Counterpoints to the "Design versus Data" Discussion

The new creative director of Twitter, Douglas Bowman recently made a blog post that design decisions made at Google are ultimately decided by data. In his post, Goodbye, Google he makes a poor case for the “design” side of the argument with the points he chose to defend with.

"When I joined Google as its first visual designer, the company was already seven years old. Seven years is a long time to run a company without a classically trained designer. Google had plenty of designers on staff then, but most of them had backgrounds in CS or HCI. And none of them were in high-up, respected leadership positions. Without a person at (or near) the helm who thoroughly understands the principles and elements of Design, a company eventually runs out of reasons for design decisions."

I am not sure why Bowman cites this particular Wikipedia article, which does not adhere to the writing standards, and is clearly written about interior design. Many other articles would be better to cite, one obvious article being as straight forward as Design.

I agree that the design role needs a seat at the table, but a seat at Google’s table? It was founded as an engineering company, and they have not strayed far from that. I would dare to say if they changed that formula it would change Google’s success. Not every company needs to emulate Apple (but more could.)

"With every new design decision, critics cry foul. Without conviction, doubt creeps in. Instincts fail. “Is this the right move?” When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data. Data in your favor? Ok, launch it. Data shows negative effects? Back to the drawing board. And that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions."

Besides the bitterness of the post, the designer failed at their job if they are unable to appeal to the engineer’s ration and logic and be persuasive. It shouldn’t matter if there is one or a hundred engineers in the room. Design is not just spent in Photoshop.

Back to the topic of design versus data: one of the larger design decisions, such as the location of the tabs (above the URL bar) I don’t believe were left up to the user. Form follows function here, and there lies real opportunities for innovation.

A fantastic point was made in the NYTimes article covering Bowman’s departure:

“It is more from engaging with users, watching what they do, understanding their pain points, that you get big leaps in design,” Ms. Dunn said.

"That approach informed a redesign at Cooliris, a start-up whose software offers a way to view pictures and videos on a three-dimensional virtual wall of thumbnail images. In the new version, which Ms. Dunn helped design, the company includes headlines and other text next to images.

“Even though it changes the visual impact, it is critical that people have access to that information as they are scanning the wall,” Ms. Dunn said. “Now that it is out there, we can do the kind of micro-testing that Google talks about. But the broad design decision was not made that way.”

The location of the tabs is a great example of a “broad design” decision – it reinforces a key aspect what we call the user’s mental model of Chrome. The buttons, the location bar, etc. are all contained within a specific tab. Now the interface reflects that appropriately. I am sure if there was a survey – users would mostly not care but if pushed would prefer either tabs on top or on bottom roughly equally. There would be no definitive decision based on data. Bowman’s frustration with needing to prove a case for a pixel or a shade of blue is maybe more appropriately related to his position in the company. 

Bowman’s title at Twitter is “Creative Director” which implies a much larger design role than his former Google one of “Senior Visual Designer”. I hope he breaks from his traditional view of design and truly does innovate with the new kid on the block.