There's a lot of subjectivity in design, but great businesses aren't built on a gut-feeling. Great web design means aligning creative and scientific processes to yield data-driven results. This is ATTCK co-founder and partner Chuck W. Nelson's philosophy around design, and it's the reason that he was voted the Student Choice Award winner for outstanding instruction in our New York web design course this past fall. Chuck doesn't simply teach tenets of good web design—he focuses on getting students to be job-ready through experiential education and discussion of revenue-driving practices. According to NYC program manager John Lynn,
Chuck's lessons are impactful because he brings so much transparency and context with him. During his portfolio review with our students, he gave honest input that was both incredibly constructive and actionable. He taught the final session of the fall 2015 design track, and it was a really empowering moment for the design track to leave off on.
We spoke to Chuck to learn more about his award-winning session, his data-centric approach to design, and career advice for those right-brain-left-brain types:[bctt tweet="#WebDesign instructor @chuckWnelson explains #DataDrivenDesign"]
Q: Tell us about the session that won you the Student Choice Award for our New York web design program.
A: In the years since I started teaching at Startup Institute, I have refined the process a lot. I kept finding that there was a lot of confusion between UI and UX. Even in terms of “UI” meaning user interface design and “UX” meaning user experience. There was a lot of confusion on what, exactly, each of these mean.
I always use the 2000 Gore vs Bush election to illustrate why UI is important, and what happens when it goes wrong. I show them the picture of that guy looking at hanging chads on Florida’s punch-card ballots through a magnifying glass to discern the intent of the voters. They were alternated side-to-side and you were supposed to punch out the hole, but some people were choosing the wrong one. There was confusion there, meaning the ballots wouldn’t be scanned right. This is an example of an user interface that was horrible—and it decided an election. This is why user interface design is important.
The rub of it is that there is always a human quality to it and we cannot forget it. That’s where I transition into the UX design aspect. We are human—we have emotions and cultural biases. We need to understand that elements of our design communicate key business goals.[bctt tweet="There is a human quality to design that we cannot forget, says @chuckWnelson #webdesign"]
At the end of the day, the idea is to have data-driven design. A lot of students come to Startup Institute saying they want to design really wonderful websites. They are very impassioned by the psychology and the art behind. But, I’m trying to get them hired into a job. If I know that making a button green will raise the conversion rates of a website by 20% and I know that the average product on that website is $100, then based on the volume of traffic, I can show how my design decisions can impact the bottom line. My creativity can make that business a one-for-one link to new revenue. The more students can can objectively measure their design decisions, the more likely they are going to get hired in the future.[bctt tweet="Want to get a job as a #webdesigner? Show how you can impact the bottom line, says @chuckWneloson"]
Q: That’s awesome. What do you think makes your session so effective?
A: I think an important piece to it is that it is conversational, versus lecture.
Previous to first leading a session at Startup Institute, I did a lot of research on teaching methods. One of the big things I learned and that I apply to my lesson is to break the session up into twenty minute segments so they’re not trying to digest too much too quickly. We’d talk about one topic for twenty minutes and then I would have them wireframe.
I have them start wireframing based on what they already know. Valentine’s Day is coming up, so I might say “create a website for a cookie bakery.” They need to have a gallery of cookies, an event coming up to show off their cookies, and they are a local bakery so we need to demonstrate that through their logo.”
I set these parameters and don’t tell them anything else and then have them wireframe a website. That establishes what they currently know. After twenty minutes I’ll say “Okay, what are some best practices we should be using?” They go back to that wireframe and we move forward based on this knowledge—how can we get our hands dirty and improve this? In the next twenty minutes we’ll go over the specific nuances of user testing. Then, I ask them to figure out how to take this to market using a user testing approach, instead of based on their own personal bias. I try to break it up that way so they are applying what they are thinking about and what they are learning.
Q: Let’s dive into this idea of using data in design. For starters, what is data-driven design?
A: Data-driven design means not designing for yourself. It means designing with the intentions of the people who will use the design in mind. We need to understand that we all have biases and we need to verify them outside of ourselves through user feedback. You have to get out of yourself and test your designs with the market. Data-driven means not implementing your own assumptions. You follow the scientific method—starting with a hypothesis and testing it from there.[bctt tweet="#DataDrivenDesign means designing for the people who will use the design—@chuckWnelson "]
Q: Does it always start with your own hypothesis? Can it start with market research?
