Design Element
Comment on "My Data Says You Like Beautiful Things"
by Steve Marmon — Oct 18

I think you're spot on about Google's design process being like evolution. They pick a design, then let their computers tweak that design until they've maximized their ad clicks. It's like so many bacteria mutating in a petri dish.

The fundamental problem with this approach is that it is equivalent to what is known as hill climbing in the world of algorithms. If you haven't heard of hill climbing, imagine a mountainous terrain. Each point in that terrain corresponds to a different point in the design space, and the height corresponds to the "goodness" of that design.

What Google does is pick a point in that design space, throw it in front of a bunch of users, then assign it a score. Next, they tweak a parameter—say, the shade of blue—and throw it out there again. If the change results in a lower score, they must be going downhill. If it results in a higher score, then they must be going uphill. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The great thing about this is that once they come up with in initial design, the designers at Google can sit back and relax as their computers tweak that design until they can't get a higher score. This might seem brilliant, but there is a flaw. Remember how they just picked a point in the terrain and started climbing from there? Well, chances are, the mountain they started climbing probably wasn't the highest one in the range. And unless they are willing to go back to the drawing board to try a radically different design, there is no way that their automated parameter-tweaking technique is ever going to get them there.

This is not to say that Google only ever tries just one design. Maybe they do come up with several very different designs, then empirically test them with users. That's great. But the fact remains that there's a very big design space out there, and computers just don't have the imagination to get you to a truly spectacular height.
Back to "My Data Says You Like Beautiful Things"
Design Element

Copyright © Scott Stevenson 2004-2015