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Designing for Humans

March 11, 2014

Blog content adapted from Joe Hellerstein and my Strata keynote: “Big Data Moonshots and Ground Control”

Enterprise software is often knocked for being poorly designed. The picture at the top of this post is of ground control during a critical space mission.  If you look closely at the people in that image, you will see that each of the two users in the foreground has to manage 3-4 personal screens in addition to several large displays of astronauts and maps.  The entire burden of attention and effort is placed on the user.

A Hollywood Diversion

Even in futuristic, Hollywood versions of critical missions – as in the movie Minority Report for example – the user experience is a sexy, but perhaps not very usable, gesture-based interface. In case you have not seen the film, in Minority Report  Tom Cruise lives in a world where all the machines know everything about him. He gets targeted ads served just by walking down the street. And he is able to control and stream masses of data through magic gloves. Somehow those magic gloves are intended as points for control for the overwhelming information flying through the air in front of him. It’s really not too dissimilar to the ground control image above. While the interface is snazzier and more futuristic, again the burden of attention and effort is purely on the user.


At Trifacta, we’re taking more inspiration from Spike Jonze’s movie Her.  The interface between human and machine is so seamless and effortless that Joaquin Phoenix can fall in love with his operating system. While we don’t believe in the dominance of the intelligent machine, we are taking a close look at how machines can compliment humans. Why not let the computational power of a machine that understands context start to remove some of the burden on the user? Let the human focus on what a human does best. Humans have a tremendous capacity to detect patterns and insights in data and can be aided by machine intelligence.


Designing for Humans

Our lofty goal at Trifacta is to become the touchstone for everyday interactions with data. To meet that goal we rely on a few key design principles:

  • Visually simple, functionally strong. You can immediately start to explore and transform data, but interact with real data values. We aid this process by showing simple visual summaries such as histograms. And as you continue to interact with the Trifacta platform and build your relationship with Trifacta, you become more conversant with more powerful functions.

  • Elegance at scale. We work with data from the kilobyte to the petabyte. This means we need to allow our users to do data transformation on the most detailed data values while also magnifying their capabilities to work at scale. And all of this needs to happen at near real-time so that users can get an immediate understanding of the potential output of the transformations that they are selecting.

  • User empowerment. Each interaction should enhance your experience with data and make you feel smart.  Because users don’t necessarily and shouldn’t know in advance exactly what they’re looking for, we design for exploration, to let users iterate through the process without a penalty for hypothesis-testing.

Joe Hellerstein and I discuss these principles during our Strata keynote: “Big Data Moonshots and Ground Control.” View the video.

Future Thoughts

There are many other questions and topics that the Trifacta UX design team continues to ponder:

  • Design processes for startup vs large companies, consumer design vs enterprise, agile vs waterfall

  • Designing for complex applications vs design only for visual appeal

  • Other design techniques that we’re applying including personas, inclusive design, sketch concepting, and prototyping in code

We believe that enterprise software is one the areas open to innovation for strongest design growth. If you’re interested in having a conversation with us on any of these topics, please contact me @tuttitaygerly.