Aesthetic Web Design Hates Empirical Analysis
26 Sep 2006

Aesthetic Web Design Hates Empirical Analysis

26 Sep 2006

There seems to be a great riff these days between design and analysis. Usually the argument from the aestheticians seems to be self-preserving rather than logical. In many ill-conceived articles and posts, these authors even go so far as to question the scientific method and the unequivocally powerful field of statistical inference. To me, these arguments are plain provincial. On the other hand, the analytically inclined camp also fails to appreciate the potential and relevance of informed graphic design.

Most websites are meant to create revenue for the owner, whether directly through sales or indirectly through product promotion and brand building. It is difficult to find a web site that does not derive some kind of financial benefit for the owner. (There are of course some, but small by proportion.)

One of the few times that purely aesthetic design is truly significant is when it adds value to the company’s brand. This is not insignificant, however, since brand for some companies can be worth the majority of their market capitalization. Despite this, it is buffoonery to discount empirical analysis when architecting user experiences. The real-estate that is your canvas is, without a doubt, the most valuable planar surface in the world and design decisions can make or lose the client millions if not billions of dollars. It is not by coincidence that large companies that heavily rely on their web properties for revenue, like Yahoo and Amazon, hire teams of economists and MBAs to analyze every link and pixel on each of their main pages.

Often, those that snub empirical analysis in the web design process do so because they are uncomfortable working with it and leveraging it to inform their design decisions. In order to effectively use the information provided in usability, interaction, and other studies, one must not only understand how to employ their findings but also their limitations.

I often think, that this polarized discourse must have occurred many times before in history. For example, I often imagine that a similar debate must have occurred between holistic healers and modern medical doctors in the 19th century. The holistic healers where skilled tradesmen that believed in their herbal cures and discounted the new ‘scientific-based’ field of medicine. They questioned the validity of ‘medical studies’ because they did not fully understand them or the scientific method behind them. In the end, it turns out that the field of medicine that is based on systematic, empirical studies is clearly effective. It also turns out that the holistic approach also have a great deal of validity; that it why a comprehensive cancer treatment often entails both modern medicine and ages-old holistic healing.

Empirical analysis is invaluable when architecting user experiences; that is clear. The web gives us incredible analytical potential because we have unparalleled insight into users’ actions and habits. Rather than fearing empirical analysis designers must embrace its awesome power. Conversely, analysts must come to terms with the fact that design is also critical and should work with, rather than against, graphic designers to come up with effective solutions that look great and support the brand. After all, albeit effective, not all sites can look like Craigslist.

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  1. P.J. Onori September 26th, 2006 5:55PM

    I’ve read a lot of Andy Rutledge’s articles and he brings up very good points – most of the time I agree with his opinions, I just respectfully differ from this subject in particular.

    We need a tremendously greater amount of cooperation between information architects/UE designers and web designers. In my perfect world, the line between these two vocations would be significantly blurred if not removed completely. I will continue to stick to the idea that good design provides positive empirical results. The benefits of our work should be very obvious not just by feel but though analytical research as well.

    I still think a lot of the disconnect is misunderstanding of each others’ goals and a large communicational barrier. At the end of the day, both parties want the same thing – they just approach it from different angles.

  2. Sergio September 26th, 2006 6:29PM

    P.J., you bring up a couple of good points in your comment. I’d like to address them in turn. First, I totally agree with your statement that greater cooperation is needed between information architects/UE designers and web designers. However, I’d like to extend that statement to encompass pure business analysts and usability professionals. In my experience and from hearing others’ comments, it seems that the group that comprises web professionals is a dysfunctional family. There is little communication and often less respect. This is a tremendous shame because each member can make the others much more effective. A good business plan for a web site can be made great with the aid of web designers, usability experts, and information architects. Usability issues can be elegantly tackled with good design. A talented designer can produce beautiful and effective work when working analysits, information architects, and usability professionals to inform her or his design.