A: Well, you’re essentially saying “Was it the chicken or the egg?” A good designer would research the information that’s already out there. We may want do our research first then form a hypothesis, but sometimes we can’t do that because the subject hasn’t been thoroughly researched before. So, you form your own research based on your own experiences and gut feelings. You have to start somewhere. The idea is to make as firm of a hypothesis and you can.
Q: What benefits does data-driven design have over other types of design?
A: You’re getting out of your own biases. This also allows you to iterate quickly - and this is more agile design, but they are very closely related. The idea is to get something out to the market and isolate the variables that need to be focused on without making costly decisions. If the only market you are working with is yourself, then you could make the most amazing website for you, but that’s not the ultimate goal.[bctt tweet="You could be making the most amazing website for YOU, but that's not the ultimate goal—@chuckWnelson"]
Q: What strategies do you use for testing?
A: As a data nerd, I find split A/B testing to be a lot of fun. This means that you have two versions of the websites that you’ve isolated based on one variable. The example I use in class is Huffington Post. The front page has a headline, but they might have a different headline and different image for different readers. When they launch a new story, they might test out two or even five different images and headline variations and see which gets the most engagement in an allotted time frame. With this significant user data sample they can maximize the click through-rates on this specific post.
Google Analytics is usually the number one tool that I use for analytic information. Google Analytics also provides search terms. If I see that people are searching for “really cute puppies playing with kittens,” but I my website features puppies and no kittens, I might choose to develop content related to that search query. I base my design around the data.[bctt tweet="I base my design around the data, says @chuckWnelson of @attckco #datadriven #webdesign"]
Q: How do you balance the changes that data tells you to make against your sense of good design and brand elements?
A: I’m a firm believer that creativity requires a foundation versus a blank slate. A lot of creatives find it difficult to create with no guidelines. Having a rule set and knowing where you can bend the rules is very important for a creative. With that being said, you need to back your creative decisions with data. Be objective. Design is very subjective, so being able to support your claims objectively is paramount. That’s the challenge of a creative.[bctt tweet="I'm a firm believer that #creativity requires a foundation- not a blank slate, says @chuckWnelson"]
Q: You work with AIDA principles in your design. Can you explain these and talk about how they tie into data-driven design?
A: AIDA is where I like to start with clients to help them focus their ideas. AIDA stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, Action. I use this with my clients by asking four questions: Who are you? What you do? Why should I care? How do I get started? That flow helps to define how we get started and introduce a user to the brand.
There should never be a dead end. You never want there to be any question in a visitor's mind about what to do next. This four-question path should always lead to a Call To Action.
AIDA is a great sales technique that translates to just about anything. It’s a great place to start since it helps focus both the designer and the client on the main goal of the website, which is usually to convert users into business leads.
Q: That’s a great tip. How can new designers, such as the students in our web design course, work towards building their skills as data-driven designers?
A: First, by understanding that every design has a goal. The goal is not your ego. Understand that if you are designing for someone, they came to your website for a reason, so you should never forget that reason in your design.
The second thing is to understand the context of your designs. I started out in graphic design. As a college student in Fort Lauderdale I used to design club flyers, the ones that people hand out on the streets that just end up in the trash. I would walk down South Beach, and I would see these flyers, but I started to notice that they were never in somebody’s hand—they were on the ground. So, I started making the headlines a lot bigger and the imagery a lot more salacious, so people could read them from the ground.
That’s what I mean by the context of the design. Understand when and how people are experiencing your designs. Are they reading them before work? After work? During lunch? What mindset are they in?[bctt tweet="Understand when + how people are experiencing your #designs. What mindset are they in?—@chuckWnelson"]
Q: Final question. What’s your greatest piece of advice for people launching design careers in NYC?
A: Don’t get stuck behind your desk. Network. Talk to people. Read a lot. ask a lot of questions. Get out and go to those MeetUps, come to some of my MeetUps and classes. We’re doing an intro to web development workshop on February 23.
Any successful career involves other people.[bctt tweet="Any successful career involves other people, says @chuckWnelson #careeradvice #connect"]
Interested in learning more about our web design program, rated #1 in the USA, and how we can help you to meet the people you need to know to launch a new career? Check out our Program Guide.