Data scientists and designers work to achieve a common goal – to solve problems – but their methodologies can be as different as night and day. While the ways in which they conduct research, their design approaches and how they implement solutions come from opposite directions, great things can happen if we let them collide.
Designers have been known to dismiss data as being detached from the reality of human existence, but this view is wrong. In fact, data is the most real and direct representation of human behavior we have available. But to make the most of it, you need to humanise that data, to ask it the right questions in the right way and to let it shape a story for you – in much the same way a journalist might interview an inspiring person for an article
Take a look at your smartphone and pick out the apps that most surprise and delight you. Would you choose Nest? How about SquareCash? Airbnb? These are all examples of apps that draw heavily on data to tell them how their users experience the world, and how their service can remain fresh and helpful even as things change.
Creating personas has long been a reliable method for envisaging how people will use your service, which then influences your design decisions. However, the reliance on personas has had its heyday and these systems are no longer enough to build and optimise useful services.
Think about it for a moment: you dream up a collection of people with diverse outlooks and needs. You might choose their gender, age bracket, family set-up, city of residence, technical aptitude, relationship with risk, income bracket, employment status, and any number of other lifestyle features. You can be as granular as you like but you’re trying to fit huge numbers of people into a small number of boxes, and the needs of the individual are glossed over. More importantly, there’s no room for variation, between the ways in which an individual user’s needs change from one situation to another, and over time.
Today, it’s about creating services that are living and respond to consumers’ needs, environments and behaviors in real time. They’re designed to build “living profiles” – rich, atomised data sets that learn from each users’ behavior and choices. The constantly changing data gives clues on how to tweak a service, ensuring it’s the most useful, relevant version of itself for each and every individual – whether they’re doing a weekly food shop, checking in for their fourth flight of the week, or starting out as a college freshman.
This is a great idea in theory, but what has to happen to make that a reality?
The first step is to bring designers and data scientists together creating what we at Fjord call data designers. These combined skills result in co-created solutions that, individually they may not have reached.
Entwining these contrasting but compatible specialties enables us to design service blueprints with excellent front-end details, fueled by backend elements that allow it to shift and bend into whatever the user needs.
It’s a big task: every moment a brand participates in, we must collect information about it. What type of moment is it? What’s the user feeling? What decisions are they making? What’s influencing those decisions? Each of these attributes tell you what that brand should offer, or how it should behave, in that moment.
Designers who are better acquainted with the tools and skills of data scientists are better able to pinpoint different areas of a business which could yield these useful new data streams.
Data becomes a new KPI for design
The inquisitive nature of many designers should lead them to question the role of data – whether that’s tapping unusual data sources, rethinking existing data or even gathering new information about users.
The logical extension of exploring new data streams is that designers will begin to think of collected data not just a tool, but as a necessary outcome of their work.
The more data we have at our fingertips, the better our services will be able to adapt to their users’ needs. Therefore we must be constantly exploring new opportunities for gathering insights to behaviour and potential optimisation, then designing solutions which make those datapoints easier to collect.
Open up to keep up
By gathering and acting on new data streams, data designers are in the best place to keep businesses prepared for any number of new developments in user behaviour, new technologies and the future evolution of their services – because all that information will let them see those shifts coming.
However, there is also an onus on organisations to enable the access that designers and data scientists need to take advantage of the potential resources within them.
Challenges to achieving this can arise from siloed teams and in navigating the proper way to handle business or customer data. On these matters, it’s crucial to keep in mind the end benefit to the user and the business of using the data in question, and involving the data scientists and designers throughout that process to offer best practice guides and to find alternative solutions where needs be.
Data isn’t one department or one team’s responsibility – it’s an opportunity for the whole business. Successfully combining data and design not only enriches the experiences and interactions we have with services, but also will drive decisions that shape how businesses operate and exist in the modern world.
Nandini Nayak & Nathan Shetterley lead the Data & Design practice at Fjord, design & innovation from Accenture Interactive
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