best way to develop design instincts and avoid mistakes. User research is really just another stream of data, one that’s qualitative and messy, but still extremely valuable.
The Goldilocks of instinct-driven and data-driven design
Strong product teams develop habits that strengthen everyone’s design instincts. One of the best habits to build is a cadence of user research every few weeks. When the whole team watches customers struggle with their designs, it’s possible for everyone — from engineer to CEO — to possess brilliant design instincts.
Just don’t let these instincts run the show. The trick is to recognize situations when teams should dig for data, and when they should let instincts shine.
Curious about customer behavior? Use data. When it comes to digital products, web and mobile analytics tell us exactly what customers do. Even if customers say they would never, ever, ever buy rainbow suspenders for their avatar, we just never know what people will do when we’re not watching. Better to trust the data and see what people actually do rather than trust what they say they’ll do.
Decisions about product quality? Use instinct. To build quality into a product, you have to pay attention to hundreds of details like crafting clear help content or moving that button 3 pixels to the left. None of these small changes individually would prove worthwhile with data. But taken together, they create an overall impression of quality — a halo effect that improves a product in many ways. So when wondering how much time to spend on the details, designers should trust their instincts.
Deciding between a small set of options? Use data. There’s nothing like an A/B test for making an incremental, tactical improvement. When trying to pick the just-right words for a homepage header, there’s little to be gained in arguing over the right copy. It’s better to test a few versions and pick the right one based on data. The key is to measure the metrics that really matter to the business longer term (such as sign ups, purchases, or user retention) instead of just measuring clicks.
Concerned with long-term impact? Use instinct. A good reputation takes years to build, but just one bad experience can destroy it. So when balancing between tactical easily measurable goals like more clicks, and long term goals like trustworthiness, it’s essential to listen carefully to your instincts. And if your instincts need a little boost, get curious: go out in the world, talk to people, and gather data.
It’s common to think of data and instincts as being opposing forces in design decisions. In reality, there’s a blurry line between the two. After all, instincts are built by observing the world around us, and those observations are just another stream of data. Statistics help us summarize and understand the hard data we collect, and instincts do the same for all the messy real-world experiences we observe. And that’s why the best products — the ones that people want to use, love to use — are built with a bit of both.