It’s an eternal question that’s been pondered by generations of designers: is UX design—and design in general—an art or a science?

Art implies that design is created through experimentation, trial and error, and creative brainstorming and exploration.

Science, on the other hand, implies that design is created through analysis of hard numbers and facts using a systematic approach that has been tested and proven.

So which one is it?

As WhatUsersDo explored recently in a column on data-driven design, UX design truly is a combination of both approaches.

While many UX designers are comfortable with the human-centered nature of the work, including prototyping, user interviews, and design research, the growth of powerful data collection and analysis tools has given designers new levels of access to quantitative insights to inform their work.

Data can be applied to UX design in many ways, from tracking user behavior patterns to generating entirely new designs based on common user actions. Here are a few ways you can incorporate data into your own UX design work:

Use analytics as a starting point when beginning your design.

Nearly every website or app in popular use today collects some version of analytics, or data on user behavior, such as the most popular pages visited or activities taken by users while on the site or inside the app. One of the most popular analytics platforms is Google Analytics, but other analytics tools include parse.ly, a paid service which can dive deeper into your content, and CrazyEgg, which tracks clicks and behavior through a “heat map” interface.

Whichever analytics platform you use, observing user behavior through data can be an excellent way to get started with a UX project. Are users visiting certain pages over others due to interest or because they can’t figure out your site’s navigation? Are they getting stuck in certain sections or dropping off out of frustration after a short period of time? Beginning to answer these questions through data analysis can be very helpful when getting started. But keep in mind that analytics offers only a partial window into user behavior and your ultimate design still needs to be validated through user testing and further research.

Collect user data directly to answer key questions.

If you’re struggling with particular questions, use data to answer them! Whether you track particular behaviors through customized tools in platforms like Google Analytics or use more traditional methods like customer surveys, data can be your friend when you’re facing a tricky UX question.

This can be particularly useful mid-way through design projects when you’ve already used up all the available analytics data you’ve collected from your users but are still wondering about certain behavior patterns. You can segment a group of “power users” for a survey or dive deeper into your existing analytics, but either way, you’ll likely be able to unlock important answers by gathering new data from your user base.

Don’t be afraid of data but don’t forget your users, either.

Data can be tremendously powerful but, like all information, isn’t the only factor that goes into making a good design. If you rely solely on your analytics or survey results, you’ll likely end up creating a solution that looks good on paper but may struggle to keep up with real-world behaviors that didn’t show up in the initial analysis.

Instead, use data the same way you approach all UX design: a little bit of art and a little bit of science. For every data point used, make sure you’re also speaking with your users and incorporating that critical human element.

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