Design by the Numbers
| Peter Klein |
A new item for our “by the numbers” series. Former Google lead designer Doug Bowman recently quit to take a position at Twitter, citing frustration with Google’s engineer-oriented, data-driven culture:
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.
Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. . . .
I’ll miss working with the incredibly smart and talented people I got to know there. But I won’t miss a design philosophy that lives or dies strictly by the sword of data.
Adds Keith Sawyer:
Google’s engineer-dominated culture wants to see the numbers, the proof. Artists and designers don’t think that way — they know a design that works in their gut, somehow, when they see it. It’s a holistic phenomenon, and it emerges in some unpredictable way from hundreds of tiny design decisions about line widths and color shades. How, they would ask, could you possibly test every single combination, every possible design? . . . Numbers get you focused on the trees and you forget you’re inside of a forest.
I hold to the basic Misesian position that quantitative empirical analysis is a complement to, not a substitute for, other forms of knowledge acquisition such as a priori theorizing and Verstehen. Needless to say, this doesn’t mean I approve of fuzzy constructs in social-science research.