Design thinking is data thinking

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.


  1. Well said, James. I agree completely.

    While I empathised with Bowman’s 41 shades of blue story—as I doubt I’d enjoy working in that kind of environment, myself—I do think Google’s survival of the fittest approach to design is valid and its merits should be discussed more than its flaws. Google operates at such tremendous scale—optimisation is vital to its service. If every line of code needs to fight for its existence, I don’t see why rounded-corners and shades of colour should be treated differently. Value can be attributed to aesthetics—a factor of usability, brand, and pleasantness—and, I think Google recognises this. Aesthetics can be measured, and should—particularly when you’re serving 400 million queries per day.

    Suffice to say, I don’t think Google’s reliance on data is reason enough to push in the opposite direction in my own work—quite the contrary. As you say, designers *are* data-driven (or at least, they should be). Designers may choose to ignore the data on occasion for the sake of aesthetics, but it should be a conscious decision (and one that can be measured).

  2. Brilliant post, James. Agree with every point, especially the critical importance of data and users in the development of excellent designs. I recently enjoyed this article, which talks further about innovation coming from information, not ideas:

  3. Benson Low

    Well said James. In general all your points are completely valid, but having meet a few Google employees (ex & current) I have heard similar issues where designers have less say/impact in Google projects. It’s not the matter of data driven design but of design influence or therelackof.

  4. Interesting point, Benson. It seems there are two issues here. The first being that some designers are using Google as an example of what they perceive to be wrong with data-driven design, in general. They appear to be, in a sense, rationalising a move away from it (a move that I reject). The second issue is that of designers within Google struggling to influence design and being overruled with data—something that doesn’t account for their years of design experience, or an appreciation for the aesthetic.

    I challenge the first issue, but I’m empathetic to anyone affected by the second.

  5. Michael

    When I first saw the Google search engine (back in the day when Altavista was still the most popular search engine), I was impressed by Google’s speed.

    I think displaying relevant search results QUICKLY is the number one reason for Google’s rapid rise to being the world’s most popular search engine
    (within a year of when I first saw it).

    When using a search engine people just want those search results quickly!

    For this kind of service keeping the design simple without too many images or anything else that might even slightly slow down displaying search results is a good thing.

    I do occasionally use another search engine when Google’s servers don’t respond within a couple of seconds so if another search engine manages to be faster consistantly expect their popularity to rise VERY quickly.

    Like someone already said this is a matter of survival for Google.

    ok .. I’m not a designer …
    but like most people I hate waiting
    and for most such data-driven services getting that data quickly is much more important to me than what the website I’m getting it from looks like!

    How long is the average person prepared to wait for a page to load?

    I think Google’s attitude is spot on and the reasons are pretty obvious.

    You can’t compare this at all to Android/vs iPhone –
    you are talking about hardware platforms not data-driven services and Apple’s marketing machine – different thing altogether
    (as for which of those I prefer – I do not know as both iPhone and Android phones are currently still way too pricey to buy. I won’t think about buying any such device until it is affordable to buy outright without getting locked into some kind of debt plan. (and if it is more than a couple of hundred dollars I would INSIST on no less than full root access to the OS running on it so that I could write and install my own apps on it whenever I want.
    – hey those Nokia linux phones look kind of interesting .. but then again I’m not going to spend $900!)

  6. “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.”

    You hit the nail on the head with the previous statement. Google is a technology company focused on speed, interactions, and relevancy, and not a consumer products company interested in the transfer of data to human knowledge, otherwise they’d pay more attention to the fact that human beings parse “aesthetics” as emotional cues and functional tools, such as well-set typography, that can increase our understanding, not only of the data, but of the meaning behind the data. Just look at the information graphics of Tufte for proof: Their error and, I’m sorry to say, your blind spot, is to assume aesthetics are pretty things that have no functional benefit.

  7. james Author

    Thanks for your comment Chas and for adding your voice. I completely agree with you that aesthetics are NOT pretty things that have no functional benefit. Aesthetics play a very important functional role in helping guide a users eye as well as communicate meaning and brand values.

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