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Data, Our Savior and Overlord


Technology Design

November 2, 2017

The design community has become obsessed with finding ways to harness user testing, personalization, and other data-driven tech. And for a really great reason. Data has proven to be a valuable tool in completely transforming a designer's ability to measure impact and make incremental improvements. It’s a complete game changer! But does this tool also come with potential pitfalls?

Creativity in the Age of Data

Recently, I attended a design talk in which a digital designer waxed eloquent about the advantages of user testing. He then proudly concluded that, with the advent of modern data measuring, it is possible to discover an objectively “right” way to do something. We no longer live in a world of subjective ambiguity. Every design decision can be tested, tried, and “validated.” No longer does visual design belong to the exclusive world of aesthetics and taste, controlled by experts and savants who tell us what the best solution is based on their unique genius and honed intuition. Is he right? Do intuition and artistry no longer have a place in design? Has data arrived as our new creative director? Are we relegated to pixelpushing under the dictation of algorithms?

The Illusion of Objectivity

Data’s greatest strength is also its greatest shortcoming. It is binary, while humans are not. Outputs reflect inputs. Tests are written to find specific answers to specific questions. And when looking at those data points in isolation, it is indeed possible to arrive at basic conclusions and general best practices. However, data gathering itself is subject to its non-binary human programmers, and a problem arises when the process buys into the illusion of absolute objectivity and clarity. It has become fairly common to treat data as the proving point — as if it were the final stakeholder. While it is easy to fall in love with the concrete answers data can provide, data can’t tell us the complete story. It can’t point out vital questions we haven’t considered, or let us know when we need to completely reframe an approach.

But What Does It Mean?

Data can tell you that something is occurring on a quantifiable level, but it can’t tell you why. It is really great at measuring concrete yes/no questions, but not so great at evaluating complex emotional relationships. A narrative lens is required to give meaning to data. And that is where humans have to re-enter the process if data is going to be useful. Data is, by nature, detached and abstract, while humans are inherently relational. We are emotional. We tell stories about ourselves and the world we inhabit, which give shape and direction to our lives. Data never exists in an objective vacuum for us; rather, it requires a story and an interpretation to have any value. Without stories to contextualize data measurements, it is impossible to begin to measure concepts like nostalgia, wonder, and beauty.

So, Until AI gets some EQ

Don’t hang up your hats just yet. The age of data may have drastically altered how the design community works, but it certainly hasn’t displaced us. If anything, it allows us to better leverage our human strengths of intuition and relationships in our work.

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