What can design and data accomplish together?

Photo by Dennis Kummer on  Unsplash

Photo by Dennis Kummer on Unsplash

This week IDEO announced the acquisition of Datascope, a data science company that specializes in leveraging big data and artificial intelligence to solve problems. What’s remarkable about the merger is not that it happened, but more so that it indicates a big shift in the way brands will be able to approach user design and consumer experience.

Full disclosure: I’ve long been a big fan of IDEO, which has for many years been the holy grail of innovative design. Just about every designer I know would drop everything to go work there if given the chance, and their list of client categories reads like a Wikipedia entry for business classifications—they’ve done it all and done it well. And their designs aren’t limited to the usual activities like brand development, campaigns, creative and experiences. (They’ve even, apparently, designed a wearable breast pump.) All the while, they’ve expanded from San Francisco to nine global offices and spun off a number of initiatives like Open IDEO, aimed at solving global challenges beyond their client work.

But the issue with a traditional approach to design, and really any design-thinking oriented innovation practice, is that the number inputs can be quite limited. Frequently this is due to constraints of time, budget and manpower, meaning that the insights relied upon for even the largest projects at a design firm are based on and filtered through humans—in the form of our experiences, research, interviews, ethnographies and the like. There’s certainly quantitative research as well, but the complexity and depth of the quantitative analysis is relatively small in comparison.

Take, for example, a typical client workshop led by a design, innovation or brand strategy firm. The experience will be different depending on the objectives, style and methodology of the session, as well as the stakeholders and parameters of outcomes, but the structure generally looks the same: Start with a challenge question, employ divergent thinking to explore options, discuss, then narrow the options and ideas through convergent thinking to come to a set of recommendations, ideas or decisions. Imagine how such a session would change if the participants of such a workshop were armed with the ability to do a deep dive on the analytics of the situation, calling up metrics in real time. How would that inform the ideation and quality of decisions?

In contrast, data analytics firms are much more focused on the quantitative aspects of insights. One startup we know is building a new platform for advertisers to harness the predictive cognitive abilities of artificial intelligence to build models for targeting and delivering uniquely tailored messaging on digital channels. The system they’re creating could upend media buying relationships and empower brands with the ability to target based on tens of thousands of behavior, demographic, geographic and other filters. But as rich as that data is—and it’ll only get better as more partners sign onto these kinds of services—these systems can’t do much without a smart strategy team at the wheel.

To understand where the opportunities of combining these two practices are, think about all the data consumers are generating: how is it being tracked, who is doing the interpretation, and how might that process improve if designers were engaged along the way? How do offline and online data come together to paint a truer picture of attribution and inform your channel planning, and how might that understanding change with design thinking techniques? How can you use data in truly creative ways to inform not just the path to purchase, but the entire consumer experience through ownership and inspiring advocacy?

These are just thought starters, but I hope they provide some inspiration for how different groups can benefit from a human-centric approach to translating data into truly actionable insights.

If you already have a deep bench of design strategists in-house working for your brand, you’re in luck. They’ll be able to leverage the AI-powered technology coming onto the market now to uncover insights to better understand, target and persuade consumers, even down to the individual level. They can even help your team unlock insights from your own data sets, making sense out of reams of data points along the consumer journey.

If you don’t have a strong strategy component on your team or you’re looking to partner with an outside resource to unlock the power of your data and better understand your consumers, there are plenty of consultancies and agencies out there ready to help. The best ones, I believe, will be able to combine design thinking with big data and machine learning to get to smarter insights, faster.

And if you’re a design firm or consultancy that works with such brands, it could be time to look at your structure and partnerships to determine what the next wave of needs are going to be from consumer brands. One needn’t go so far as to acquire a data science firm to realize the benefits—just start by exploring collaborations with a data-rich, analytics-driven team of experts and see where the journey takes you.