Big Data Builds Relationships

(Chapter 12 from Transform: A Rebel’s Guide for Digital Transformation)

Data, data everywhere

Physical things obey the laws of scarcity. Land, oil, steel, gold are all limited resources. Digital things obey the laws of abundance. Resources such as data storage, bandwidth, networking, and processing power are becoming faster, vaster and cheaper by the day. Consider how fast the digital world is expanding and speeding up:

  • Every day in 2012, 2.5 exabytes of data were created. From the dawn of civilization to 2003, about 5 exabytes of information were created.
  • The world’s capacity to store information has roughly doubled every 40 months since the 1980s.
  • Decoding the human genome originally took 10 years to process; now it can be achieved in about a week.
  • In 2012, Google received over 2 million search queries per minute. By 2014, it was 4 million and growing.
  • Mobile data is practically doubling every year and is expected to reach 80 terabytes in 2016.
  • By 2015, it was estimated that Americans consumed both traditional and digital media for over 1.7 trillion hours, an average of approximately 15 and a half hours per person per day.
  • By 2014, it was estimated that every day there were approximately 300 billion emails sent.

Most people are fine with this. They believe that the Internet has greatly enriched their lives and allowed them access to information that helps them make better decisions. I agree. I grew up in an era when the elites and the experts controlled the flow of information. Give me the Internet any day — with all its chaos and overload — to that old model world where somebody somewhere decided what was good for us — based usually on what was good for them.

What many people are beginning to realize is that much of this Big Data is about them. We leave multitudinous digital trails everywhere we go. There is, of course, a dark and bright side to this. I’m an optimist. I believe that digital has and will continue to empower people to be more in control than they have ever been. Most of the organizations that abuse Big Data will ultimately be found out and will pay the price.

A more empowered future is not a given, though. It depends on us being active participants rather than passive consumers. ( That is why it is so critical to be constantly researching, comparing and switching — it’s the only way you’ll keep the Big Brands honest.) The old model thrived because we were passive consumers and the longer we remain passive, the longer the old model will last. And think of this scary combination: an old model mind with access to all this Big Data on us!

In the new model, those organizations that use Big Data to enrich and simplify people’s lives will reap the benefits. It won’t be an easy ride. There are many battles up ahead. When people fully realize how much personal data is being collected on them, and when they see how much of this is being used to manipulate them, there will be some perfect Twitter storms, among many other storms. The right to privacy and the right to own your personal information, and the right to decide who gets to see and use your personal information will come to be established as a key human right in the new model. A Digital Rights Charter will evolve around such a basic right.

On the other side of the equation is organizational inability to manage Big Data. Yes, organizations are collecting lots of it but precious few are currently able to use it efficiently. A 2015 report by Gartner stated that 85% of Fortune 500 companies are not able to properly analyze and act on Big Data. McKinsey estimates that in the United States alone there will be a shortage of between 140,000 to 190,000 data analysts by 2018. At a basic level, data management and protection is becoming a critical challenge for organizations. Every week we hear of another major data breach, and the ones that become public knowledge are only a fraction of what’s happening.

And it’s only just beginning. Our phones track where we go, how many steps we take. Our watches and wristbands are monitoring our health and our exercise regimes. Our thermostats and light bulbs will record our energy consumption. Our cars will record our speed and our driving competence. Our refrigerators and cupboards will record our food consumption.

Know your customer

Digital creates a physical distance between organization and customer. It significantly reduces human-to-human relationships. You bridge that distance with data. If you know your customer well enough then you can create a design that allows them to do what they want, as easily and efficiently as possible. Good data is like a handshake, a friendly smile. Properly applied, data can show that you know what your customer likes and doesn’t like. You “remember” what they bought last time, you anticipate future needs. You use their language, their words. They come to depend on you when they really need something. That’s the potential of Big Data. It’s huge.

Joseph Pigato has written for Entrepreneur magazine about a number of companies who truly embrace data to better serve their customers:

Dollar Shave Club: Delivers razors and other personal grooming products. Relies heavily on data analytics and customer support feedback to understand their customers.

