How we are destroying the user experience of the web with data

I saw this post by Andy Budd on Twitter:

This nails the current experience of the web smack in the middle of the head. There are so many layers of things I don’t want as a user between me and a website today. We have all experienced it. We have experienced it so many times that we might not even see it anymore. We might even think this is normal. The most talented user experience designers are working on websites and web-apps that have an abismal user experience. Surely they must know this. Hard working, loving people that want the best experience for people, the best for the brands they are helping to sell things, are creating horrible experiences.

Take all my data!

Whenever I see a cookie banner, I’m like “Okay! Okay! Take all my data, I will pay with my privacy just to avoid having to go through a painstaking process to select the right amount of privacy invasion I am willing to give up to see if this website is delivering what I hope it will without knowing this in advance.” We have entered a world in which it is okay to bother people with questions from chatbots and newsletter subscriptions even if only a miniscule percentage of people actually want to use these services.

I wonder how we got here.

Cookies, tunnel views and big numbers

I don’t know where we took a wrong turn but it has something to do with data. Because website owners want to collect data, we have cookie banners. Because cookies are needed to collect data and cookies are an invasion of privacy, we are legally obliged to ask for permission.

  • In my experience only a very small amount of the data that is collected after people give permission to be tracked is used to optimize the experience of a user. That is often the reason websites give why they need my data. I think this is largely a lie. The only things that might be optimized is the click-through-rate of all the call to actions buttons websites want me to click.
  • And data is used to see how many users are on a website: vanity metrics.
  • What also sounds nice is to have a personalized experience, to have the content of a website or web application tailored to my preferences based on what I click on. But this quickly leads to a very monocultural narrow view of the world. After I clicked two videos on Youtube, I feel I am entering a tunnel that is giving me a tunnel vision of the world.
  • I feel most data is used to sell ads. Retargeting. Tracking of my behavior across platforms and websites to sell ads. This is like marketing on steroids. I can now know what users are looking for certain types of products so I can target them directly. Great stuff. But this is like using doping in the Tour de France. The only way forward is if everybody uses it. And if everybody uses it, there is no competitive advantage. There is only downside if you don’t use it. So everybody uses it.

So we have to give up privacy, click through irritating cookie popups and have our view of the world limited by algorithms. For what? Choices to annoy people are based on big numbers and low costs. 0.1% of users that actually click on the newsletter subscription button can still be a lot of people if you have enough visitors, so it’s okay to bother 100% of people with that. It’s cheap. It works with big numbers. So let’s do it.

Control

Data feeds into our illusion of control. If we have enough data, we can make better decisions. If we just have smart enough AI to mine the data, we discover wonderful things we didn’t know people needed. We can even find the cures for diseases in big data. The promises are huge. I haven’t seen any big breakthroughs yet. Are we making better decisions? Is the web so much better now that it is governed by data? Are we healthier because we collect all this data? All this data doesn’t make any sense. To make sense of data, we have to find meaning in it. But the data is so complex that this is near impossible. We need data scientists to study the data like we study the world, nature. After centuries of science, we only understand a tiny fraction of the world. How long is it going to take before we can make sense of all the data we collect?

Deep data

There is another kind of data. It’s not big data. Some call it deep data. You can’t collect it through a computer or code. You have to talk to people. To understand how people see your service, what their needs are, you can interview people and test things. For this, you don’t have to bother people. These can be nice conversations in which both parties learn something. You can learn more from deep data than you can learn from big data. You can get more insights.

Love and passion

Instead of data, we can use love to make decisions. If you just make things people love, they will come to you. If you spend all your energy on collecting and analyzing data, your energy flows to the data and not to love. The data world is a cold world with a lot of negative energy in it. The data world creates the user experience that Andy Budd is talking about. Imagine a world in which people just make things they love, that other people love. A world in which passion and intuition drives decisions. That is a warm world, a warm web. A world in which you talk to other people and have a nice conversation if you want to know something, if you want to learn something. A world in which you share things out of passion and love and not to get likes, data, vanity metrics. Because this is also where data is creating negative energy like jealousy and greed. On Social Media, data is more important than love and passion. Would you share your pictures if you didn’t know how many people like it? Just because you love something and want to spread that love?

No surprises

Data also comes with a need to grow. Numbers need to grow. Numbers that stay the same or go down are bad numbers. If it’s only about data, about numbers, the only joy is if the numbers grow. There is no other joy in data other than growth. If you do something out of love and passion, you don’t need growth. There is joy in things you do out of love and passion. Imagine how the web would look if we made websites out of love and passion. Imagine how the web would look like if we had no data. I still remember that time. It was a beautiful time. People experimented. People tried out new things. Websites that were made with love attracted people. Beauty attracted people. Data turns every website into a best practice website. Efficiency. No surprises. People used to share things online because they were passionate about something not because they are following a formula that was discovered in data. I am not nostalgic here. I am just pointing out that a world wide web without data once existed and we can start to imagine a one that is not governed by data but by love and passion so we can create a better user experience.

Towards a new balance

I am not against the use of data. Not at all. I use it in projects. I believe we can use data to make projects better. I believe designers should use more data and use data better to make experiences better. I see that marketeers that love data are calling too many of the shots and designers are the ones who should have a critical view on data. This should be part of the leading role of design. This essay is a philosophical exploration. I think it is good to stop for a minute and consider the ripple effects of what we are doing with data. Data is not innocent. Data creates behavior and not all behavior the data creates is good. I love to hear about the magical results that come from data. Articles promoting the wonderful benefits of data are plenty out there. But let’s also consider the negative effects of data and find a new balance. As data becomes ever more omnipresent, finding a new balance around data becomes more urgent. Mature organizations embrace data and use it to make better decisions. But data informs and doesn’t determine the decisions. Analytics is important but judgement and critical thinking should determine the roadmap.

To be continued ….

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. I will dive deeper into the topics around Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also subscribe to an email service here on Medium which will drop new essays right into your inbox. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn to see new articles in your timeline or talk to my bot at dennishambeukers.com :) You can also find me on Instagram. When I am not blogging about Design Leadership, I work as a design strategist and project manager at Zuiderlicht.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Dennis Hambeukers

Dennis Hambeukers

3.7K Followers

Design Thinker, Agile Evangelist, Practical Strategist, Creativity Facilitator, Business Artist, Corporate Rebel, Product Owner