Business reporter Stephen Baker’s new book The Numerati
explores the way that marketers and retailers are leveraging personal data to create customized experiences and targeted messages. The book details the staggering amount of data we leave behind every day — making a call, browsing the Internet, using a credit card, swiping a Metrocard — and how these actions are tracked and stored in various databases. Baker’s book is an ode to the mathematicians and engineers (the Numerati) who manage to sort through these mountains of raw data, but what does the rise of targeted messaging and personalization mean for designers?
The kind of data-driven customization outlined in Baker’s book is already well established online. The same cookie that serves up the “you are logged in as…” message at the top of a web page tracks what you’ve browsed, bought, where you arrived from, where you exited to, even what resolution your monitor is set to. Online advertising is targeted based on your browsing habits and many sites already serve up personalized content based on your browsing history. Looking at how these innovations have affected designing for the web, can give us insight into the Numerati’s impact on the broader world of design.
The old cliche goes, “Half of my advertising works, I just don’t know which half.” It has become a mantra of the Numerati to make this predicament a thing of the past. By harvesting personal data the Numerati promise to offer timely, actionable information that will vastly improve the effectiveness of content. Advertisers will be able to serve up only the most relevant advertising and response rates will increase exponentially because you’ll be showing the right content to the right person at the right time. But what the Numerati (and Baker himself) overlook is that this numerical approach ultimately feeds into a subjective process called design. Was an ad effective because of its placement and timing? Or because of the way the photo was cropped? Does an ad work better if the type is underlined? Would Trade Gothic have worked better than hand-drawn type?
Vexing questions like these have created a distinct issue in designing for the web: the drastic increase in the use and sophistication of testing. In digital design, quantification goes way beyond focus groups and user experience testing. Multiple versions of creative executions are regularly deployed to audience segments — with results monitored in real-time. There is no decisive moment when a design is “delivered”: any image can be tested, tracked, tweaked, and then tried again, multiple times over based on results. Just as non-destructive editing software transformed the art of editing film, A/B testing has the potential to transform design. This may seem like a ghastly development, but testing and targeting can (and should) open the door for experimentation. The ability to “try anything” may degrade the decision-making ability of a designer, but it places a renewed emphasis on process — the act (and hopefully joy) of making. In the era of the Numerati, designers may have to trade the glory of fashioning great monuments of design for the pursuit of a fulfilling creative process.
Another effect of customization and personalization is that it necessitates new forms for the delivery of content. Designers increasingly have to think in terms of systems and templates, designing not just content pieces, but channels into which that content can be piped. Digital design requires an extended initial phase that is essentially content agnostic. Instead of formatting text and image, the designer must create a flexible hierarchy of “content slots” that can adapt to customized content. This process also involves designing for two audiences: the public and the content administrators. They must design with as keen an eye for the content management process as for the user experience.
Once a flexible content system is created the second stage of the digital design process involves creating the multiple, personalized versions of content. Designers must become adept at making subtle changes that will speak to different psycho-graphic groups identified by the Numerati. The same video may need a “bohemian” version and a “sports fan” version. A single Blog may need to be programmed for “Belongers” and “Achievers,” and so on. Designers are going to be called on more and more to translate the same ideas into multiple dialects. For design studios that serve multiple clients, modulating the visual language for different audiences is a familiar exercise but the distinctions between audiences are getting ever-more subtle and the sheer number of audience segments require flexible design strategies.
The digital designer has to understand the implications of using data to drive creative execution. Often, the kind of messaging that yields the best short-term results, loses effectiveness over time — and degrades a brand in the long term. For instance, a garish flashing banner ad touting a deep discount will “perform” well and drive traffic, but the people you attract with this approach are what Baker calls “barnacles.” They are not bought into your brand; they are merely hanging around waiting for a deal. It almost always falls on the designer or art director’s shoulders to make these arguments. This is the traditional role of the creative side of the house, but even in the most “brand-focused” organization the Numerati will be able to make ever-more compelling arguments for short-term gain over long-term investment. Designers need to be able to advocate against data. In fact, I would argue that design in general would benefit from some strong arguments for its long-term effectiveness beyond vague notions of “brand-building.”
Beyond the impact on design, the widespread use of our personal data raises serious cultural issues as well. If your every experience is tailored to your previously established preferences, how will you ever expand into new experiences? Targeting ultimately limits experience, and as these methods move into areas like health care and voting, how will the public protect themselves from being unfairly discriminated against? Stephen Baker argues that the public has no choice but to become educated and conversant enough in the language of the Numerati to protect their rights (not to mention their privacy). This is true for the designer as well. There is a great and growing need for designers who can have a critical dialog with the Numerati. These designers will be able to not only digest and learn from the statistical analysis, but will offer a counter-point to the short-term incremental gains that it can offer.