Unlocking design’s data layer

Tom explores design and its uncharted data layer with the help of Mezzo Labs' Adrian Kingwell.

Dashboards of data joined together by looping lines.

The data resources of large companies have grown wildly in recent years.

These can be harnessed to create new value in the customer's world: faster, smarter, more joined-up experiences which deepen engagement and loyalty.

Yet in many big companies, progress towards this is slow. Why is one of the big promises of digital transformation not being delivered?

This post is one in an occasional series where we talk to practitioners in related fields o our own and look at areas where business is getting stuck.

This time,we sat down with Adrian Kingwell, founder of marketing analytics consultancy, Mezzo Labs, to discuss the creative possibilities that new data sources present for analysts and designers alike.

The pressure is on to make big data pay

As ;the corporate world's investment in digitisation and digital transformation tips over from billions into trillions of dollars, shareholders expect to see return on their investment.

Most business cases for digital transformation include the creation of better data resources. These can be used to create new value both inside the business and in the customer’s world.

Many businesses have got stuck on the first part of this: using data to improve the inside-world of the company and cut operational cost.

The challenge of using this same data to improve the outside-world and create new value for the customer has seen slower progress. So only part of the return-on-investment case is being met.

One big problem is that many executives haven't democratised data within their own organisation.

In traditional models of management, smart senior people with good information make good decisions that create instructions for the rest of the business to execute.

The cleverest data people in many companies are kept close to senior management, giving them information about the past in the hope of making better decisions about the future. But this is old thinking.

The cleverest data people in the company should be engaging with customer service and product teams to make data work in real-time to create better outcomes for customers.

We have the ambition to deliver relevant, real-time personalised customer experience but it's still a long way from reality. 

Intellectually, we can say that a company shouldn't offer the same user experience to every customer, but instead support a multiverse of user experiences adapting to customers at an individual level.

The reality today is that most big companies continue to make and maintain a single user experience with only small variations created for different users or user groups; we are using increasingly sophisticated delivery platforms in an increasingly inefficient way. 

Big data's Tower of Babel

Outside of smaller tech companies, three important groups rarely have the language or the mandate to collaborate with each other to come up with new ways to exploit data for customer value.

Data and analytics professionals who have identified interesting or useful data patterns are rarely invited into the room at the point where they are being used to imagine new customer experience.

They often lack knowledge about interaction and interface design to give them the language - and confidence - to engage creatively with design people.

As a result, many are happier in the domain of improving what's already been made, than the rough-and-tumble of imagining and specifying entirely new products or interactions. But they need to be invited into this conversation.

Adrian pointed out that many analysts do have creative talent and can often imagine possibilities to use data to engage the customer in smarter ways than designers can.

Designers don't normally learn about data as a creative material in college. Most are focused on the nterface and visual layer. Even the more exotic forms of schooling in interaction design or information architecture still don't always lead you through the creative possibilities of data.

Once in work, designers are normally kept apart from data people because at face-value they identify as chalk and cheese groups. What's more - to drive creative possibilities out of conversations between design and data people you also need engineers or technologists in the room and, heck, now we are ordering a lot of pizza.

This means that most designers don't have a firm understanding of the power of algorithms to take work away from the user and simplify interactions (as explained nicely in this article by Giles Colborne.

Nor do they have a good enough understanding of the data sets and data systems in their company which might spark creativity or innovation.

Management is still getting to grips with possibilities of new data assets and how to apply them for effect in business.

They don't yet have the experience or language to bring different parts of their business together to explore and exploit new value out of data.

Too many executives see the prime value of data as control, not creativity.

It seems to bring new information and renewed power into the traditional model of management. Doing the old things better is a more immediate, seductive idea than doing untried new things; even if these could unlock new value and competitive advantage.

This data won't exploit itself

We are making lakes and oceans of new data, but it's human imagination and human systems which are holding us back from using them to create new value for customers.

Given time this will change. As the years turn, we will get more digital-native CMOs and senior executives; but do we have that long?

Shareholder pressure will build quickly if the pay-back promised from digital investment isn't realised.

Competitive pressure will build if nimbler organisations use data smarter to build better customer experience. It's not the size of your data resource, but what you do with it that counts.

The first tasks of product management and design folk should probably be to take stock:

  1. What is your organisation's inventory of data sources which could potentially influence customer experience design (e.g. billing, CRM, Product, customer service, supply chain/logistics)?

  2. Which of these data sources are available to the customer experience in real-time? (And what would it take, technically, to create a live source out of valuable data sets which aren't yet real-time?)

  3. Which are the user experience pain points where smarter use of data could move the needle for the customer?

  4. What time and resources do you need to persuade senior management to give you in order to explore more creative uses of data? And how will you make that case?

Companies that want to be on the front foot, need to make more opportunities for data and design people to work together in creative contexts.

There should be less mediation in this from management in the old command-and-control model.

Dashboards of data joined together by looping lines.

From our discussion with Mezzo Labs, we have captured 'Seven Principles of Data-Driven Design', which might be useful for teams starting out in this collaboration and thinking about how to use data more creatively in the customer experience:

An ever-increasing number of businesses have the data resources required to create unique and delightful experiences for their customers: digital experiences which are truly personalised and predictive of customer needs.

But very few have developed the methods, know-how and collaboration that are needed to make it happen.

Adrian Kingwell concluded with this thought: Using data merely to feed KPI dashboards is missing 90% of its value. Data has the power to do so much more than that. But if we can't adapt our design processes to incorporate it at an early stage, it will continue to be an after-thought, or at least a low priority that is all too easily bumped out of scope.

Data's newfound possibilities are endless, but we need to evolve the human systems for design and management to access them.

One of the first organisational challenges is to stop thinking about data as a way of keeping score, but as a creative material from which we can make new things.

Related articles