Be Gut Driven, But Data Informed

Many organizations are either all in on data driven design, or zealots about listening to their gut. It’s natural to feel polarized toward one side or the other.

You already know from the title of this post where I stand. I believe pretty strongly that there’s a sweet spot, and I don’t think it lies at either end of the spectrum.

In my experience, the sweet spot comes when a designer primarily trusts their gut to design, but also allocates some time to collect data, and to do some testing. These last two things are key, because they help you validate your assumptions, and they add clarity to your design process.

Trusting your gut is paramount

Great design comes primarily from a combination of experience, and from a designers gut intuition. That said, at what point do you know (not think, but really truly know) whether a design is great?

Truthfully, many designers and organization never take the time to find out. They’re content to ship whatever design they think is best. End of story. But that’s a shame. Launching designs without testing is just ignorant, lazy, or both.

Think about it. You’d never intentionally launch a design that stinks (at least I hope you never would). But chances are that some of the designs you launch — even though you may feel they are great — may actually stink. If you aren’t testing your designs, you’ll never really know which of your designs are the great ones, and which ones could still use some love. Without testing your design or looking at any data, all you really have is a hypothesis that the design you’ve created is great.

Data is not a 4 letter word…

Okay, well it is, but…

Just mentioning the word “data” can brings a sour look to some designers faces. But it shouldn’t. Data in and of itself isn’t bad. Data when leveraged properly can lead to insights and clarity.

It’s worth noting that there’s a huge difference between being data informed and being data driven. If you are data driven, you are being lazy by allowing the data to make decisions for you (bad). If you are data informed, you are using the data to help you validate your hypothesis and make informed decisions (good).

Simple example

Let’s say you’re gut says you should move a signup button from the right side of the page to the left. In testing the button on the left, the biggest thing you should be looking for is to ensure that having the button on the left doesn’t completely tank signups. Even if the data tells you that having the button on the right is slightly better, you should trust your gut.

Clarity comes via data & testing

So far, I’ve been ranting about incorporating some “data” and “testing” into your design process, but what does that really mean?

Let’s look at a few examples

Here’s a list of things that you can do throughout your design cycle to add clarity, and gather insights about your design:

  • You can dig into analytics to try and discover existing insights.
  • Use tools like FullStory to watch actual users interact with your site.
  • You can use Qualaroo, or SquareInsights to ask users questions inside your app.
  • You can chat with happiness/support folks to help determine what the most common complaints, and user pain points are. You could also do support regularly yourself.
  • You can ask other designers for feedback.
  • You can ask your partner/spouse/relative/friend to try your interactive prototype while you watch.
  • You can run some quick usability tests.
  • You can approach strangers to help you out for 5 min in exchange for a $10 Starbucks gift card.
  • You can ping people in your company that have never seen whatever it is that you’re building, and request 5 minutes of their time, watching them attempt to use your design.
  • You can run a user report in MixPanel (or whatever app you use to track users), get a list of actual users, and email them requesting feedback.
  • You can run an A/B test on your design to make sure that it isn’t sinking the ship.

This is by no means an exhaustive list.

Each of these activities will help you validate the hypothesis that’s in your head, and either A) confirm your assumptions, or B) give you insight into how you might tweak your design to make it even better.

Feel free to pick and choose. If you try one of these things a couple of times, and it doesn’t work for you. No worries. The important thing is to try a bunch of them, especially early in your design process. The earlier you incorporate these activities, the quicker you’ll know whether the design you’ve come up with is a great one, or whether it’s a dud.

Summing it up

Use data to help you make informed decisions, but don’t let data bully you around.

Use your existing knowledge to make a hypothesis. Use data as a safety mechanism. As long as your change doesn’t sink the ship, trust your gut.

The sweet spot comes when you A) primarily trust your gut, but also B) use data, and testing to validate your assumptions, and add clarity.


I don’t do comments on this site, but if you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them. You can email me at