Getting started with data-driven design

4 min read
Jon MacDonald
  •  Nov 15, 2016
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Have you ever walked up to a piece in an art museum, looked at it, and realized you have no idea why it’s included?

A group of professionals—who are probably excellent at their job—decided that piece was special. But because you don’t “get” it, their opinion has no impact on your experience.

The same idea holds true for design. Your interface might be innovative and attractive, but that won’t matter if your users don’t like it.

Fortunately, implementing a data-driven design approach can help. Tailoring your products to your user’s preferences, goals, and behaviors make them far more engaging. The approach includes surveys, user testing, A/B testing, site analytics, and consumer research. Ideally, these should all come into play throughout the data-driven design process.

“To build user-focused online experiences, use a data-driven approach.”

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Here are 4 main reasons data-driven design is important and how you can get started right away.

Designers are not users

Some people assume that a brilliant designer makes user testing unnecessary. After all, the designer will come up with something amazing—and users are bound to like it.

Steve Jobs is the most commonly cited example. Jobs famously said, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

So should you slash your research budget and put everything toward hiring a world-class designer?

Absolutely not. There are a couple issues with following Jobs’s approach. First, Jobs was creating new product categories. Unless your product is unlike anything currently on the market, your consumers will have a great sense of what they want. Ignoring them makes it harder to design a website experience they’ll love, not easier.

Second, even if you’ve hired the best designers in the world, they can’t predict what your users want. Designers aren’t users.Twitter Logo Unlike your target audience, your design team is familiar with your product. They’re invested in its success.

“Even the best designers in the world can’t predict what users want.”

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Your designers and users are different from a demographic perspective too. Perhaps you’re targeting suburban medical professionals in their 40s. Meanwhile, your design team is made up of urban creative millennials. Both parties navigate technology differently and come with different expectations.

Fortunately, designers can bridge the gap with user testing. Watching real people who fit the target demographic can provide helpful insight. You can see them interact with the product and voice their thoughts. This helps design teams empathize, relate to, and better understand their users.

Data-driven design helps creators move beyond best practices

Data-driven design doesn’t stop there. It also helps designers combat their assumptions and allows them to move beyond best practices.

Designers should use insights from their specific audience to tailor their user experience. Every industry, vertical, and business is unique. When you follow design rules and guidelines to the letter, or just follow the latest digital design trends, it leads to a cookie-cutter website that doesn’t resonate with your users.

“Use insights from your specific audience to tailor the user experience.”

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The hamburger icon debate epitomizes this idea. If you’re creating a mobile app for users who have seen this icon many times before, you might be okay. They understand exactly what it represents and it’s a helpful way to simplify your UI and save space. But if your users don’t understand 3 horizontal lines equal “menu,” they’ll be left confused and frustrated.

Instead you can perform user interviews, track mouse movements, and view screen activity. This data can show you where to improve your product.

The most effective sites put user needs first

Many organizations struggle to balance their users’ needs with their business objectives. Pop-up email capture forms are a great example. While it’s not in the user’s best interests to have their browsing experience interrupted by an email capture form, many sites still opt to do so.

Along similar lines, websites often require consumers to opt out of being added to the mailing list rather than opting in. If you’re in a hurry when buying something, it’s easy enough to overlook the “Sign me up for the newsletter!” checkbox. Next thing you know, you’re getting promotional emails that you didn’t anticipate or volunteer for.

At The Good, we believe decisions like these win the battle but lose the war. The most effective, high-converting sites serve the user’s needs first. If your holistic user experience is engaging, intentional, and easy to navigate, users will be more likely to convert. Your conversion rate on individual pages might decrease—but your core conversion rates will be higher.

“The most effective, high-converting sites serve the user’s needs first.”

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Begin by learning which conversion-focused elements are actually harming your user experience. Get started by conducting user research sessions.

Data and innovation don’t have to be at odds

The data-driven approach is often accused of inhibiting innovation. Consider “the local maximum.” This maximum is the best reasonable result based on current data. It’s not the best possible version of your current design ever. Uber’s Andrew Chen, who coined the phrase, argues that sometimes optimizing little tweaks can become a problem. You focus on minute improvements while losing sight of larger opportunities. You can’t see the forest for the trees.

Image from Inside Design: General Assembly

It’s true: striving to grow conversion rates by minor percentages can prevents designers from breaking the mold. But the problem isn’t the data, it’s how you use the data.

Designers can—and should—propose drastic, daring changes.Twitter Logo And if they want their clients or other stakeholders to actually agree, they should back up their design hypotheses with data.

For example, let’s say you want to completely redesign the checkout flow for an ecommerce site. You run user tests that identify the core stages of the checkout process that consumers struggle with the most. You use site analytics to show how many people abandon their carts after seeing the shipping rates. And you survey current customers about their shopping behaviors to better understand up-sell opportunities.

Now, armed with this quantitative and qualitative data, you can better influence a decision. With this data, you can convince decision-makers that optimization is necessary.

How to get started with data-driven design

If your team doesn’t currently incorporate much (or any) data into its methods, the idea of starting can seem overwhelming. The truth? It’s a big commitment to adopt data-driven practices. Fortunately, there’s a huge payoff.

Start by analyzing your existing customers. Look at your site’s in-page analytics, behavior flow, and site content to get a bird’s eye view of what people are doing. After that, dive into your audience analytics and demographic data to get a sense of their personas.

Read more about personas: Predictive personas

You can then flesh out this information with focus groups, customer surveys, and/or interviews. Once you’ve gotten a 360-degree view of your customers, use the common themes and trends to create user personas.

User personas allow you to run user tests with participants who match your ideal customers as closely as possible. Use them during the wireframing or prototyping stage to get early feedback on your site. Use them during your beta stage to identify bugs and potential issues. And use them to test your final design for problems and areas of improvement.

As you refine and iterate, user research comes into play again to confirm or negate your assumptions.

Meanwhile, A/B tests let you isolate specific variables of your user experience and find the most effective options. Run them when you add, change, or subtract an element of your interface—or want to increase conversions.

It doesn’t matter how much a designer or museum curator loves a creation. It only matters what the audience thinks. To build user-focused online experiences, use a data-driven approach.

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