Etsy: global community of craftspeople: Uses data to personalize the customer journey so as to recommend products based on factors that go beyond what people have looked at.

StumbleUpon: A “discovery engine” that finds interesting content for people. Integrates data across engineering, product and marketing teams. Annie Gherini, head of marketing, notes that, “ The age of departmental silos is over, and the unified e efforts of all functional teams ensure that everyone is reading from the same playbook, resulting in an awesome user experience.”

Plenty of Fish: A dating site for 90 million people. Constant optimization through continuous testing. Agata Osinska, director of product, notes: “We are methodical about testing. You need to be disciplined about setting tests up to give you clear, accurate results.”

Sam Walton founded Walmart. When his family went on vacation, they always tried to choose some rural, out-of-the-way destination. They knew from previous experience that if it was anywhere near a town or city, then Sam would disappear for long periods. They’d find him scouting around the local supermarkets, watching, observing. Once they found him on his knees as he tried to figure out the optimal height of shelves. That’s the life of a customer- centric pioneer; someone who is constantly immersing themselves in the lives of their customers. Because without empathy for and understanding of your customers, all the Big Data in the world won’t make much sense, or worse, you might end up using data in a way that will alienate your customers.

There is an empathy gap in the new model, and you bridge that empathy gap by being with your customers, by immersing yourself in their world. While it helps, you don’t have to be physically there. In many situations, as I’ll show later, it is more effective to be virtually there watching and observing them (with their permission, of course) as they go about their tasks. There is no greater skill you can develop than having an empathetic understanding of your customers as they seek to complete their tasks. Understanding how they think and how they behave online is like gold dust. It is the key that opens Big Data, and most of the other doors that matter when designing for digital.

As we’ll see in the next chapter, digital design is self-service design. All the pioneers of self-service design were relentless about immersing themselves in the lives of their customers. Why? Because when people are self-serving they’re running mainly on gut instinct. In self-service environments, people tend to make very fast decisions. Time becomes of the absolute essence in a self-service world. So, you must understand the customer better than they understand themselves, because when you ask a customer what they do in a particular self-service environment the answers they give are often the opposite of what they actually do when you observe them.

When Ray Kroc realized that the McDonald brothers were doing something interesting with their restaurant, he got in his car and headed out to San Bernardino. But he didn’t go straight in and talk to the brothers. He parked on a hill and for two days watched intently the comings and goings of the staff and customers. He then went to the brothers and made them an offer they didn’t refuse.

I once had a conversation with a McDonald’s manager, who told me that one day she was in her office, her secretary was off sick and when the phone rang, she picked it up. It was her manager. The first thing she was asked was: “What are you doing in the office? Why aren’t you out in the restaurant?” As a digital designer, you must imbue a culture of getting out and getting into the lives of your customers. I know this is very hard. I know that much of the culture of technology and IT — and indeed traditional design — is the exact opposite of empathy for the customer. (Design being that battle between ego and empathy.)

The firrst time I saw Tomer Sharon, he was working for Google as a user experience researcher. Tomer was speaking at a conference and he began taking his shirt off . Wow, I thought, haven’t seen this before. Underneath his shirt was a t-shirt that read: GET OUT OF THE BUILDING. That’s a philosophy and approach that is taken very seriously at Google. The first sentence of the Google design guide states: “Focus on the user and all else will follow.”

So obvious for success and yet so incredibly hard for most organizations to do. “I am always amazed to find out that many people who write code have never met a person who is actually using their code,” Tomer states. “When I realized that was the case with one of the teams I worked with at Google, I decided to do something about it. The idea was to get people up from their chairs and monitors and create an opportunity for them to observe and interact with real users of our products.

“Once a month, on a Friday morning, we held in-person visits at people’s home or offices. We called these ‘Field Fridays’.” In a typical Field Friday, a group of sofware engineers and I were going on a 90-minute visit to a customer home or office. The goal was to learn by observation and contextual interview as well as answering users’ questions. It was extremely beneficial to both participants and stakeholders and this whole initiative was always highly appreciated by high-ups in my team.”

