Sep 22, 2017 4 min read

The Kindling for Design isn’t Logic, it’s Data

  • Design
Jeff Blanchard

Jeff Blanchard
Director, Product Design

I’m about to take a belated vacation next week, having worked through the summer and believing in that Chicagoan fashion that it would never end. Now the leaves are turning and I hear the call of the American Southwest, the openness there.

I’ll be riding out to Utah, for sure; maybe make it to Nevada. It’s getting cold in the mountains, but I can find some place warm enough to camp in. In any case, I’ll need a fire. So I’ve been thinking about what to bring to start one; what fuel to bring; what to cook with.

For the past several weeks I’ve been working on a website design, and the premier tools that will differentiate it. Thinking about the workflow of people coming to it, their needs and decision points, had me at an impasse: The business goal is to drive membership by way of offering tools that will help people make better decisions, in addition to content which is freely available. The challenge is, time to market demands that many of these tools will be “off property,” at least in the short term.

How do we drive engagement using tools we don’t own? How could this be “solved” by better design?

Fortunately, my friend and colleague Deniz reminded me not to sweat the uncertainty. “Just create a new test,” she said. My philosopher’s mind sometimes lets me get lost in the details, the possibilities, the variations, the divergence. This is sometimes a good thing; but sometimes the logical paths lead nowhere. Deniz’s background as an engineer and researcher is firmly grounded in data, testing, and rigorous process. That reminder to swing back to convergence, make something (anything!) and get it in front of customers was the prompt I needed.

Stakeholders And Designers Are Not The Target Audience

The customers in this case are students preparing for college, and their families. The stakeholders and I have been out of college for years, and try as we may to synthesize their perspective — How will I pay for school? How do I know which college to choose? — we are too far removed from the realities they are facing. Creating a prototype that attempts to provide the right answers in the most effective way will almost certainly be lacking something, but getting the design “right” isn’t the point; the point is to get the first-person responses we need to understand the real challenges students are facing today.

Of course we want utilize well-established usability heuristics and structured UX models. And we do need to remain conscious of the jobs to be done by these students and parents: practical, financial, psychological, emotional. Ultimately though, the experience of being these individuals is something we cannot solve for logically.

We need customers’ voices to have something material to respond to. Their perspectives provide the data that fuels good design.

Even more, the data that comes from these tests provides us a temporary anchor from which to revisit business goals, a way to reground assumptions and take a look with fresh eyes at the direction we’re moving in. Align with what is proven, and pivot from what is not.

Data-driven design doesn’t demand exhaustive thinking about the best possible ideas and their logical outcomes; our innovations are unimportant if they miss the mark. Instead, rapidly experimenting with design possibilities gives us the best chance of finding our audience, hearing their real needs, and gathering the responses that inform of us the right direction to take.