What Does a Data Scientist Do at a Design Company?

What Does a Data Scientist Do at a Design Company?

At IDEO, data scientists don't just code up solutions—they design them
Lisa Nash
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When people ask me what I do for a living, I say, “I use data to design products and services to improve people’s lives.” Working as a designer and data scientist involves not only coding up solutions, but understanding what people need in the first place.

For my latest project I worked with a healthcare company to improve doctor decision-making during a medical procedure. In addition to usual data scientist tasks, I spent a lot of time with the team trying to understand the way physicians currently work. Here’s a peek behind the scenes:

7:30 AM: Podcast time

This morning I’m off to meet my team at a hospital for field research. On my way, I’m listening to a podcast called “The Impact” that explains the consequences that laws and regulations have on people’s lives. There are a few episodes that relate to data and medical outcomes, so it’s serving as inspiration for my current project.

8:00 AM: Field research

At the hospital, we talk to doctors, nurses, and medical techs and observe them in action. Listening and observing helps us understand the needs of the people we’re designing for. We’re thinking about optimizing decision-making for doctors, which could involve a lot of things, ranging from information and data display to AI assistance. I watch for clues about how this works, and how potential data sources might get recorded.

11:00 AM: Data science group meeting

My home base is Chicago, but I’m stationed in Palo Alto for my current project. Luckily, I can still keep up with what the rest of the data scientists at IDEO are doing through a weekly video call that we can all dial into. We help each other troubleshoot problems we’ve encountered in our projects, share new methods we’ve learned, and talk about personal projects we’re pursuing. This week, one of the other data scientists is telling us about a website he’s making that allows his parents to see where he is (but not his exact location). We have a separate meeting on Friday mornings for those of us in Palo Alto specifically. I like both meetings because they help me keep up to date with how our data science practice is evolving, since it’s the newest design discipline at IDEO

12:00 PM: Lunch break

After a morning of research, I grab lunch at the studio. Today is a special treat—lunch has been provided for us. Everyone sits in the kitchen or our outside patio to eat, so it’s a great opportunity to meet other coworkers and hear about the interesting design challenges they’re working on. I like to sit with designers from IDEO’s PlayLab. They’re usually working on designing cool new toys, and have lots of interesting side projects. Many of them (and others in the PA studio) worked on this Burning Man installation, for example.

1:30 PM: Synthesis with the team

The team comes together to download and synthesize what we learned through our research observations. We transcribe things we saw and heard on Post-it notes, and cluster them so we can spot patterns. We’re seeing themes about the consequences of delays in decision-making during the procedure, and the effects of training on team efficiency. As we start to develop concepts based on the pain points we’ve discovered, I suggest that something like a personalized training program could increase team efficiency by helping people skill up faster.

3:30 PM: Digging into some data

Our client has provided us with some data from a clinical trial related to the medical procedure we’re studying. Today I’m combing through the dataset to find insights that will inform our design process. I use the knowledge I’ve gained from interviews and field research to inform what would be useful or desirable from a human point of view. Later in the project, I’ll use this data to create a prototype that demonstrates how we can help doctors assess risk during the procedure.

6:00 PM: Hosting a women in Machine Learning and Data Science meetup

Tonight I’m hosting a meetup for the Women in Machine Learning and Data Science group about the basics of deep learning with my coworker and fellow data scientist Jane Zanzig. More than 40 women have come to learn and do a hands-on demo. I love working at a company that supports building the women in data science community because one of my personal passions is working to increase the number of women and other underrepresented groups in STEM and design.

9:00 PM: Good night, Jackie

Every night before I go to bed, I make sure I hang out with my pet rabbit Jackie. I brought her from Chicago to Palo Alto with me, so we wouldn’t be apart while I worked on this project. I think she’s been enjoying living in California, and I’ve even taken her to visit the IDEO Palo Alto studio.

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Lisa Nash
Lisa is excited about exploring creative intersections between data science and design, and practicing human centered data science. When not working, she can often be found in the ceramics studio, in the climbing gym, or hanging out with her pet bunny.
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