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Designing with data

When thinking about the design process it’s often very easy to get excited about the things that look good and feel right to you. Personal experiences are vital, but we should pay more attention to data…

Designers come in a number of disciplines; print, brand, web, graphic, motion, but they all have one thing in common:

They’re trying to solve a problem.

Design itself is significantly more than how something looks. The word “design” encompasses the cosmetic layer, but much beyond this you find the thinking that describes how everything fits together and how somebody might respond to a piece of design. Each designer has their own approach to working out the best way to make their designs effective, but the crux of the matter is that design work, as much as possible, should be based on information.

Designing with data

During the scoping of a typical web project, both the client and the designer will have ideas about what the web pages should look like. They each might cite other websites that they like and they each may have preferences over colour, photography, typography and so on. But…

Subjective opinion should be kept to a minimum when designing a website.

The designer is not designing for themselves or for the client; they’re designing for the end-user. And this is where designing with data begins to enter the equation.

We start by looking at our demographic. Websites need to be accessible to all, but a leaning towards a specific type of user in-line with business objectives can only be a good thing. For example, a website designed to sell holiday insurance to over 50s would be designed differently to a website which aims to offer advice for first-year university students.

Let’s take a look at these two examples from three perspectives – typography, colour and an example piece of content (in this case, contact details):

Over 50s

  • Clear text in a reasonably large font size
  • Soft colours intended to create a sense of calm
  • Prominent details for other means of contact (email, telephone or post)

Student website

  • Minimal text for quick reading
  • Vibrant, gender-neutral colour scheme intended to portray excitement and adventure
  • Various contact details including social media like Twitter

This is all well and good, and we can probably point to our visceral instincts with things like this, so where does the data come into play?

Well, we know that older people may struggle with reading text from a screen for a variety of reasons as documented by the W3C:

“Pupil shrinkage; resulting in the need for more light and a diminished capacity to adjust to changing light levels. For example, 60 year old retinas receive only 40% of the light that 20 year old retinas receive while 80 year old retinas only receive around 15%” – http://www.w3.org/TR/wai-age-literature/#whatvision


(An ironically difficult to read graph from the W3C)

The above data indicates that we would likely use larger font sizes and clear contrasts between page elements. Softer colours as backgrounds can be used effectively to lift text off the screen. In any case, using a light grey on white, or very small text for example, would be forsaking this demographic’s requirements.

How can we rationalise our choice of contact methods? Again, we look at the stats:

 Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 16.24.41

According to the data (http://www.pewinternet.org/data-trend/social-media/social-media-use-by-age-group) as of Jan 2014 65% of people over 50 use social networks (with only 49% using social media over 65 years of age). This in contrast to nearly 90% of 18-29 year olds who use at least one social network.

Of course, we would use this data to guide us; it helps us to make the best decisions without having to rely on what we think may be the case. There’s no complete replacement for hard-lived experience, but this is rationale, and every design decision should be backed up by rationale.

Rationale provides a reason for existence.

Asking your designer, client and even especially yourself to provide rationale is a good thing to do because it promotes critical thinking behind – not just a website design – but any endeavour. Get into the habit of doing this and you’re sure to offer a much enhanced user experience for your clients customers.

Here’s an example of more data.

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