What metric are you designing to improve today?

While aesthetics are subjective, behavior is not.

Sometimes asking the simplest of questions changes everything. The other day I was talking with a designer about a home page redesign they were working on. They were talking about the aesthetics of the design, how the current version looked like junk and they wanted to make it beautiful.

A worthy goal, to be sure. The world needs more beauty. But then I asked: “what metric do you hope to improve with the redesign?” In other words, what specific change in the world are you addressing with this design? What isn’t happening right now that should be happening?

His answer was “I don’t know which metric. I just want us to not look so crappy”.

Now, this is a fine thing to want: looking better in public. But when I pushed further, asking for a concrete metric, he didn’t have an answer. So when I asked “How do you know when you’ve been successful?” he didn’t have an answer there, either. (to be fair, I was being pushy)

If there is one undercurrent of design these days it is this: design is becoming more strategic and thus more important to business success. With this power comes great responsibility. As designers we must be accountable for what we produce, and that means we must start aligning our work with concrete business metrics.

This doesn’t mean better or worse design (although I would hope it leads to better design). It just means that we have to set up a system whereby we can measure how well our design is doing. If it is leading to more sales (or some other important metric), then we’ve done a good job. If it leads to less sales, we better try something else.

In short, the answer “I want it to look better” won’t cut it going forward.

That’s not to say we couldn’t find a metric directly affected by aesthetics. It could be something like “Well, I want to improve brand recognition with our customers so they become more loyal”. We might measure this with a survey of user loyalty…distributing it before and after launch. Or it could also be something more concrete, like “I want to increase the number of people who contact us about working with them by improving our brand image”. This would be easy to measure: simply count the number of emails you get before and after launch.

Both of these are better answers, and both can be attached to concrete metrics. It’s not impossible to quantify people’s subjective reactions. That’s why surveys and interviews are being used more and more…they help you make sense of hard things like user happiness.

Though we often work in a field where opinion rules, the faster we can get to objective behavior the better it is for the health of design going forward. So, a fun thing to do when getting into work is to ask “What metric am I designing to improve today?”.

While aesthetics are subjective, behavior is not.

Published: August 5th, 2009