Remember, in order to transform to the new model your number one job is to flood your organization with the experience of your customers. Because so many human-to-human touchpoints are being closed down by technology, we must open up new ones, or else the organization will know less and less about the customers who are becoming more and more important and powerful and independent.

“One thing I learned about my work is that it is extremely important to share the knowledge with team members and stakeholders who did not have a chance to join a Field Friday visit,” Tomer explains. “So I launched an internal blog to which I entered posts that summarized each Field Friday event. This way, other team members learned about what happened, and had a chance to ask follow-up questions. It also raised interest in joining future events.

“Here’s a quote by one sofware engineer who added it as a comment to a blog post published after a Field Friday visit: ‘ The one thing that really stood out for me was how embarrassed I was to see how bad our product was and how awkward it was for me not to be able to give good answers to any of the user’s good questions.’”

Embrace flow, randomness and unpredictability

It’s not important what you know today. What is important is that you know how to know or know who knows. This is a complex world and the more you know the more you realize how little you know. “If you are not completely confused by quantum mechanics, you do not understand it,” the physicist John Wheeler stated. According to Nassim Taleb, in his book Fooled by Randomness, “Most results in probability are entirely counterintuitive … What sounds intelligent in a conversation or a meeting, or, particularly, in the media, is suspicious.”

You must learn to embrace unpredictability and the improbable, and go with the evidence of what is actually happening. Often what you think will work, won’t, and what you think won’t work, will. That’s perfectly okay. Adapt. Be flexible. Find the flow and go with it. Your gut instinct is a map of the past. If the map has changed, then your gut instinct can be leading you in the wrong direction. In a complex society like we live in today, the map is constantly changing, so what you require are abilities to observe, analyze the data, spot trends, test, refine, iterate.

“ There are two ways to think about things,” Taleb states. “Some like to know exactly what they are looking for and need to predict their environment with a lot of precision. Others accept that random events can interfere with what they are doing. The issue is that our environment is fundamentally unpredictable. At a company, not only can you not predict your own sales, you could never predict the sales of all your competitors. There are people who want to rigidly follow a map to get them through life and those that realize they need a structure that allows them to take a wrong turn and still survive. You want to turn every random event that befalls you into opportunity.”

The first kind of thinker is an old model, organization-centric thinker. You must be the new model, adaptive thinker. Here’s what your ideal working week looks like. On a Monday, you come up with a hypothesis of something you’d like to change in your digital world based on previous customer behavior analysis and testing. It could — and generally should be — a very small change, like perhaps changing the text in a link. On Tuesday, you put the change live and then, on Wednesday, you test with real customers to see if the change had its desired effect. Ok, so the change you made didn’t work as well as expected. So, you edit the link and observe again. A continuous, never-ending process, that’s how you deliver value.

Obama presidential campaign masters evidence

The Obama presidential campaigns were acknowledged masters of using the Web and in implementing a system of evidence-based decision making that owed from a process of continuous testing.

Obama campaign donation button experiment results

In the 2008 campaign, they rigorously tested the words they used for getting people to donate funds. They found, for example (as can be seen in the preceding table), that if you had not given money, then “Donate” worked well, but if you had given money at least once, then “Contribute” worked better. These word changes resulted in significant increases in donations.

In the 2012 campaign, they changed their donation page 240 times as a result of evidence they got from testing. According to Kyle Rush, former Deputy Director of Web Development for the Obama 2012 campaign, “By the end of the campaign our 240 a/b tests lifted the donation conversion rate by 49%!” And how much did they raise online? $250 million. As another Obama campaigner put it, “ The time of guys sitting in a back room smoking cigars is over.” This is the age of observation, of analytics, of continuous improvement, of insight and decisions based on data.

