The Sweet Spot: Data INFORMS Design

With more and more analytics tools, companies are increasingly looking to data to make decisions about their product. That totally makes sense. You should definitely look at data and use it for your advantage!

But I’d like to argue that there is such as thing relying on data too much. I worked at a company once, where everything was measured and optimized. As an employee, that made me feel like I was a rat in a scientist’s box. I didn’t work there for too long.

Same with products. If you rely on data too much, there is a chance your product will lose it’s soul – the part of it that makes consumers feel all warm and tingly inside – and instead make your customers feel like rats in your scientific world (think Zynga!).

It’s been hard to explain this concept to others in San Francisco / Silicon Valley. After all, DATA is KING! So I was really surprised by how well Facebook’s Engineering Director Jocelyn Goldfein articulated this concept during the Facebook + Parse Mobile Dev Day event I attended a few weeks ago (I highly recommend watching her whole talk here). Here is the story she used as an example:

New Design

For the longest time, the Facebook app had a slide-out navigation menu, which many in the industry (including myself) have copied and used in their application. However, Facebook’s slide-out menu had so many options, they decided to get rid of it, and add a tab bar with most commonly used options instead:

facebook-new-navigation-design

They did some user testing, and people loved it!

What Does the Data Say?

It’s great that users love this new navigation design, but how does this new design measure up when it comes to key company metrics? For Facebook, those metrics are likes and comments. They want to increase consumer engagements, and who doesn’t look at their like and comment count?!

So data definitely matters. You need to look at data to see if your design is doing it’s job. In Facebook’s case, the new navigation design did not do it’s job! With this new design, consumers didn’t stay as much in the News Feed (where the commenting and liking action happens), since there were other equally important tabs to explore.

The Obvious Solution

This a no brainer, just add a badge counter on the News Feed Icon, and see the commenting and liking numbers rise!

Facebook Navigation With Badge Number

This is where the user experience and the user interface designers come in. While this is the most obvious solution, is it really the best solution esthetically and for the consumer? It is definitely not the most beautiful and it will annoy the consumer (I personally hate when there is a badge count – it’s just so frustrating and annoying to feel like you have to do something!).

Re-Designing

So while data said the current design is not great for likes and comments, it is the designer’s job to think creatively of how to fix the data problem. Too many times, project managers and designers take the most obvious solution – just add another button to it!

This is the hardest part of the designer’s job – how do you take the feedback from the data and come up with an elegant solution that looks good and doesn’t make the user feel resentful or lost or confused.

In Facebook’s case, the designer’s came up with a brilliant solution:

Facebook NewsFeed Light

Instead of implementing the intrusive and ugly red badge count, they added a very subtle blue light underneath the News Feed icon when there were unread News Feed comments. They went back to the data, and this subtle design change did the job – it brought in the desired number of likes and comments!

Data Informs Design

The popular saying is “Data DRIVES Design”. But if you let data drive design, you end up with a soul-less Frankenstein monster. I much prefer Facebook’s moto – Data Informs Design.

You should definitely use metrics to make sure your design is doing what it’s supposed to do, but ultimately, think creatively about the re-design process. The obvious solution is not always the right solution for your product’s soul.

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  • Jenny Tsai

    Absolutely! PJ McCormick just gave another example of data informed design at Warm Gun

    http://www.livestream.com/500startups/video?clipId=pla_ed6b5adf-8808-459c-876a-8f3d1359233d&utm_source=lslibrary&utm_medium=ui-thumb
    (go to 1:28)

    His story is about slideshows at Amazon. They get a lot of marketing requests for slideshows on product pages, which aren’t really used/seen based on usage data. The simple route is to ignore partner requests, but the slideshow suggestions never stopped and they were getting samples like “Apple has a slideshow on its homepage!”. Finally they looked at the data to see why slideshows don’t get much user love (users don’t get past a slideshow’s 2nd page), and designed slideshow content around this problem -> ending with more usage AND happy partners (super important!)