There’s been some recent blog posts and discussions around Google’s apparent lack of “Design Thinking” and their focus on “Data Thinking”. I find these discussions overly simplify the role of design and designers as well and are unfair to Google and their appreciation for the finer aspects of design.
The first post on this theme was by Douglas Bowman when he wrote about his rationale for leaving Google in his post titled “Goodbye Google“. In it he describes a company focussed on data (testing everything) and lacking design vision.
The next post was by Cliff Kuang of Fast Company’s Co.Design. In his post titled “Google Instant Proves Google’s Design Process is Broken” Cliff suggests that Googles reliance on user testing inhibits true design thinking and innovation.
And most recently was a post by Faruk Ates titled “Design Thinking vs. Data Thinking” in which Faruk describes Google having no empathy in it’s design approach and that they live or die by the “sword of data” – again suggesting a lack of design thinking at Google.
These discussions and the perception of design by some in the community concern me and I’d like to give my perspective.
A lack of aesthetics is not a lack of design thinking
The first issue I want to address is perhaps the oldest and easiest to address and that’s the perception that design is just aesthetics.
Google lacks a sophisticated, warm or emotional aesthetic in most of it’s user interfaces but that does not mean they lack design thinking or sensibilities. A lack of visual style does not mean an absence of design or design thinking!
Google clearly has plenty of money and has had ample opportunity to improve the aesthetic of their products but they haven’t chosen to – they’ve decided to keep it the way it is. That’s a conscious design decision – it’s not a lack of design.
This decision may not be made by a ‘designer’ (as most design decisions aren’t) but it’s still a design decision and one I believe serves them well. A lack of visual sophistication and emotion communicates that their focus, what they consider important, is elsewhere – in the speed, interactions and relevancy of search for example. Craigslist is another company that is very successful for very similar reasons.
It’s also equivalent to no label or home brands in supermarkets. They are designed to look cheap and essentially communicate to buyers “we’re cheap because we don’t spend lots of money on packaging and marketing”.
Designers are data driven
The next issue I want to address is this idea of Design Thinking v Data Thinking. Pitting them against one another is to suggest that they are mutually exclusive which is not the case. Any designer worth their salt will be data driven – from analysing data to inspire innovation and improvement through testing concepts to see what works best to being able to show measurable improvements and business outcomes resulting from designed updates.
There’s nothing that please me (and most designers I know) more than being able to point to data showing a design piece I worked on delivered on it’s goals.
Innovation & user testing are friends
The last issue I want to address is the idea that user testing or a user centred approach stifles innovation. Furuk (in his article mentioned above) uses the example of Google floundering with progressing Android because of their testing and data driven approach while Apple, with their design thinking approach, created the more successful phone the iPhone.
One could infer from this that user testing and data driven approaches are wrong and that businesses should just become better at design thinking. Businesses should be doing both. They should be pushing the boundaries and innovating with new ideas and approaches as well as testing and iterating on them. It should not be one or the other but both.
Steven Johnson in his great TED talk “Where good ideas come from” talks about how ideas come about slowly through exploration, contemplation, discussion and experimentation and I’ve always found user testing to be a great source of inspiration.