Designing with data

Paul Boag

Nothing causes more disagreement than design. But what if we could design with data, rather than relying on subjective opinion?

Getting design sign off can be one of the most painful parts of the web design process. This is because we all have different perspectives of what good design is. Furthermore, design approval gets caught up in internal politics over the prioritisation of content. It’s bad enough trying to get design approval with a single client let alone a huge sprawling organisation such as a government.

The way the GOV.UK team dealt with this was to allow data to dictate their design direction. They outline this clearly in their design principles:

Normally, we’re not starting from scratch — users are already using our services. This means we can learn from real world behaviour. We should do this, but we should make sure we continue this into the build and development process — prototyping and testing with real users on the live web.

This is the great advantage of digital services — we can watch and learn from user behaviour, shaping the system to fit what people naturally choose to do rather than bending them to a system we’ve invented.

By testing prototypes with real users and monitoring analytics the government digital services team were able to move away from subjective discussions over design.

Not only does this prevent internal politics compromising a design, it also focuses the design on meeting the needs of real users. Using techniques such as split testing, usability testing and regular review of analytics, they were able to ensure that the design met the needs of users and not just internal stakeholders.

But GOV.UK just isn’t that pretty!

You may look at the GOV.UK website and conclude that although the website is usable it is not particularly attractive. Do not mistake this for poor design. A government website by its nature is very utilitarian and the design reflects this. It is the appropriate design for the website. homepage
Do not mistake the utilitarian nature of GOV.UK as poor design.

You may be thinking that although it is possible to test usability and functionality of a website, it is not possible to test the aesthetics. You would therefore be forgiven for concluding that although designing with data can help avoid conflicts over hierarchy and structure, it will not help resolve issues around branding.

However, as I pointed out in a recent post on testing design, it is perfectly possible to test aesthetics too.

Before you launch into your next redesign carefully consider how you are going to manage the process. I suggest that things will go much smoother if you take a page out of the GOV.UK book and make it clear that design decisions are going to be made with data rather than by group consensus.

“Modern Business Concept” image courtesy of