Design by the Numbers

13 May 2009 at 8:47 am 8 comments

| 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.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Management Theory.

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Per Bylund  |  13 May 2009 at 8:58 am

    Hey, it’s spelled “verstehen.” But you’re right in that it is pronounced “sh” rather than “s.” ;-)

  • 2. Peter Klein  |  13 May 2009 at 9:26 am

    Why should I be bound by your white male, patriarchal, Eurocentric rules of grammar?

    OK, fixed it.

  • 3. Per Bylund  |  13 May 2009 at 9:38 am

    Well, doesn’t being bound to my rules follow directly from your description of me? ;-)

    By the way, you forgot to mention heterosexual, married, and middle-aged (well…). At least, that’s the definition of the “oppressing majority” I’ve read about in a bunch of classes (political science): the middle-aged, white, married, heterosexual, high-income earning, patriarchal males.

    I never saw many of those around, but I guess since they’re the majority many of them must be hiding somewhere forging plans of how to further oppress [much smaller] minority groups (such as “women”).

  • 4. REW  |  13 May 2009 at 9:59 am

    Shouldn’t that be “womyn”?

  • 5. Per Bylund  |  13 May 2009 at 10:21 am


    You are right, of course. The word, woman, is an oppressive patriarchal relic that should have been abandoned a long time ago. And the same with like words like mankind and to be taught manners – why is behaving like a man necessarily the ideal? And the oppressive patriarchal structures in language seem to follow us into the high-tech era too – we should, just to make a point, call all electronic messages with sensitive content fe-mails.

    The only exception to this obviously oppressive system prevalent in our postmodern patriarchal society is the word malevolent – I guess it must have slipped through somehow. ;-)

  • 6. REW  |  13 May 2009 at 10:51 am

    I recall being told about Professor Bowman, who submitted a paper to a politically correct professional society meeting. The paper selection committee used a software aid to search out and correct gender-inappropriate language prior to posting papers. Professor Bowman became Professor Archer!

  • 7. REW  |  13 May 2009 at 11:07 am

    Per, I think that there are two etymological paths entwined around “male-“. In French, the original form of the masculine noun was masle, which became mâle. This is very close (to anyone outside l’Académie Française) to the Old French male-, used as a prefix to many words to indicate evil or wrong. I think womyn took this faux ami to confound masculinity with evil…

  • 8. Rafe Champion  |  13 May 2009 at 4:30 pm

    Archer!? What about Bowperson?

    The debate between numbers and verstehen is a no brainer, after all you have to understand the numbers.

    The thing is to do a check on the problem and find out what sort of evidence or arguments will make a difference to the critcal preference that you need to make between the options.

    The same applies to the degree of precision that is required in measurements, and also in the definition of terms.

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