Testing design vs. designer’s intuition

Paul Boag

Many web designers are using testing to ascertain the effectiveness of their designs, but is this hampering innovation?

Over the last few years user testing and data analysis have grown hugely in popularity among the web community. Where once user testing was the prevue of usability specialists, low cost user testing has become baked in as a regular part of the design process.

Projects like GOV.UK have highlighted the place of testing and analytics, as part of both the agile methodology and good web design generally. Combined with the alpha, beta release cycle, these approaches have helped provide real information on how actual users are interacting with a site.

Having hard data proves the effectiveness or otherwise of a user interface, helps convince stakeholders and adds to the credibility of the discipline.

Are we over reliant on data?

But, not all are convinced our heavy reliance on user data is helpful. Many feel it is stifling innovation and preventing designers from making intuitive leaps.

Henry Ford famously said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Steve Jobs echoed this sentiment when he said: “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

People want, understand and feel comfortable with what they know and have experienced before. People do not like new or different. They need time to acclimatise to change. Show them something new and they may struggle for a while. However, ultimately it becomes second nature and they often end up preferring it.

This is something we often see, whether in complaints about the latest Facebook redesign or confusion about iOS7. Although some find these changes disconcerting at first, ultimately they embrace them.

Some argue that if we rely too heavily on testing, we will only give users what they feel comfortable with. We will cease to innovate.

Perhaps sometimes we have to trust the experience and intuitions of designers to create something new, something untried and even something that may make users uncomfortable to begin with.

Of course, this could all sound like hubris on the part of web designers. Are they really suggesting we should ignore test results in preference to their ‘gut feel’ about what users will ultimately accept?

A difficult balance

It’s a difficult balance to strike and so I want to suggest it as a debate topic for the podcast…

This house proposes that the results of testing cannot always be allowed to dictate the direction of a sites’ design.

Do you agree? In our desire to add scientific credibility to our work, have we abandoned our own intuition and experience? Alternatively, is it time to leave guess work behind and accept that testing is more effective than a designers ‘best guess?’ Most of all, where is the balance? How do we know if we should be relying on intuition or data?