Data Informed Decision Making in Design: Should you go with your instincts or data?

“What does the data say?”

This question is getting increasingly familiar across industries and departments. We all walk into meetings equipped with numbers and charts backing our narrative as today’s data-driven culture demands the necessary figures on the chart to give your ideas and strategy legitimacy.

For designers, the influx of data can get frustrating. You'd get fast discouraged in a culture where tech companies test 41 shades of blue meticulously if you thought you were hired for your good taste. When cold hard data says you’re wrong, it becomes an uphill task to convince a team to trust your gut instincts instead. When your data analysts point out that the overcrowded homepage is signing up customers faster, how do you make a case for aesthetics?

From our perspective, working on more than a hundred products across industries and various cultures, data is crucial, but it cannot take the place of design instincts built over a foundation of experiences ,  including failures. As design and engineering teams become closer collaborators, the challenge lies in making decisions through a healthy balance of data and instinct.

What leads to the dichotomy between data and instinct?

Once, design departments were run with the belief that certain people are born with an innate design sense. Gut instinct was glorified by them, as measuring the effectiveness of designs in progress was extremely hard. Only after a product hits the market could you learn whether your ideas clicked with your audience or not. Today’s digital products  glorify data. We can evaluate each design choice amongst numerous variations until we hit the sweet spot. This power, data gave the tech community, lead to a shift.

How does data empower a designer?

You'll no longer find yourself convincing your clients about your design's "simplicity," "elegance," or "class." Rather than having to employ these subjective parameters, you can show them data. Statistics on the installs number, abandonment and click-through rates, user paths, referral and retention counts, A/B comparisons, cohort analyses and various other analytical data.

After you’ve won them over with numbers, you can head to the whiteboard, chart a few graphs, and you've sealed the deal. End of the month you point at the downward slope of the graph and remind your clients where their numbers were going because of the old design. And that upward climb? That's where you've got them with your analytics-backed design.

So, of course, it can get tempting to rely entirely on data. That way you have something to point fingers at.

Too many designers today are starting to fall back on data rather than creativity. But the problem here is, typically users don't know what they want. Data can't find those answers for you. You can't afford to rely on data from the outset.

Data cannot drive innovation and creativity. It can only inform at the most. Data is best used when it comes to testing and validation. During the innovation phase, creativity often depends on artistry and user experience, characteristics you shouldn't try to quantify on a spreadsheet. During the MVP stages, it's time to start collecting data. The data might reveal a flaw in the user flow. This kind of information that directs your attention to the issue is good information. But again, the data can't tell you how to fix the issue. Here's where experience counts again, you innovate and test to see if you've fixed the issue. Analytics has to find a place in your design process. None of us can afford to count alone on our instincts. More so, with the rich data present in the digital domain, we won't have to.

However, sometimes analytics and data can give teams a feeling that it’s not them making the decisions, a false sense of security. The research has set the rules. Here’s the thing, the best companies in the world, the ones that built the products that populate your world, a lot of their “innovation” comes from making studied assumptions, building it, testing and iterating based on real user feedback.

Where does instinct fit in?

The best instincts are honed, not stumbled upon. But the best of instincts can sometimes lead us astray. Placing too much faith in one’s design instincts can prove dangerous. No designer is born knowing what their customers want, or how people will react when faced with a novel design. Instincts are born of experience and paying a little attention. As luck would have it, the human brain serves as an incredible pattern-matching machine that hones and develops our instincts each time we’re exposed to a new design. We all notice when experiences fall short even if don't put in the effort to pay attention to the world around us constantly. We notice when the color of the Instagram icon changes even subtly. We notice when the sign asks you to pull to open, but the door opens to a push. We notice that fingerprint sensor on our phone that's too close to the camera, so we almost always smudge the lens with our fingerprint every time we reach for it. Each time we notice a design fail or design win, we tend to think of how it could have been done better or even take a second to admire a particular design that delights you. Designers go a step further, they observe and dissect every new design they come across, each time they do this, they're building their design muscles. What we call instinct.

Even so, this introspection only gets us so far. And this is because the audience for our designs often spans various age groups, cultural contexts, and backgrounds. Your instincts cannot account for them all. Further, as designers, we are experts in using our own products, while users will be experiencing your product for the first time. That's where user research comes in. Observing customers as they use your product is the best way to re-learn and hone design instincts. User research is basically just another stream of data, a qualitative and messy one, but still valuable. Strong product teams foster habits that strengthen the team's design instincts. A cadence of user research every few weeks is one of the best habits to build. When you sit with the whole team and watch users struggle with your designs, everyone  from the engineer to CEO will develop healthy design instincts. Just don’t let those instincts run the show. Recognize the situations where you should let instincts shine, and when you must dig for data.

When to go with data and when to side with instinct?

Don't overthink it. When it comes to judging subjective things, go with instinct and use data to back your objectives. Take customer behavior for instance. Here, you use data. Analytics today can tell us exactly what customers do. Customers might claim that they would never buy this with that, but we just never know what they will do when nobody is watching. So trust data here. When it comes to decisions about product quality, use instinct. You have to look closely at various details like the messaging on your help content to moving that button 4 pixels to the right to build quality into a product. Individually, you can't back any of these small changes with data. But taken together, they contribute to quality.

Now if you find yourself stuck between picking amongst various small sets of choices, employ data. For making incremental, tactical improvements, there’s nothing like A/B testing. The key here is to focus on measuring metrics that really matter to the business in the long term, such as purchases, sign-ups, user retention, instead of merely measuring clicks. However, follow your instinct when it comes to long-term impact. It’s essential to heed your instincts while balancing goals like more traction that are easily measurable, and long-term goals like reliability, as users connect with the subjective, not the objective. And if your instincts could use a boost, get curious. Read up on what's the talk of the town, the products your users are falling in love with, talk to users and gather data.

Conclusion

It’s easy to think of instincts and data as contradictory forces in design decisions. But the line between them is blurry. Essentially, instincts are born of experience by observing the world we inhabit, and these observations are merely one more stream of data. Analytics help us understand and summarize the hard data we collect, and instincts do the same for all the messy real-world experiences we observe. That’s why the best products, the ones that become part of the user's world are crafted with the help of both.

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