What great design can do for data

May 15, 2013, 10:45 AM UTC

FORTUNE — Companies that have long believed in the virtues of hoarding data are now looking for ways to use it to the benefit of their customers. Big data presents a massive opportunity for organizations across industries to become more transparent and trustworthy, get a leg up on the competition, and empower their users to have more personalized experiences with their products and services.

But with great volumes of data comes great amounts of complexity. That’s where design’s power to simplify and make sense of data for ordinary individuals comes in. It’s about turning information into meaningful insights people can use, giving data a human shape and a connection with the messy real world that we live in. So how can companies better use design to turn data dread into data delight?

We’re just beginning to see the extent to which smartphones and other connected objects are influencing a shift in consumer behavior and expectations. These devices are giving rise to a huge range of data points around what information people want at any given time and who they want it from. Consumers have now figured out that they can expect — indeed demand — value in exchange for “their” data. It’s the new currency, and companies need to start treating it as such. The more information people are willing to give up, the more potential a company has to personalize an experience for them. But privacy concerns make this a complicated challenge.

For many companies, getting the balance right between using data in ways that are cool rather than creepy can be difficult. Designers approach this challenge by creating intelligent systems that seem to magically respond to a user’s habits. Netflix (NFLX) is a good example of this, carefully using viewing data to present recommendations that feel tailor-made. Foursquare has transformed itself into a recommendation engine, providing helpful information and local offers to users customized to their location and time of day. This savvy use of data as a service will likely reduce consumers’ skepticism and fears around sharing personal information as the more they provide, the better their experience is.

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Data will not innovate on your behalf. Data can show patterns and help predict outcomes, and it can also help validate theories. But when working on something entirely new, data alone is unlikely to lead to the next killer product. As some others have observed, the world would not have experienced Twin Peaks or Cirque de Soleil if the creators had worked within the boundaries of data-validated predictability. The audience preference data would have shown that Twin Peaks is too weird, and data would also have shown that it would be crazy to start a new venture in the declining circus market.

For companies in the business of “new,” good design is a key ingredient. Designers can help organizations imagine where their business could be or reimagine an existing business. Creativity is a crucial component of invention. For creative breakthroughs, data can still be very powerful — if it’s coupled up with the uniquely human traits of imagination and intuition.

Traditionally, large organizations tend to work with business consultants to help them understand how to use data to their benefit — to become more efficient and to make better real-time decisions. Technologists on the other hand, tend to try to structure data in a flexible way. They analyze it, dashboard it, and cross-reference it to make it more efficient and intelligent.

The designer tends to approach data from a completely different angle. They will intuitively think about the end user and how real people can benefit from the data. Designers have it ingrained to focus on simplicity and bring a singular focus to delighting the end user — regardless of whether they are a business user or consumer. Designers know how to take complex or disparate information and make it tangible, understandable, and importantly, more human. Design can play a key role to make digital data adapt to our messy lives and the real world. Designers can bring stories and humanity back into the digital services we increasingly rely on for all aspects of our lives.

For onscreen experiences, simplicity has become a watchword, especially for mobile devices. Service design can bring simplicity to the forefront for a company wanting to use data in smarter ways to benefit the user. Here are a few examples that illustrate the power of a design-led approach to data:

3, a mobile operator based in Sweden, redefines the phone bill, transforming it from a monthly annoyance to a helpful service. “My 3” is an app that lets customers see their usage data in real time so they know exactly where they are compared to their plan. If they are running low on minutes, they can get more credit from within the app so at the end of the month there’s no bill shock moment. Customers can also make a call to customer service right from the app where the helpful information continues by telling you how long you’ll have to wait to speak with someone. This tiny app is rethinking the experience of the phone bill, taking it from a static, one-way piece of communication to a personalized service that adjusts to a customer’s behavior and allows them to take action immediately.

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It’s a wonderful example of taking information that can be classified as amongst the dullest on the planet and potentially one of the most aggravating for customers — and turning it on its head. Amazingly, customers love the service so much that they are taking the time to review it in the app store with an average of 4.5 stars, for a phone bill app.

3’s story also shows us what a company can accomplish when they take an inspired leap of faith. Breaking with their competition in the operator space, 3 chose to take a new direction with customer data.

The Google (GOOG) age has changed the conversation between patient and doctor, and we’re now seeing a movement by health care professionals to embrace the information and data revolution. They are starting to take a proactive stance to implementing digital solutions that use data to facilitate the relationship between patients and clinicians.

SMART, an initiative from Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, is an effort to redesign the pediatric growth chart. The pediatric growth chart is the ever-present tool in nearly every pediatric appointment, and yet for many parents the information presented is unclear. In some cases, this can lead to misinterpreted data, which can result in fatal consequences. SMART took a design-led approach to creating an interactive pediatric growth chart app that can be easily read, understood, and shared between doctors and parents. The app showcases patient’s data in two different ways: customizing a view for clinicians and one for parents. The parental view allows doctors to better explain the growth charts and percentiles to parents using a simplified representation of the data that can be immediately understood. Instead of complex percentiles, the visuals give a snapshot that showcases a child’s development, making sure that both clinicians and parents are on the same page.

A major increase in projects like SMART and My 3 in which the central challenge is about finding ways to bring meaning to data for the average person. It’s clear that many organizations will be facing the same issues. Here are some ways that design can help companies make sense of their data and identify opportunities to turn it into a benefit for their customers:

  • Use data to guide, not dictate: Use data to build a backdrop of understanding and learning, but don’t let data trump creative inspiration or minimize the importance of leaps of faith.
  • Obsess with your customers: Extend the data insights and value from your organization to your customers.
  • Mess up your data: We live in a messy world. How can you make your pure data fit a messy world? Use design to make it personal and emotional, and tell stories.
  • Instead of understanding data only, make sure you understand people: You’re planning to hire another data scientist to make sense of the growing data mountain you’ve got? How about hiring a psychologist instead?
  • Major on elegance and simplicity: The science of data can be complex, abstract, and ugly. Design will help you simplify and bring clarity. Good design can also present data in elegant and beautiful ways, drawing people in where they were previously turned off.
  • Take creative leaps of faith: A creative process that uses intuition and imagination can give you innovations that data alone can’t provide. This is crucial if you want to reimagine your business or invent something new.

Olof (@olof_s) co-founded Fjord in 2001, and has since led the company to become one of the world’s most successful service design consultancies working with clients including the BBC, Citibank, ESPN, Flickr, Foursquare, Harvard Medical School, Nokia, and Qualcomm, among others. Olof has years of experience collaborating with major brands to design breakthrough experiences that make complex systems simple and elegant. A frequent speaker at global conferences and events, recent appearances include Fortune 2012 Brainstorm Tech, GigaOm Mobilize, and Rutberg Future: Mobile.

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