May 13, 2019 · data work

Data Experience is the new User Experience

About 10 years ago I was working on a social media platform for non profits when I started hearing people use this term: user experience. The first time I heard it I instinctively said "do you mean user interface" and they said "no, we're not talking about what people interact with, we're talking about how and why they interact with it".

At the time I would have definitely qualified myself as a database guy (I'm that slacker who still can't write rudimentary CSS). Even still, I chuckled at the idea that we would care how or why someone would interact with a system. We knew the how - the browser (IE6 right you guys?!?). And at the time we didn't really care about the why. We knew the why. We had ALL the answers. And when I say "we" i mean the collective "we": the development community was not terribly interested in the user. I realize there are people reading this who are saying "but I cared!". I'm sure you did. But generally speaking, we collectively buried our heads in the sand and just built.

It wasn't until 2010 or 2011 that I really started to care about user experience. And it wasn't until then that I started to sit with customers and users to really understand how they did their job. Even for a database guy, this was mind blowing. Now I could see why people were using the systems we were building in such odd ways. Not because they were odd. But because we were odd; we'd built systems with our own biases in mind. I bring all of this up because I think we're starting to see a similar pattern emerge in a different part of the same arena: data.

How do users experience their data?

Here's a common scenario: someone approaches you and says "I would like you to build me a system". All systems involve data of some kind. And outputs of some kind. Right now most teams spend a lot of time upfront with a client or customer or user to understand how and why they want to use a particular system. This is the UX.

What (most) teams do not do is sit down and truly understand the data. We tend to assume the answers to questions like:

With UX, we learned to assume very little. We needed to spend time with the user to understand how they think and what problems they really need to solve (vs. what they tell us they think they need to solve).

I think we're staring a similar pattern with data. Right now many of us are assuming the answers to how the user will interact with data. However, we're overlooking a critical factor: everyone, from office admins to CEOs are starting to speak the language of data. And we, the builder of data platforms, need to engage these users on every front to understand how they plan to interact with their data.

I call this the data experience.

It's not enough anymore to sit with a user to understand how they want to interact with your system. If we're going to really breathe life into this data revolution that's happening, we're going to need to spend a lot more time with the user to understand their data.

I'll spend a bit of time over the next few weeks fleshing this out. While I see overlap between data experience and user experience (i.e. data visualizations) I do see a fair amount of difference that I want to clarify. More to come!