Does using data to drive decisions undermine your purpose?

In 2013 Simon Sinek presented a Ted Talk entitled ‘start with the why’. He explains how companies that truly inspire, the likes of Apple, talk differently at a fundamental level. They communicate in a way that connects emotionally with the end user. The idea of shifting to starting with the why is a powerful idea. But as someone who’s career is based in using data to drive decisions, this provides a challenge — how to reconcile a fuzzy but powerful idea with logical data driven facts?

The iPad is the perfect example of this challenge. In 2010 Steve Jobs announced the release of the iPad. I remember being at a BBQ this same year with a group of tech trend leaders, none of whom could see the value in an oversized iPhone. Within 2 years, iPads were ubiquitous. If Steve Jobs had listened to the data, the iPad might never have been created.

The challenge is getting the right data. Asking a user to imagine how they would use something doesn’t work; they can’t apply existing mental models to something new. Those tech trend leaders were thinking about how they use their phone — to make calls, write simple emails and get quick information from websites; and how they use their laptop — to load content-rich websites and type longer documents and emails. Why would they want something that does all of these things worse than their existing models.They don’t see the point, so had they been asked, the data would have said the iPad is a bad idea.

But what if you had asked them about how and why they interacted with their smartphones and laptops now.

‘Why do you only use your smart phone for simple emails?’

‘Why don’t you want to load and browse a full e-commerce site on your smartphone?’

The data changes, highlighting the problems with the existing system, ‘the keyboard is too small and the loading is too slow’. Once you know the problems you can find solutions. The greater the problem for the user the more likely the solution will be a success.

If you had asked 100 people with a smartphone before 2010 whether they need an iPad, all of them would have said no. If you had discovered that 60% of those people only write short simple emails because the keyboard is too small then you have found a problem that can be solved and that solution could be fundamental to the success of your product.

The iPad is born.