Creating a Digital World: Data As Design Material

Beautiful Information

Discovering patterns in knowledge spaces

A column by Jonathan Follett
August 18, 2008

The common wisdom is that we now live in the age of information; the freedom and access we have to data is unprecedented in history; and the efficiency and convenience of online commerce, research, and communication has already transformed our lives for the better. While this is true, of course, our excitement should be tempered by these realizations:

  • We’re only just beginning to discover what possibilities the information age may bring.
  • We’re at the very beginning of a major transformation in the way we work, play, and live.

The technological tools and resources with which we’re now familiar—such as search engines, Web applications, and notebook computers—could well be the digital-age equivalents of the industrial age’s steam engine and cotton gin. And just as the steam engine helped launch an era that altered the face of our planet, so, too, will today’s Internet-related technologies give rise to massive changes that we can now only imagine.

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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.

What Would Your Users Like to Know?

There is so much data available now—and the amount is growing every moment—the question really becomes: What will we do with it all? How will we enable people to find and use the data they need, where and when they need it? This will continue to be an ongoing challenge for UX professionals.

A great example of a transformative digital service that delivers the right data to users—thus, creating a valuable experience for them—is Import Genius, which publishes timely information online about the contents, shipper, and recipient of every cargo container coming into the United States. Within five days of a shipment’s arriving on U.S. shores, the information appears in the Import Genius Web-accessible database. Companies use Import Genius to monitor their competition, identify potential suppliers, and even protect intellectual property rights. Investors and market analysts use it to track companies’ flow of products from overseas sources and see how well the real situation matches what companies, investors, and analysts have announced, expected, or predicted.

Figure 1—Import Genius
Import Genius

Import Genius provides a case study on how a digital service can liberate data and analysis from its gatekeepers. The site gives users the opportunity to bypass the old, official channels. Why wait for the federal government to release a report on imports and exports? You can use Import Genius to download and manipulate the information yourself—and even narrow the information down by industry, product, and company, in a way that’s useful to you. And while import/export data was public before Import Genius came along, it was not easy to access or analyze in a timely way. Whether Import Genius will be a game changer for its users remains to be seen, but the potential it offers for reshaping the way companies partner with their overseas manufacturers, run their logistics operations, and bring their products to market is real.

The increasing availability of public data online—spanning everything from real estate transactions to wills to marriage licenses to census data—means more transformative digital services will soon follow. We can already monitor the political campaign donations of both our friends and complete strangers on the Huffington Post’s Fundrace2008 and even find out about the demographics of our neighborhoods on ZIPskinny.

Possibilities for Data Sharing

The area of public health may hold the greatest potential for transformative data manipulation. For example, during the Salmonella Saint Paul outbreaks that occurred throughout the United States during July and August, 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had difficulty determining the cause—which they originally thought to be tomatoes, but eventually traced to jalepeño peppers originating in Mexico.

Figure 2—Map of the Salmonella Saint Paul outbreaks
Salmonella outbreak map

The CDC’s difficulty in pinpointing the cause was due in part to

  • the complexities of food preparation—When you eat a dish containing many ingredients, it’s hard to know which one made you sick
  • a time lag of two to three weeks between the time when people get sick and when it finally gets reported

We can imagine the potential of Who Is Sick?, a Web application that lets people self-report symptoms of illness. While critics of the site charge that only hypochondriacs would use such a service, the site’s information display is mediocre, and self-reported symptoms are not medically useful data, from a public health perspective, the core idea is a great one. If the site or a similar application could integrate data from a variety of sources—such as emergency rooms, doctors’ offices, pharmacies, and personal reports—regarding symptoms of disease and possible causes, it could help government agencies like the CDC reduce the time it takes to pinpoint contaminated food sources or other disease-causing agents. Public health warnings could be more effective, because we could do a better job of tracking things like flu epidemics or the spread of E coli in contaminated beef.

Figure 3—Who Is Sick?
Who Is Sick?

This idea is not a new one. The classic example of an information graphic that depicted a serious outbreak and ultimately saved lives is John Snow’s famous cholera map of London, which located the source of the disease at the Broad Street water pump.

Figure 4—Detail from John Snow’s cholera map
Cholera map

The Problem of Privacy

Along with the ability to access increasing amounts of publicly available data comes a bevy of problems—such as information overload, the inability to find what we want amidst the cacophony of data sources clamoring for our attention, and growing privacy concerns.

A BusinessWeek article on prescription data-mining companies illustrates how data can be a double-edged sword. Surprisingly, our pharmacies’ prescription databases are now part of a commercially available database of prescription data. And the same prescription data that doctors can use to help their patients in emergency situations is also accessible to insurance companies who use it to evaluate a person’s worthiness for health coverage. For example, if insurance companies see prescriptions for conditions that raise red flags, they can factor this into their decision to deny a policy. Our medical history—especially our prescription information—is something we’d like to hold close and for which we have an expectation of privacy. Unfortunately, we now face the possibility that this may no longer be the case.

As we struggle with privacy issues, we can see how data availability will continue to transform business practices and even change our societies and the way we relate to one another. Data availability will raise social and even moral questions, just as the industrial revolution raised social and moral questions about fair labor practices, gender and racial equality, housing and sanitation needs in newly vital cities, and more. In the future, we may see tools that offer to protect our anonymity and manage our reputation become the most sought after digital products. Real data will continue to reveal that our perceptions about companies and people are not always grounded in fact.

Transformative Data

As UX professionals, we will be responsible for not only creating and engineering people’s experiences with this deluge of information, but ultimately determining how people interact with and negotiate all this data. What is paramount is that we begin to consider data as an essential design element. Just as a craftsperson decides what species of wood or type of metal is best suited for the type of product he is building, so, too, will we need to think about choosing which types of data to use in a digital product.

Though it’s often been said about other technological advances, in this age of digital data, our limits truly are governed only by what we can imagine. And it’s up to us, as UX professionals, to determine what to do to make useful information more accessible, while, at the same time, safeguarding our privacy, and to tackle the difficult task of envisioning what we can and should do next. 

Principal at GoInvo

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Jonathan FollettAt GoInvo, a healthcare design and innovation firm, Jon leads the company’s emerging technologies practice, working with clients such as Partners HealthCare, the Personal Genome Project, and Walgreens. Articles in The Atlantic, Forbes, The Huffington Post, and WIRED have featured his work. Jon has written or contributed to half a dozen non-fiction books on design, technology, and popular culture. He was the editor for O’Reilly Media’s Designing for Emerging Technologies, which came out in 2014. One of the first UX books of its kind, the work offers a glimpse into what future interactions and user experiences may be for rapidly developing technologies such as genomics, nano printers, or workforce robotics. Jon’s articles on UX and information design have been translated into Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Polish, and Portuguese. Jon has also coauthored a series of alt-culture books on UFOs and millennial madness and coauthored a science-fiction novel for young readers with New York Times bestselling author Matthew Holm, Marvin and the Moths, which Scholastic published in 2016. Jon holds a Bachelor’s degree in Advertising, with an English Minor, from Boston University.  Read More

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