Sunday, May 10, 2009

Data dictatorship

Douglas Bowman, a former Google employee, now with Twitter, got some notoriety over the last months (The NY Times calls it a “commotion in the technology blogosphere”) by challenging Google’s reliance on testing every single design element in a lab like environment. His main argument is that the constant testing of every single smallest design element through consumer feedback (in Google’s case comparing click-through rates across different versions of a design element) paralyzes a company and hinders any true design or product break-through. 

The concept of any end product understood as the sum of thousands small and thoroughly consumer tested elements is becoming an increasingly important paradigm, especially with a lot of Web Design projects. Bowman’s criticism shows a rift between two fundamentally different philosophies that have relevance beyond just Web Designers:

  • One that relies on the belief that everything is a never ending beta version that needs constant refinement and optimization by attempting to incorporate real-time or near-real time consumer feedback. A product or service is an endless feedback loop, not designed by a brilliant single mind or a group of smart designers but by the wisdom of the crowds. It is the ultimate expression of an ego-less design approach
  • The other relies on the supremacy of human brilliance. The belief is here that there are brilliant minds that can see a product and service on a more holistic level and therefore achieve a level of innovation and breakthrough that no smartly leveraged crowd can ever achieve. It is the ultimate expression of the human genius which seems to be responsible for most major breakthroughs. 

It is difficult for me to declare here a winning theory or approach; both seem to have its merits. The first one (call it “Consumer centric optimization”) seems to be more relevant if one wants to improve smaller feature items in a product, the second one (call it “Mind derived innovation”) more promising if one wants to design and launch a totally breakthrough product. 

No form of dictatorship has ever survived for ever, and data dictatorship will loose at the end, too. We should thank Bowman to shed some light on the limitations of a pure data and science driven process that almost seems to be wary of the human mind and its creativity. So, give him some traffic on his blog at



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