Design Or Data? Ex-Googler Spills All After Landing At TwitterS

All you designers out there, here's a quandary, courtesy Google: When it comes to determining the direction of a company, just how much design control should one cede to the consumers?

At Google, data is king. Charts, focus groups and hard data determine what goes into the company's customer-facing products and services, and that was the issue. At least, that was the issue for former Googler Douglas Bowman.

Bowman, now at Twitter, recently wrote on his personal that, put simply, Google is not friendly to designers.

When he would come up with a design decision, no matter how minute, he was asked to back it up with data. Before he could decide whether a line on a Web page should be three, four or five pixels wide, for example, he had to put up test versions of all three pages on the Web. Different groups of users would see different versions, and their clicking behavior, or the amount of time they spent on a page, would help pick a winner. "Data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions," Bowman said.

Google, for its part, is "unapologetic" about the decision to have little 1's and 0's back up all major design decisions. "We let the math and the data govern how things look and feel," said Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president of search products and user experience.

As a blogger and self-described free thinker, I'm initially inclined to side with Bowman a bit on this one. When a company becomes wholly dependent on data and customer feedback to drive the company forward there is, by the nature of such an approach, a tendency to take fewer risks. On the other hand, Google is Skynet made real, and it sits high atop a pile of money, power and influence precisely because of its proven data-driven approach to product design.

And then there are companies like Apple, which no doubt focus test and whatnot, but for the most part have made design and product decisions based on bold leaps and tweaks of existing tech that users didn't even know they wanted. Alternatively, the company has even left out features that the Net's more vocal denizens (read: we geeks) deemed completely necessary for the phone's success. Oh, and they're big fans of that "secrecy" thing too.

"Customers sometimes do not know what they want," said John Seely Brown, the co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for Edge Innovation, in an interview with the NYT. "It can be dangerous to just listen to what users say they need."

I'd be interested to hear what art directors, graphic designers and the Google Analytics sect have to say about this, because it's definitely sounding like a case-by-case argument, given the success of both data- and design-driven examples cited above. At Twitter, where Bowman now happily resides, design changes are often culled from user's tweets. How incestuous! But it led to Twitter trends and search being integrated into my account, so there. [New York Times]