May 29, 2022

Making friends with data

Design

Let's talk about data and business metrics.

Did I lose you already?

Did your eyes glaze over when you started thinking about spreadsheets and charts?

That’s okay. An understanding of data often doesn’t come naturally to us creative folks (myself included). In fact, we’re often a little afraid of it.

It’s easy to see why it makes us uneasy: unlike the subjectivity of creative expression, data is scientific and absolute. It’s hard to argue against. And while we like to say that “design is at the intersection of art and science”, it can sometimes feel like the science of hard data is the more important part of that duo in a business setting where the artistic value of design is much harder to measure.

Every designer I know has a story of woe that centers on data; whether it’s having to cram too many things in “above the fold” on a website because the data said it’d get more clicks, being unable to get polishing and fine-tuning the quality of UI on the roadmap because there’s no clear metric it’d directly improve or having beautiful brand-forward projects deprioritised because they can’t be attributed to conversion in the data.

But despite its role in disappointing decisions like these; data is not the enemy of beautiful, creative work. It’s actually a tool that we can use to make our work stronger.

Data is storytelling

Here’s the thing about data: while it may seem on the surface to be cold, hard numbers, it’s actually telling you a story.

It may not always be an enthralling novel with twists and turns that you’d devour on a beach holiday, but it’s a story nonetheless. About how your work is performing, what impact a design change has had on the business, the habits of your users, the opportunities for improvements…stories full of rich detail that you can learn a lot from. But data won’t just tell us what we need to know outright.

We can’t expect to pull a story from data by passively reading a spreadsheet full of numbers or watching bar charts rise and fall. Simply looking at numbers isn’t useful unless we dig in to what they’re telling us. We have to ask questions of the data to understand what it’s trying to say.

  • Where does our highest-converting traffic come from?
  • What page do most people sign up on?
  • What signup button do they click?
  • What do they do next?

Questions like this can help you to uncover the story of a users path on your site and allow you make informed decisions about what to change or test in your designs.

If you have any sort of analytics connected to your website, the data is there waiting for you. You just have to hunt for the story.

This line of thinking really helped the team of passionate creatives I lead at ConvertKit to embrace data in their workflow. They’re masters of their craft and care deeply about how their work builds and impacts our brand. But they’re much more inspired by beautiful visuals and ambitious people than by spreadsheets full of data.

By thinking of metrics updates in our meetings as ‘telling data stories’ they’ve been able to learn from what the data is telling them and spot opportunities to lean in on things that are working, or quickly act to change the things that aren’t. So it’s a mindset I encourage you to take on to.

The next time you dive in to a chart, a spreadsheet or an analytics tool; don’t try to read it. Instead ask yourself “What story is this telling me?”.

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What’s your relationship with data like? I’m currently writing about using data to check our ‘gut instinct’ when it comes to design performance for my book, and I’d love to hear how you feel about data and accessing it. Tweet me and let me know!

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