    I personally feel adept as a usability expert, information architect, and analyst. Nonetheless, my work reaches the greatest hights when I work with an understanding designer. The reason for that is that designers also understand how to impact human emotions, cognition, and actions through aesthetics. There have been uncountable times when by working with a designer I found that what I thought was the perfect user experience could be greatly improved. However, it took us both being open-minded, respecting one another’s craft, and communicating effectively.

    Another thing is that analysts and MBAs do not realize what profoundly powerful tools user expereince design and web design can be. When applied collectively, the end product can turbo-charge accomplishing business goals on the web.

    The thing that drives me bananas is when web designers categorically deny the benefits of emrical research and usability testing. How can anyone question their validity or utility? No one has ever stated that these findings are universal or infallible, but they are also very far from worthless.

  3. Christopher Fahey October 1st, 2006 6:46PM

    You link to my article (about user research smoke and mirorors) and you then go on to say I am anti-empirical. You even imply that I oppose the scientific method itself!

    You must not have read my article very carefully. I wonder if you even read my series at all. I think that’s pretty “provincial” of you.

    I argue that the designer’s instinct is better than *bad science*, but (and this is the part you seem to have not understood) I think that a lot of user research is just that: bad science. For example, when a user researcher samples 6 users and concludes that one interface widget is better than another, that’s bad science because the sample is too small. Or when qualitative statements are artificially transformed into quantitative results. Dude, I am arguing against pseudo-science. I am, in fact, arguing in favor of more and better science!!

    I contend that a lot of what passes for science in the user research world has not undergone enough scrutiny and does not face enough healthy scientific skepticism from what I think are gullible usability and design professionals. As a result, bad science is taken as gospel far too often. I also content that in our quest for scientifically-based decision making, we often create, conduct, or rely on patently bad research methods.

    It’s better, I think, to listen to an experienced designer’s expert opinion than to listen to a really crappy researcher’s deceptive recommendations.

    I suggest you take off your “this guy’s a designer and so he’s probably some dumb anti-science flake” glasses and read my articles again.

  4. Sergio October 2nd, 2006 10:05AM


    I definately owe you an apology. You are right that I misrepresented your stance on this issue by linking to your article while referring to closed-minded arguments against using emirical data to aid design. I am editting the opening paragraph to reflect a more accurate representation of your thoughts.

    I did read your series some time ago, and it was your series that helped me start to formulate my own stance on this back and forth. I think that we both see the benefits and traps of empirical data in the same light: it is invaluable when used appropriately. Appropriate use means more than ‘how’, but also ‘when’. Your series argued the ‘when’ part in the sense that you should never use data derived from ‘bad science’. I agree.

    To set some things straight: My stance is that some designers flat-out reject the prospect of using empirical data to inform their design and consider only aesthetics. On the other hand, analysts drown in their research to the point that aesthetics is not even a consideration. The industry needs better interaction and communication between these two camps.

    Secondly, I certainly do not wear a “this guy’s a designer so he’s probably some dumb anti-science flake” glasses. I have worked with a number of great designers that both appreciate and understand quantitative analysis. However, my broader experience is reflected in the article.

    I understand that I took a very sharp tact on this issue, but I did so in an effort to stir some more discourse. I hope that you accept my appology, and that we continue to think about this and share our experiences as well as idea.

  5. Christopher Fahey October 7th, 2006 9:21AM

    I appreciate the clarification, thanks. I agree that some designers are skeptical of all research, but I also suspect that many designers are skeptical precisely because so much research sucks and flies in the face of common sense.

    I’m not the only one like this: lots of good designers can tell quite easily that the research being presented to them is full of crap. And many designers who do trust user research still ultimately draw on other skills that go beyond the research, and even sometimes contradict it.

    I think it’s far worse for a good designer to be influenced by a bad researcher than for that same good designer to work based on no research at all. Bad designers, well, they won’t even listen to good research.

    In short, I guess you are simply complaining about bad designers, and I am simply complaining about bad researchers!

  6. P.J. Onori October 9th, 2006 9:05PM

    Now if only those good designers and good researchers could get in the same room and work together… 😉


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