It's so easy to think of design, be it web or graphic, as merely an artistic venture. But the truth is that the best designs are based on research and data. Data-driven design is the balance between best practices and better design; the end product of data-driven design is a user-centric experience.
From Guessing to Strategizing
The main difference between mediocre design methods and data-driven design is that the former is based on guesswork while the latter is grounded in strategic planning. Let's put this into the perspective of classic art. Remember that preferences are always individual. Still, there are certain traits that as humans we are automatically attracted to.
Take a look at these two paintings and think about which one you automatically respond to more:
You likely automatically responded a little more to the first painting, by Diego Vasquez. Remember that responding and liking are two different things, so you may have liked the second, by Jackson Pollock, more, but responded more emotionally to the Vasquez piece. The Vasquez painting obviously took a great deal of strategic mapping and detailed research. While the Pollock surely took planning, too, the placement of colors and patterns is more random and, in some ways, seemingly accidental.
You need to look at any designs you're involved in as works of art. They need to be planned out to the "T", and you need to have a great deal of research data to support any changes you make. Still, data-driven design doesn't have to play it safe. It can be as daring a Pollock piece. Innovation doesn't need to be sacrificed in the name of business goals. If you have data - like results from heatmaps, surveys, and analytics - that proves that users respond well to a change, then you have the argument you need to implement innovation.
The data that drives your design can't just be based off of best practices, either. It needs to incorporate data focusing on user experience and expertise - as opposed to guesswork that is based on desires, or that which is grounded in opinions and conjecture. Guessing leads to a short-term fix, while strategizing incorporates a valid, long-range plan.
Data-Driven Design Is Iterative And Ongoing
Successful design based on data will be iterative, which means that it will involve some repeating steps. Even the most minute of details should be reviewed so that it can be adapted and evolve based on the changing demands, expectations, etc. of audiences over time. Take a look at the evolution of design elements from Facebook:
One of the most obvious changes we can see here are the transition from square profile pictures to round, and from stagnant text comments to a more mobile-friendly version of comments. While these changes may seem arbitrary to some, a company such as Facebook likely would not make those adjustments if they didn't first have the data needed to back it up and stick with it. Notably, both Twitter and Instagram have made the switch from square avatars to round recently.
The Ringer notes that the circle phenomenon started with Steve Jobs. Apparently, Jobs noticed that most things in the developed world have rounded edges, and so interfaces ought to as well in order to appear as natural as possible. Seriously, look at street signs, your computer monitor, your keyboard, right now. They're rounded, aren't they?
The circle thing is just a funny anecdote, but the truth is that details like this are being studied and tested all of the time by technology and design companies. What has the best usability? Is it mobile-friendly? What encourages the most engagement? These are just some of the questions researchers are asking, and what you should be asking too.
Using Data to Track Progress
Once design changes are implemented, research should still be utilized to track the progress of those changes. Data can come in the form of things such as analytics sessions, bounce rates, and heat map results.
You should be using Analytics to track user sessions. Meanwhile, heat maps will show you what users are engaging with the most on your website. These are maps that use a scale of colors to display the level of user engagement related to different aspects of your webpages.
Based on this heat map, we can tell that the top navigation within this website is often clicked on by its users. Thus, researchers can tell that whatever they're doing with the top navigation is attracting a great deal of attention and clicks. Conversely, it doesn't look like the social media icons on this page are getting much engagement at all. Researchers and designers might consider displaying those icons differently, moving them to a different area on the page, etc. to get more interaction from users.
Data-Driven Design Is Required
Design is creating meaning and understanding through space, color, and motion. Bad design obscures content and deprives meaning and understanding. Using research for design ensures that the finished product will focus on user needs, not agendas.
If you want to learn more about data and design, here are some additional resources:
- The Many Benefits of Google Analytics
- Tabbed Content and Its Effect on User Experience
- Empathy Maps for Improving Customer Satisfaction