The role of intuition and data in web design

Paul Boag

There seems to be a growing debate in the web community about the role of research and data when compared to creative intuition. In this post I explore which will lead you to the better product.

Henry Ford famously said:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

This was a sentiment echoed many years later by Steve Jobs.

Customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.

They are great quotes. In fact they are so good they are endlessly repeated, especially by those who worry that intuition is being forced out of the web profession by cold, hard, boring numbers.

Death by numbers

It’s a concern I can sympathise with. In the earlier days of the web, I would design a website based on my experience and design skills. Then we started doing usability testing and looking at analytics. Before I knew it, we were working on customer journeys, personas, ethnographic studies, and market research.

All of this research, numbers and analytics can be frustrating especially when you are confident of your approach. Why can’t people just trust your expertise?

It can quickly feel like any creativity and intuition is being stripped away, leaving us with sterile products that just conform to the lowest common denominator.

You only have to look at the music industry to see where this path leads – insipid, manufactured pop that conforms to a formula which has been proved to work, but lacks any originality or soul. The problem is that although we moan about the insipid pop culture, it sells.

But numbers work

Although relying on data may lead to the demise of the quirky, unusual, or creative, it can make good business sense. Relying on data reduces risk.

Intuition can lead to innovations that change a sector, but it can also just as easily lead to failure.

Many people cite the iPad as an example of a product that wouldn’t exist apart from intuition. Few of us realised we wanted or needed an iPad until we held it in our hands. It would have never been made if we relied solely on data. However, for every iPad there is a Newton and from a business perspective that can get expensive. Every hit such as the iPad has to cover the costs of a failed product like the Newton.

Image of Newton and iPad
The problem with intuition from a business perspective is that for every iPad there is a Newton and that can get expensive.

It is not just about mitigating risk. It is also about making better products. The more data you have the more you can refine a product, making sure it is as good as possible.

Take Steve Jobs again. We constantly hold him up as a shinning light of business success, but like any human he made mistakes, especially when he was younger. When he developed the first mac, he could have done with listening to the research that had been carried out. Such was his desire for perfection that he ended up designing a PC that was out of the reach of most families finances. His intuition needed to be tempered by the reality of the numbers. Instead he chose to ignore them.

Like all of us, he needed to understand that data and research are tools we can draw upon to make our products even better. They exist to support our intuition and creativity.

Data and research can support intuition

I don’t think it needs to be a choice between two diametrically opposed approaches. You don’t have to pick either intuition or analytics. The two sit quite comfortably together and we need to stop radicalising the conversation.

For a start lets look at the two quotes I began with. Neither preclude the use of research or analytics. All they say is that people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.

Does that mean you have to fully develop and launch a product before you find out whether people like it? Absolutely not. All the quotes imply is that you need to show people something before you get a sense of whether they want it or not. That can be as simple as a prototype or wireframe.

For me that is the heart of the issue – the division of labour if you will. Our intuition and creativity should be free to dream dreams. We should be free to experiment, innovate and fail.

Analytics and testing can actually support that kind of intuition. For example, I believe no idea should be crushed before it has had a chance to be placed in front of real users. It should have a chance to prove itself, rather than being dismissed because some of your colleagues believe “people may not like it.”

Data and research inform intuition

Data can also be used to improve the intuitive leap. Intuition does not exist in a vacuum. Intuition comes when the human brain is allowed to sub consciously process information and come to a conclusion that may have escaped the conscious mind.

Data and research can provide the raw materials that intuition needs to work. The more you know about users, who they are and what they say they want the better. Sometimes this might involve ignoring what they say they want, because you believe they will like it when they see it. However, to make that judgement you have to really know those users and the only way that will happen is through research and data.

What I am driving at in this post is that we as an industry cannot afford to overly favour either data or intuition. It has to be a blend of both. Data and research always require intuition to interpret and fully understand them, while intuition needs data and research to refine and confirm it.

Let’s stop polarising the discussion and instead embrace both in our projects.

“young businessman has an idea” image courtesy of