Design Like A Scientist

Design Like A Scientist

When I first started designing products, I used to mainly think about their aesthetics. That seems like the right, and obvious, thing to do. However, product design is not fine art, and the goal of a product is almost never mere admiration and observation. Products are to be used for a purpose, and should be judged accordingly.


For example, a product like Amazon should be judged by its purchase numbers. If the number of purchases per user goes up over time, it’s a success. After all, the purpose of Amazon is to make an ever-increasing number of products available and painlessly purchasable. If a re-design, or design tweak, doesn’t make people buy more, then it’s obviously not contributing to the fundamental utility of the application and cannot be considered a victory - even if it was composed “perfectly” and used the right combination of fonts.

However, for various reasons, aesthetic flourishes and pretty pixels are often seen as successes in and of themselves in the technology product world. This is a fundamental error that arises from a romantic, instead of empirical, notion of what design is all about.

The design romantic sees the craft as a mysterious, almost magical, undertaking whereby the designer conjures up a unique creation from some unknown source. This is beautiful and inspiring. However, it’s a case of confused purpose.

The design “scientist” sees design as a process of empirical exploration, during which tweaks to a product are matched against changes in observed user behavior. If the changes are negative (less of the desired behavior), the designs are scrapped. If the changes are positive (more of the desired behavior), the designs are kept and built upon. It’s an iterative, evolutionary process.

While the design romantic may presume that aesthetic excellence contributes to the goals of the product, the design scientist treats this as an empirical question that can be answered by an experiment: do visual upgrades increase usage of the product?

It may feel strange to apply this type of data-driven thinking to a discipline that has traditionally been shrouded in mystique and spoken of in qualitative, instead of quantitative, terms. But we are entering a new era in which quantitative feedback is abundant and, with new tools, exceedingly easy to read and analyze. There is no excuse.

The time has come for us to realize that creative disciplines can be bolstered by what have traditionally been considered “scientific” mindsets and methods. What I am fundamentally talking about is feedback: numbers are merely a way of representing it. In every area of life feedback makes us better. It allows us to understand what effect our actions are having. It allows us to get out of the narrow perceptual tunnel that we find ourselves in. It allows us to build better products. It allows us to be design scientists -- instead of hopeless romantics. 

U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
  • Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
  • While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
Keep reading Show less

Why so gassy? Mysterious methane detected on Saturn’s moon

Scientists do not know what is causing the overabundance of the gas.

An impression of NASA's Cassini spacecraft flying through a water plume on the surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • A new study looked to understand the source of methane on Saturn's moon Enceladus.
  • The scientists used computer models with data from the Cassini spacecraft.
  • The explanation could lie in alien organisms or non-biological processes.
Keep reading Show less

CRISPR therapy cures first genetic disorder inside the body

It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

Quantcast