Still designing with your gut?

Oct 28, 2018 · 6 min read

I doubt I’d be the first to admit that sometimes I find myself lacking the requisite axioms to support every design-decision I make. In fact, sometimes the ideas just come from somewhere… intangible.

But with designers dealing ever-more directly with data, is there any place left for this type of thinking or does it just represent risk?

During this year’s Front conference in Utah I was struck by two seemingly opposing attitudes to this very question.

On the one hand we had Headspace’s Product Designer Vicki highlighting how our intuition can fill out our numerous—and understandable—knowledge gaps. And on the other, we had Pendo’s talk with Brian and Adrienne claiming “design without data [to be] just art”. FYI, both are excellent talks.

I came away from both with a feeling I seem to get at every conference… of course, in a perfect team and perfect company we would have the best of both worlds; all the data we needed and all the space to be creative as we see fit. But no team or company or data really are truly perfect.

So where does that leave us?

Well, I’m a big believer in the underdog. So as much as we deploy great data in all we do, I’m also a strong believer in the value of building and maintaining a well-crafted intuition for every designer as a point of professional differentiation.

Here’s why.

Diamonds are a designer’s best friend

When I was learning how to design at college, it was all about diamonds. Discover, define, develop, deliver. Rinse and repeat. Design was a journey of knowledge and at critical decision points you had the pieces in front of you to act with confidence.

In the professional world—y’know, with deadlines, budgets, remote users and like, a million simultaneous projects—it might not feel like this moment of clarity is ever truly found, nor the process necessarily ever run.

But that doesn’t mean those diamonds aren’t running regardless; as a designer I am constantly observing.

Whether it’s through the tests we’re running, the casual chats we’re having, or the books and articles we’re reading or listening to; without conscious thought I seek to discover insights, define their parameters and develop hypothesis at the source of those behaviours.

Now, I may not immediately deliver on those insights, but this is how I think about intuition; these cycles fill the gaps in the explicit knowledge we have, based on the information we are constantly absorbing.

In a sense, this works well for many digital products because—to a limited extent—we’re all super-users already. We end up designing for ourselves more times than we’d like to admit (and yes, I know this isn’t a good thing, I’m just saying as it is).

The key to using your intuition successfully is to appreciate and identify the difference between your intuition and your opinion.

Always consider where your intuition is actually originating from. What are your biases and assumptions? Where do the half-truths lie? Intuition can only be a part of the creative process as long as we are able to maintain our own self-awareness.

So, when do I need to check my intuition?

Speaking plainly, I believe our acceptance of intuition is a function of team size, resources and necessity.

I’ve mostly worked in small teams, so I know the pressures we can be put under. Some teams must work at a pace that waiting for a full data picture is impossible. Others work on products where data simply can’t be tracked. Unfortunately, some wouldn’t know how to get the data they need, nor how to use it even if they had it.

So I thought it would be good to highlight some actionable tips for situations where using your intuition can be dangerous.

“Look, it’s just a small feature—hardly anyone will care! Don’t overthink it, just design something.”

The one where no-one cared

Everyone has to prioritise and sometimes it’s hard to justify spending long on things that have a super low usage case or that are commonly used elsewhere (…is that sacrilege?) but here it’s super important to have professional pride.

  • Check your design patterns, and omg create them if you don’t have them.
  • Check best practise and be empathetic to how people interact with similar features elsewhere; resist the urges to create something new (or worse, hard to build)
  • Save your energy for the bigger battles!

“We’ll never get enough data so let’s just work with what we’ve got”

The one without any data

People can tend toward relying on the quantitive too much, when there are lots of ways to run qualitative research cheaply. If this is a new space for you, getting just 5 sets of eyes on your work can identify the problems found by many more, so it’s not as hard as you think.

  • Constantly be building validation prototypes because people struggle to give feedback on intangible ideas
  • Learn to self-critique and build a strong internal review process with the right techniques to use, when
  • Don’t be lazy; do street testing
  • Make paper prototypes and run mini user groups in-house! Not only is it fun, finding problems as early as possible will save so much time down the line

“We’re all super busy, just knock it out of the park!”

The one with no team

Working individually on a problem is one of the hardest things to do and can expose your intuitions. We all need input to our process to discover new angles and perspective, so focus on creating those moments.

  • Start by talking about it out loud (although, preferably with people). Take it around the office with you. Externalising it will improve your narrative and iron out inconsistencies.
  • Systematically document your decision making. This auditing will help you gain distance from your decisions and aid self-review as well as getting others involved.

“Look, we don’t have time for research, just use your gut.”

The one where product isn’t being built right

Companies that believe there isn’t enough time to research big decisions are simply running their product wrong, so it might be time to think about either educating the team or leaving it.

Long story short, I feel intuition is a powerful tool but never one to be wielded at the cost of the hard work required to find real insights. Keep those diamonds going and expand your personal understanding; I, for one, still love to observe how people use their phones on the Tube. But even if your team is small, the impact that being open and educated can have is huge.

Plot twist; both Vicki and Brian and Adrienne can be right!

Hey, I’m the design lead for Bumble and Chappy within the Badoo group where my team and I work to connect people in new and meaningful ways everyday. These thoughts are just my opinion and I’m super eager to hear from you too! You can always DM me here.

Benedict Copping

Written by

Product Design at Snap Inc.

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