The roles of data and intuition in design

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In search of logical problem solving, design is steering away from taste. Can data and intuition co-exist in our decision making?

8 min read

Data and intuition in design

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Breakthroughs occur when we combine different forms of knowledge. Among these are the things we know and the things we feel.

While they seem contrary in nature, data and intuition can combine to forge new insights and innovations. Yet, in the course of designing products and services, it’s important to ask, When should we rely on fact? When should we follow our instincts?

There are so many digital products today that allow us to instantly measure the impact of a different button color, or of a change in wording. When data is so readily available, it can become a driving force in shaping products and services.

This raises the question of whether we should approach design as more of a science or an art. Perhaps it’s through the integration of both data and intuition, that designers are able to make the most informed decisions.

What is intuition?

Intuition, also called instinct or gut feeling, is linked to subconscious decision-making.

According to psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, intuition is the ability to spot patterns and to integrate insights from past experiences. Intuition is automatic, effortless, and subsconscious.

We cultivate intuition by observing the world around us. As we process bits of information from our surroundings, we develop an instinct that tells us when something feels right or wrong. When we notice patterns, our bodies release neurotransmitters to the brain and gut, which, in turn, communicates a sense of understanding faster than conscious thought.

When it comes to intuition, we often can’t exactly explain why or how it is that we know something.

Intuition is mostly useful, but often biased. For one, it may be limited to a person’s past experience. For example, if you talk to different web design experts, they’ll each have a different instinct about color and layout, depending on their prior experiences.

With variances in intuition, and increasingly complex design problems, we more often than not turn to the power of data.

Intuition in design

Not only is design steering away from instinct and taste, it is also increasingly about solving problems and crafting useful and functional solutions.

What is data?

Data are bits of collected information about the world.

It can be quantitative, such as product metrics, or qualitative, like customer reviews. In general, quantitative data tells us the what, and qualitative data tells us the why.

A mixed approach combining both quantitative and qualitative data is most common for product development, as it brings together the best of both worlds. By synthesizing insights from randomized controlled studies, big data sets, and the lived experiences of customers or potential customers, we can look for patterns that might be too subtle or too complex for us to identify without the systematic collection and analysis of data.

Data has this marvelous effect of seeming scientific and objective. However, we have to understand that data, too, can be biased. At each step—when deciding what to measure, how to measure, and how to present the findings—we have the potential to shape the data according to our personal biases.

In the words of statistician and artist Edward Tufte in his book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, we should strive to present data as clearly and as honestly as possible. Maintaining graphical integrity means to present the data in an accurate and precise way, similar to the use of scales that are properly proportioned. Our findings should not be oversimplified or obscured, but rather layed out to allow audiences to reach their own conclusions.

Despite the potential for possible biases, designers can turn to data to help them make more informed design decisions.

Data in design

However ingenious an idea may seem, innovation rarely appears out of thin air, free of predecessors or origins. It’s by observing problems in the world around us, and exploring possible solutions, that we come up with truly innovative ideas.

Balancing data and intuition

Design may be shifting towards more logical decision-making, using well-defined processes and frameworks. Not only is design steering away from instinct and taste, it is also increasingly about solving problems and crafting useful and functional solutions.

Yet, if we let go of our gut feelings altogether, we’ll be missing out. It’s in fact the synthesis of data and intuition can help designers make better calls. These decisions might include anything from what products or features to make (and when to say no to a feature), to what experiences to create, to what interfaces to design.