Data in the Design

by October 27, 2009

Though the debate about metrics-driven design continues, it’s becoming increasingly hard to do large-scale digital product design without integrating an understanding of data.

Data is an inevitable result of our world going digital. As books, music, movies, maps, and more become bits, they can be indexed, modeled, mined, analyzed, and queried. The results of these operations quickly create mountains of data that need to be presented in clear and usable ways to people. This task frequently falls on the shoulders of designers. Or as Bruce Sterling put it in his book, Shaping Things:

“People who will make it their professional business, no, even their calling, their practice, their very mode of being –to create a human-object relationship that is as advanced as [we] can manage while still being acceptable to [us]. Who would that be then? Designers. Who else is there?”

But design isn’t about hiding data from people or simplifying it to the point of crippling insights. We are increasingly comfortable using data to manage our personal and professional lives. As more of what matters to us becomes digital, we naturally begin to embrace the way data can empower and inform us. This new culture of “personal data” is on the rise:

“Numbers are making their way into the smallest crevices of our lives. We have pedometers in the soles of our shoes and phones that can post our location as we move around town. There are sites and programs for monitoring mood, pain, blood sugar, blood pressure, heart rate, cognitive alacrity, menstruation, and prayers.” –Living by Numbers

So not only is more data available (as things go digital), but people are increasingly comfortable with data in their lives -data about the items we interact with and data about our own interactions as well.

Designers can (and increasingly do) use this data to learn from aggregate behavior and to influence individual actions. Today’s software analytics provide real time insights into how people are actually using products, which can help product teams make more informed design decisions. When these metrics are surfaced to end users, they can influence individual behavior by spurring additional participation or behavior changes.

Data analytics can also help create and optimize opportunities. Designers versed in data may uncover trends or insights that not only yield better products but new product or business ideas as well. As Google's chief economist, Hal Varian believes:

“A new era is dawning for what you might call the datarati—and it's all about harnessing supply and demand. ‘What's ubiquitous and cheap?’ Varian asks. ‘Data. And what is scarce? The analytic ability to utilize that data.”

Increasingly, there’s data in the design.