There Is No Data vs. Intuition

Few things have widened the chasm between data and intuition as much as Marissa Mayer’s infamous matter of the 41 Shades of Blue a few years ago.

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For those of you who live under a rock, let me catch you up.

Back when there were just 41 shades#section2

Back in the golden age when Google wasn’t evil, they used two different shades of blue for the hyperlinks in Search and Gmail ads. The decision was made to determine the one true blue, and it was ultimately Mayer’s to make. Her intuition to split the difference between two final contenders left her uneasy. So naturally, she devised a most elaborate A/B test to determine the best blue among 41 different blues.

And then everyone wrote about it. Bowman. Clark. Fast Company. CNET. Gawker. Gigaom. The New York Times. Even I piled on in my own little way. And the verdict that came out at the end of the human centipede was a collective, “Eww, she did what?!”

Taking a page from Kim Kardashian, who recently owned her own narcissism in this (really, quite effective) T-Mobile commercial, Google’s design team themselves embraced and commemorated their data-driven philosophy late last year in the Googliest of ways. In 41 successive tweets they tweeted—you guessed it—those infamous 41 shades of blue. And the 42nd tweet, in classic Google form, a puzzle:

We have Will Kirkby to thank for bit-shifting his heart to the solution, an inspirational quote: “we seek to synthesize classic principles of good design with the innovation and possibility of technology and science…”

*Slow clap*

All made up but nowhere to go#section3

Judging by the fun and games, it seems like we’ve all made up. As much as I’d love to applaud us all for putting our demons to rest and working it out, it’s hard to ignore the underlying cause of this years-long kerfuffle: the data vs. intuition debate (if I can even call something this dogmatic a debate).

The debacle quietly renewed the old, tired, artificial, and patently false, division between data and intuition. And from where I stand, divided they remain.

Back to square one. Designers vs. Engineers. Emotions vs. Logic. Intuition vs. Data.

So, before it gets too late, let me just get this on the record: if you find yourself arguing at dinner parties that intuition has no place in the decision-making process (have you noticed that nobody ever seems to do the opposite?), well, then first off: stop lying because nobody invites you to dinner parties. But more importantly, I want to do you a solid and tell you that you may be the accidental modern jackass. Because you’re plain wrong.

And there’s a mound of data that supports that.

Data vs. and intuition#section4

If you’re curious about the data supporting the intelligence of the gut, you can start with Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. But I recommend it with acute awareness of the polarizing effect of referencing Gladwell as a case for science. So before you cut your losses and head back to your timeline, my second recommendation is the source of much of the great research out there on intuition: Gerd Gigerenzer’s very readable treatise on the topic, Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious. Its extensive bibliography will satiate those of you who want to dive into the p-values of the randomized control trials, while it doubles as a jumping-off point for the topic as a whole.

You don’t have to go very far into the research before you realize something you’ve always known in your gut: that your gut is frikkin’ smart. From catching a flyball to becoming a world-class athlete, from picking winning stocks to dreaming up entirely new markets, the intelligence of the gut is awesome in the truest sense of the word: it draws awe.

But, here’s the thing: data is just as awesome.

Data has a way of turning a suspicion into a verifiable fact. It has the ability to replace dogma with truth. To provide answers to vexing problems simply with math. As Christian Rudder writes in Dataclysm: Who We Are, “It’s like looking at Earth from space; you lose the detail, but you get to see something familiar in a totally new way.”

Some of you already know where I’m going with all of this: we’re punching ourselves in the, well, gut, by continuing to pit intuition against data. It’s not one or the other. It never has been, and as much as we try to sell the narrative, it never will be. They are both mandatory in sound decision-making (there’s a good book on that, too, by the way).

The fact is that there is no data vs. intuition.


Ironically, Mayer’s rationale for her design decision—her execution (or its reporting and our understandable reactions) notwithstanding—was actually pretty sound: “Every design starts with an instinct: It should look like this, or it should look like that. You can actually test it with data. The humbling thing about that is sometimes the data proves you wrong. So for every change I propose, you know, three out of four, four out of five the data will support the change.”

And if you’re to believe the press, it was worth $200m a year. But who knows.

Regardless, here’s a thought experiment: can you see an alternate universe where a Jobs-esque genius gets a standing ovation for employing Mayer’s line of reasoning?

Let your gut noodle on that for a bit.

5 Reader Comments

  1. Wow! Really interesting anecdote. I like Daniel Kahneman’s take on the subject: “True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes.”

    In other words, intuition is the result of time spent on a subject, refined by hard evidence. It isn’t one or the other, it is that one strengthens the other.

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