The 18th-century weaver sitting at his loom at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution could not possibly have envisioned the inventions and events that would lead to millions of people working in factories, living in cities, and driving cars. He might have seen the immediate potential of new industrial machines to replace workers and, more specifically, put him out of a job. Similarly, we don’t have any idea how great the changes the information age has brought on will be. And, we also face the fear that our jobs as knowledge workers—no matter how secure they seem today—will somehow disappear tomorrow, because of greater competition or cheaper labor or perhaps both.
But, as UX professionals, we have the advantage of seeing how these changes will happen—through greater access to data that will enable faster, more efficient decision making. As UX designers or researchers—we’ll be on the forefront of the movement to handle the coming flood of data—and make it not only available, but easy for people to use and understand. By designing great user experiences, we’ll break down barriers between users and the information they need or want at any given place or time.
The Data Explosion
The Internet is growing at an astonishing rate. A Google blog post from July 25, 2008 announced that the company’s systems had processed 1 trillion unique URLs on the Web at once. Eight years ago, in 2000, the number was a mere 1 billion. And while not all of these pages contain unique content, the growth rate is nonetheless amazing and presages our increasingly connected future.
While the Google statistic gives us an idea of the size of the Web itself, the quantity of all types of digital data is much, much greater. For instance, we’ve only begun to tap into the vast amounts of public data governments have stored in various information silos. For example, in the United States, some of the biggest repositories of data that remain inaccessible to the public reside within branches of the federal, state, and local governments. Making data publicly available can be expensive, and with no immediate stimulus to do so, governments will not make this happen quickly. Private data is even trickier. The unconnected, disparate components of the United States health care system—ranging from doctors’ offices to hospitals to pharmacies to emergency rooms—provide a perfect example of closely held digital data. Although this information is held closely, once again, for a good reason: privacy.
Is Data the Raw Material of UX?
As UX professionals, we’re confronted with an ever-changing set of materials with which to build user experiences. At the most basic level, we create experiences from pixels and code. From a visual design perspective, our materials include text, fonts, artwork, color, lines, and shading. From the perspective of information architecture, we deal with screen flows, navigation, information hierarchy, grouping, and so on. And from the development side, we use a variety of programming languages and code libraries to create the code that binds everything together.
Alongside these basic elements of user experience, but of equal or greater importance, is the raw information itself—whether it be user registration data, a record of a sales transaction, a catalog listing, a news story, or a stock quote. One of our jobs as UX professionals is to provide context for all this data, making it easy for users to understand and interact with it. However, it’s rarely in our mandate to determine the types of data we’re delivering to our audience. This is usually the responsibility of the business side of the product development equation.
However, if we begin to consider data not as something that flows through our designs and even dictates their form, but instead as yet another design material, we can bring value in the sphere of content as well. As more and more data becomes digital—so rapidly, in fact, that we cannot possibly be aware of it all—and there are fewer technical hurdles to making it publicly available, creativity and insights that help UX professionals find the right data to incorporate and feature in their user experiences will become increasingly important.