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How to nail data-driven design: optimize like you’re curing heart disease

A 2019 Salesforce study reported that 84% of 8,000 consumers and business buyers say the experiences provided by a company are as important to them as its products and services.

If you have a digital property that drives revenue, data-driven design can help create the best customer experiences possible around your products or services.

To understand the value of modern, data-driven design, we can think about it in terms of a much more ancient challenge: heart disease. It’s true.

In 2013, researchers reported finding evidence of atherosclerosis in Egyptian mummies, even though their civilizations didn’t have fast food and cigarettes. (However, I can imagine a peasant farmer’s stress could reach dangerous levels if his figs weren’t plump enough for the noble he served.)

Modern medicine has come a long way in identifying and treating heart disease, thanks in part to the collection and analysis of data. Similarly, data-driven design is the informed, mature approach to product design. It is the approach you take when you want to use past experiences and real-time customer data to boost ROI.

Whether you’re pursuing buy-in from fellow decision-makers or educating your team on the importance of data analytics in product design, heart disease research provides a useful and enlightening analogy to understand and talk about data-driven design.

To consistently deliver an experience your customers will love, let’s examine how the scientific method has played out thus far around the health of that organ that makes love possible.

Scant data, but progress nonetheless

Heart disease innovation: Circa 1500, Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci is among the first to describe atherosclerosis, saying “Vessels in the elderly restrict the transit of blood through thickening of the tunics,” according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

In 1768, William Heberden describes symptoms, such as chest pain associated with walking.

To kick off heart disease research, these men and others gather bits and pieces of data that can be organized into neat yet rather disconnected silos: physiological descriptions, symptoms, and potential causes. They are recognizing and reporting on what is happening, but the “why” still eludes them.

Your data-driven design: During the earliest stages of building customer experiences, you rely on anecdotal evidence and trends in your market to guide decisions around product design and launch. You have few, if any, paying customers.

With a prototype, you can test usability to ensure tasks within the software can be completed. At the MVP or beta stage, you gather quantitative data from system analytics (e.g., Google Analytics or Adobe Analytics). Likely, these pieces of data are dispersed among siloed teams: marketing, UX, and IT.

In this earliest stage of data-driven design, you begin to see what is happening, but not why.

Data collection increases and patterns form

Heart disease innovation: Research around heart disease is no longer a rarity, and the rate at which new information is uncovered is picking up the pace. In 1856, the “father of pathology,” Rudolf Virchow, defines what makes up a blood clot in the vascular system and begins to identify risk factors. Building on the science that came before him, he develops concepts that remain relevant today.

His work is a turning point, as scientists begin to think about clinical implications and how to serve patients (aka customers). They’re seeing valuable connections among physiology, symptoms, and causes.

Your DDD: Your product has been in the marketplace long enough to gain traction. Your team makes some design improvements based on best practices and an awareness of your users, but you still don’t have a deep understanding of them. But data is coming in fast, and that’s a good thing.

To get closer to a more balanced picture of your users, you launch quantitative and qualitative data collection methods, such as multi-source analytics tools, surveys, contextual inquiryusability studies, or diary studies. Patterns begin to form, but without testing, they don’t tell you enough to make meaningful design changes.

You realize how marketing, UX, and IT all matter to developing a holistic, aligned picture of your customer.

Major successes and serious reflection

Heart disease innovation: Prolonged study is leading to valuable progress. In 1958, Dr. Mason Sones of Cleveland Clinic successfully threads a tube into a patient’s arteries. It’s the first iteration of coronary arteriography, and the resulting images offer scientists real evidence to diagnose angina (chest pain associated with heart disease). Subsequently, two radiologists simplify Sones’ technique, making it more accessible to more patients.

This breakthrough paves the way to modern advances in diagnosis, disease management and treatment.

Your DDD: Optimizations to the design of your customer experience are proving successful, and stakeholders are happy. Congratulations! But you don’t rest following an outstanding quarterly performance. You continually mature and act on your understanding of the analytics.

During this more mature stage of data-driven design, you establish a steady cadence for data collection. A quarterly plan is being carried out, and a year’s worth of data has been gathered that reaches across departments, breaking down silos and instigating rich, ongoing conversations about what to design and why. Multiple perspectives feed overall insights. With an intentional plan and effective measurement strategies in place, now’s the time to experiment. You avoid getting stuck in a design rut by testing your current site against previous versions through multi-variate or A/B testing.

You might even consider deeper dives into personalization and using machine learning to interact with customers based on their purchase history or content engagement activity.

Heart Disease Innovation: Through decades of research, experiments, clinical trials, and life-saving wins, the stage has been set for even more advances. Surgery to widen arteries helps tens of millions of patients. Medical therapies, angioplasty, and stenting techniques evolve. Treatment plans include personalized lifestyle changes. And relationships to other conditions, such as diabetes and obesity, shed more light on heart disease.

From da Vinci’s early observations, we have reached an age of increasing wisdom, as data and the amalgamation of it grows more and more robust.

Your DDD: At this stage of your data-driven design pursuit, you’ve chosen the right tools to leverage the insights you’ve gathered. Because you have invested in data collection and followed the fundamentals of data-driven design (balance, cadence, conversations, and perspective), you can pursue business goals more strategically. Data might have even uncovered an opportunity to spin off a new product or shift into a new market.

Nail It! No matter the health of their hearts, your customers expect an outstanding digital experience, which requires you to have a rich understanding of who they are. A data-driven design approach allows you to build and continually improve that experience throughout the entire lifecycle of your digital property.

Getting started doesn’t have to be complicated. Begin by testing what’s available, and mature your analytics from there. As in the scientific method, you’ll experience setbacks as you build and launch products. But when you heed the data, you will design a smarter path forward.

About the author

New Era Technology

New Era Technology creates powerful digital, data, and technology solutions that keep companies moving forward in a rapidly changing world. Our 500+ consultants use data insights, experience design, and tech innovation to help you reimagine your business for whatever comes next.

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