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Intuition-driven versus Evidence-based Design

by Ray Valdes  |  May 10, 2009  |  3 Comments

A debate that was taking place last month in blogs and in cafes around San Francisco’s South Park neighborhood has spilled over into the mainstream, with an article by Miguel Helft in today’s New York Times.

The article is about two differing perspectives on the design process, one exemplified by Doug Bowman, a visual designer that recently left Google with a loud exit, and the other by Marissa Meyer, the long-standing VP of User Experience at Google. The issues relate to a dichotomy that I have been presenting on lately, which I term the dichotomy between intuition and evidence.

Most Web sites and applications are still built with intuition-driven design. This is design that results from the subjective perception, thought, and imagination of a single individual or small team. If the people involved have talent, the result might be a breakthrough design such as the Apple iPhone, Google Maps, and, going further back, Lotus 1-2-3, MacPaint, and HyperCard. Intuition-driven designs don’t necessarily have to be breakthrough landmarks, however. Many designs are understated, cohesive and compelling, such as Flickr, Twitter, and my recent discovery, the Scribble paint program for Mac OS/X.

Despite some inspiring landmark examples, I find that, in too many cases. intuition fails to meet the needs of both the user and the organization. The results depend on who is doing the designing. There is a spectrum of dismal results, some inflicted by designers, others by developers.

On the one hand, the classic examples of designer-created excesses are found in the dotcom era, such as early Razorfish designs or the site before it went out of business: small fonts that are unreadable, striking colors that overwhelm content, pixel-precision layouts that only work on the designer’s browser and large-screen display. Illustrating the other side of the spectrum, of dismal designs that come from developers, are many Web sites I ran into during the early days of Ajax or Javascript, pages that showcase a cool visual effect that unfortunately derails the user from ordering a product – not to mention that it only works on one browser, and has a memory leak that results in a crash if left running for any significant time.

Looking at the enterprise setting, it appears that development staff have big backlogs and not much time, so their reach is not as long. Unfortunately, the grasp is often not there either. The user experience of the average corporate application is too often tone-deaf, opaque, and oblivious to user needs. When was the last time you encountered an internal corporate app with a user experience that was less than painful? For many corporate applications, even a mediocre user experience would be an improvement over the current dismal state of affairs.

Countering intuition-driven design is a process with a systematic reliance on objectively observed user behavior. I have been using the term “evidence-based” design to refer to this approach, which others call data-driven or analytics-driven — all synonyms for the same approach. With this approach, design becomes less of an art and more of a science backed by engineering-style methods: “measure first, then fix”. Google is famously driven by the empirical approach, to the extent that they will run tests to determine which of 51 shades of blue to use for a given page. This extreme approach led Douglas Bowman, to resign, and to document his frustration as a creative professional trying to function in a setting dominated by empiricists. While his criticisms are valid if you are at the Google end of the spectrum, most organizations and development teams are far from the Google-style obsession with reality. Most enterprise development teams would benefit from a strong dose of empiricism, and a strong connection with user-centered reality. The results may not be pretty, but they are more likely to be effective.

Which side of this dichotomy do you find yourself on? Is it working for you, or will you push the pendulum in the other direction?


Ray Valdes
Research VP
9 years at Gartner
30 years IT industry

Ray Valdes is research director in Gartner Research, where he is part of the Internet Platforms and Web Services team. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Intuition-driven versus Evidence-based Design

  1. I love this debate!! In my experience, there has been a similar scrum between software developers and software testers for many years. When it comes to design, it pays to be very detailed but not sacrificing a comprehensive understanding of the solution. Excellent points about early developer designs for Ajax apps…SO TRUE! :)

  2. Ray Valdes says:

    Circling back to this topic after a hiatus…

    Thanks for your comment, Mark. Your point is on target about the need for “a comprehensive understanding of the solution”, combined with detailed design work and execution.

    The comprehensive understand provides a cohesive center of gravity for the design, and makes it easier for users to learn the design (because there is a smooth continuum between expectation, discovery and validation of features), and also for designers to add to the design (as long as they are aware of the design center).

    At the same time, each incremental change must be validated by objective data about user behavior.

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