Design intuition and serendipity


Douglas Bowman, the visual design lead at Google, recently left his post to pursue greener pastures. In a farewell blog post, he cited a profound reason for leaving (emphasis mine). You can read the entire post here.

Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.

From an engineering perspective, testing multiple colors, recording outcomes and making sound empirical judgments makes all the sense in the world.  If this is done correctly, eventually you will end up with the most effective design implemented.

However, from a design perspective, this tactic may be lacking some things the design world relies upon on a regular basis.


Like master mechanics who are able to diagnose many car problems by simply listening to the engine, seasoned designers can solve web design problems in a similar fashion.  They can look at an obstacle or task and solve it almost instinctively.

They could, of course, perform user experience testing to dissect the problem and solve it in a very methodical way.  However, accumulated years of design experience give them an almost intuitive knowledge to see the most effective solution without much testing at all.


These are the beautiful accidents that designers stumble upon when looking for something else.  They may be attempting to solve a complicated navigation issue and stumble upon a great idea for handling web forms.

The world of technology and invention is rife with happy accidents that have created new products or changed humanity in some significant way.  A vital part of the creative process is lost when designers are forced to operate in a rigid environment that relies heavily upon empirical engineering data.

Could these happy accidents still occur in an environment like this?  Probably…

However, I think it is much less likely to happen.  And when it does happen, it is more likely to be ignored because the idea has not gone through the rigors of testing yet.  Or perhaps the idea was so different it didn’t get the consideration it deserves.

Google was built by engineers and has become the largest property on the internet due to the policies and guidance from these early engineers.  It would be silly to say their method of design doesn’t work.  However, this environment might not work for everyone…especially creative people who need to challenge themselves with big ideas and sweeping changes.

So, designers, what do you think?

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5 Responses to Design intuition and serendipity

  1. thiskat says:

    Going only on your quote, which is a tiny bit of info, I’d say it sounds more like no one is in charge and decisions are being made via committee. It’s not who makes the decisions that matters, which is what I think you’re getting at, it’s just that they get made. User testing isn’t the best way to decide on a shade of blue because you’re not going to get a statistically relevent finding (although I’ve been asked, and answered, that question or ones like it myself in many user tests). Yes, you can say designers should be allowed to make decisions based on intuition. But really, designers should also be able to say you just need to make a decision and move on. There are usually bigger usability issues to deal with than shades of blue or rule sizes. Come back to those details when you’ve solved all the show-stopping issues.

  2. Dave says:

    Thanks for the comment, Thiskat. I completely agree. Even if Google has an efficient mechanism to execute simple A/B testing with 41 shades of blue (and they probably do), that still seems like a waste of time to me.

    I’m guessing that these protocols come down from the executive in charge of design or user experience.

    It seems as if a larger impact could be made by directing design resources at larger problems.

    (I fully expect some UX designer to throw Jared Spool’s $300M button change in my face at some point. But I think that’s an extreme case.)

  3. Lihsa says:

    I see this kind of decision making occur when there is either no one decision-maker and/or too many people involved in a project that are overly analytical.

    It is difficult for more creative types to work in an environment where they must constantly defend and justify their work to analytical types.

    The partnership of artists and engineers can be very challenging. When the analyzers learn to respect and trust the artists, great work can be done.

    However, it is very difficult for analyzers to trust artists because they want proof and evidence, which artists cannot always provide.

    These types of relationships will always be fraught with tension and it is best for all concerned that they be fully aware of one anothers’ limitations and learn to accomodate each other.

  4. Dave says:

    Lihsa, thanks for commenting. It’s almost like a clash between left and right brain thinkers….

  5. Lihsa says:

    Exactly. Very difficult relationship.

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