The Web is the ultimate laboratory of human behavior. Dive in. The Web is a pet scan of your customers’ brain activity. This world is far too complex for any of us to predict the future, to write the perfect sentence, to design the perfect interface. We do our best to get started and then we test and tweak, test and tweak. That’s how we maximize value. That’s how we maximize customer satisfaction and loyalty. That’s how we introduce the new model. One test at a time. One fact at a time that proves that the opinion-driven old model got it wrong again. Customer behavior is the spear point of digital change.

Fictitious names at Microsoft

At Microsoft , if you want to create some promotional content you might need to use what in legal terms are called “Fictitious Names” (John Brown, for example). But on the Microsoft intranet it used to be hard to find a list of approved fictitious names. Legally speaking, fictitious names are a type of trademark, and thus they were placed under the section “Trademarks”. The web team had a feeling that this was unintuitive, but they needed evidence because without evidence they knew that they had no chance in front of the lawyers who had decided to put fictitious names under Trademarks.

So, they tested. They gave typical employees the following task: “You are looking for a person’s name to use in an example in a white paper.” Only 16% of participants were successful.The team did a bit more research in order to understand how employees thought about the task. They discovered that employees considered fictitious names as a marketing task. When they placed Fictitious Names under the label Marketing, 100% of those they tested with were successful.

“Trademarks” versus “Marketing” navigation testing

There was some resistance from the legal experts because they felt that legally speaking they should be placed under Trademarks. However, once they saw the test results and saw how this would reduce phone calls and email inquiries, they were convinced.

Norwegian Cancer Society focuses on top tasks

The Norwegian Cancer Society, a non-profit organization, used to have lots of content on its website, much of it communicating at people, telling them that it was a non-profit organization, and that they needed to donate money if it was to continue doing its job properly. More than 45 content contributors had produced over 5,000 pages of content, resulting in a website that was poorly organized, hard to navigate, and with lots of duplicate content. In other words, it was a typical website.

Original Norwegian Cancer Society homepage

The Society decided to use my Top Tasks method to identify customer tasks. When Norwegian citizens voted, their top tasks were:

  • Treatment
  • Symptoms
  • Prevention

The tasks that were least important to them were:

  • Donations
  • Annual report
  • Press releases

This is a classical organizational dilemma. The thinking goes that we can’t give the citizens / customers what they want because, otherwise, we won’t be able to achieve organizational / business objectives. We have a conflict here between organization needs (donations) and customer needs (symptoms, treatment). The Society did a brave and radical thing. It focused on what people needed. It followed the evidence. It overhauled its website, reducing the number of pages from 5,000 to 1,000. From 45 part-time contributors, it reduced to 6 professional editors. It created a laser focus on providing clear, simple and accurate information relating to treatment, symptoms, prevention. It deemphasized calls for donations, removing such calls almost entirely from its homepage.

Task-based Norwegian Cancer Society homepage

What were the results?

  • 70% increase in one-time donations
  • 88% increase in monthly donors registered
  • 164% increase in members registered
  • 348% increase in incoming links
  • 80% increase in visitors

What the Cancer Society did was counter-intuitive from an organization- centric, old model view of the world. It put the customer at the center. It didn’t just listen to its customers. It acted on what they were saying. It built a professional, customer-centric culture. And everyone won. The customers got better, simpler information. They responded by donating more because they had experienced first-hand the value that the organization delivered. If you’re useful, you’ll get used.

Read the next chapter: Business Case for Digital Self-Service

Read the previous chapter: Collaborating and Connecting

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Laney, D. Gartner: Information Innovation: Innovation Key Initiative Overview, Apr. 2012

Manyika J. et al. Big data: McKinsey Global Institute: e Next Frontier for Innovation, Competition, and Productivity, May 2011

Pigato, J. Entrepreneur: How 9 Successful Companies Keep Their Customers, Apr. 2015

Taleb, N. Fooled by Randomness: e Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2005

Rush, K. Meet the Obama Campaign’s $250 Million Fundraising Platform, Nov. 2012