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Solve Business Problems with Data Science

A generalized framework to data-driven consulting projects


Here we propose a general framework to solve business problems with data science. This 5-step framework will not only shed light on the subject to someone from the non-technical background, but also allow data enthusiasts to consistently deliver quality results in a timely manner.

First we will start with defining our business problems, which helps us clarify the scope of the project at hand. After acquiring sufficient amount of understanding on the business, we can move on to specifying objectives that can be achieved through analytics. Next, we will examine the data we can get our hands on, and conduct standardized processes to clean and explore the data. After data preparation comes the model training step, where we will examine the performance of different algorithms on the data and obtain the optimal model. Finally, we also need to A/B test the model again with real data to see if an actual lift could be found.

Step 1: Business Problems

From our experiences, it is not uncommon to get ambiguous problems at first, from both internal and external clients. We will use an E-commerce client project as a demonstration through out this blog post.

“We’d like to increase sales.”

“We want to know how we can improve our business.”

It is our responsibility to dig more information out of our clients and make sure they understand the reason why we are doing it. This is very similar to traditional management consulting, where we need to slice the problem to smaller pieces that can be tackled more effectively. For example, we can break down sales into quantity and price by each product line, or we can break down sales into purchases from new customers and existing customers, so change in trend can be observed. There are numerous ways to slice the problems, and by having superb domain expertise in the business, we will be able to do it more effectively.

Of course, in situations where decreases in multiple segments are observed, we need to set up priorities, and focus on the segments that have the most impact on sales over others.

Let us assume that a severe decrease in quantity sold for product A is observed, specifically from existing customers. The business problem can thus be redefined as below.

“What do we do when old customers are not buying product A anymore?”

After clarifying the business problem, we can move on to creating objectives.

Step 2: Analytics Objectives

As opposed to creating SMART objectives, setting up sound analytics objectives requires us to have deeper understanding on the three major learning approaches in data science. We will focus on algorithms in supervised learning and unsupervised learning here, while reinforcement learning is more popular among applications such as deep learning and artificial intelligence.

Supervised Learning

Classification algorithms, such as k-Nearest Neighbors and Support Vector Machine, allow us to classify data points into categorical outcomes. For instance, we can classify all customers into purchasers and non-purchasers; we can also predict if a new website visitor will be converted into member.

Regression algorithms, such as linear and polynomial regression, enable us to predict numerical outcomes. For example, we can predict the dollar amount of purchase by each customer; we can predict the number of days till a customer visits our website again.

In supervised learning, we tend to have a target variable that can either be categorical or numerical, and we will use other independent variables to predict the outcome of the target variable.

Unsupervised Learning

Clustering algorithms, including k-means and hierarchy clustering, let us group data points with similar features. For example, we can segment our web visitors based on their browsing behaviors, such as average time on page and average number of pages viewed.

Association rule algorithms, such as apriori principle and Markov Chain, can uncover hidden patterns and relationships in our data. For example, we can know which products are often viewed and bought together; we can also predict the next web page to be viewed by a customer.

Unlike supervised learning, here we do not have a specific target variable, but rather a sequence or relationship between the data points as output.

Going back to the business problem defined, we may still find that the algorithms above cannot be applied to the problem directly. Therefore, we will need to transform the business problem into below.

“Can we acquire new customers that are more likely to buy product A?”

With the problem defined above, the analytics objective can be set up as to find variables that can help us predict product A purchasers. In other words, we want to find out what product A purchasers have in common, and focus our marketing effort on potential customers with the same shared features.

“Can we promote other products that old customers are likely to buy?”

With the problem defined above, the analytics objective is to find patterns between other products viewed and bought along with product A. We can then use email or SMS to communicate the benefits of other products with existing customers.

Now we have covered step 1 and step 2, which require certain amount of domain expertise and critical thinking. Another important take away is that we can finish steps 1 and 2 prior to examining per customer level data, so our thought process is less likely to be constrained.

Next we will move on to more technical steps of the framework, using product A purchaser classification as a demonstration.

Step 3: Data Preparation

Sources and Extraction

We will first identify the sources that we can get our data from. In the case of E-commerce, there is database to store demographic and transactional data of customers. There is also Google Analytics, where web behavior data is stored on. Given the popularity of social platforms such as Facebook, we can also get social behavior data of our customers, including public posts and public fan page likes.

Since demographic and transaction data are stored in-house, the extraction is relatively straight forward.

In order to extract per visitor level data on web behaviors, or clickstreams, from Google Analytics, we need to first set up custom dimensions such as browser id, login id, and timestamp. We can then export the data using the Analytics API by Google.

As for social data from Facebook, there is more manual work. Sometimes users can sign-up via their Facebook accounts, and we can get their profiles accordingly. We can also map email addresses and phone numbers from our database to find the profiles. Since the Graph API by Facebook does not provide such information, we will also need to scrape the content ourselves.

Cleansing and Transformation

Since we have extracted data from three distinctive sources above, it is highly likely that the formats are very different, and hence we need to compile the data to a per customer level dataframe. That is, each observation, or row, is a representation of a single customer; each variable, or column, represents a single behavior or identity of that customer.

Undoubtedly we will have missing values in our dataframe, as some customers may have never bought from us, hence no transactional data; some customers may have made purchases at physical stores only, hence no web behavior data can be acquired. While removing the observations with missing values may be an easy solution, we risk losing valuable information. As a result, it is highly recommended to use more feasible approaches, such as using regression to predict missing values.

When transforming data into a dataframe, sometimes we need to rely on experiences and domain expertise to engineer new variables from a number of currently available variables. For example, in transactional data, customers may have purchased different quantities and different products, in a list format. We will need to create a set of dummy variables to represent all the products available, and record the purchase quantity as observations, in order to include purchase information in the per customer level dataframe. Similar transformations can be found in web behavior data as well, since customers may have visited our website from different media channels, a single default variable Source provided by Google Analytics may not be sufficient.

Exploration and Visualization

When the dataframe is complete, we can start exploring the relationships between variables. A common practice is to find the correlation between any two variables.

In addition, we can also calculate the statistical metrics of each variable, such as maximum value, minimum value, mean and median, in order to find extreme values, or outliers, that should be neglected.

It is important to explore the dataframe prior to model training, as we can obtain more meaningful understanding on the characteristics and limitations of the data at hand, and we can also know if it is necessary to include additional engineered variables.

Step 4: Model Development


There are a number of classification algorithms we can choose from, and it is important to know the pros and cons of each algorithm, such as the trade off between predictability and interpretability. Since the analytics objective is to first identify variables that will help us predict product A purchasers, and then use the identified variables to acquire new customers, an algorithm that can return comprehensive results is more ideal, as opposed to more powerful blackbox algorithms.

In terms of interpretability, our top algorithm choice is the Classification and Regression Tree (CART). However, we would still want to use other algorithms, including k-Nearest Neighbors (kNN), linear and quadratic discriminant analysis (LDA/QDA), logistic regression, random forests, boosting, and Support Vector Machine (SVM) as predition benchmarks.


Here we will need to divide the dataframe into training (70%), validation (20%), and testing(10%) data sets. We will use the training set to train models, and obtain unbiased result with the validation set. After tuning parameters to obtain better performance on validation set, we will evaluate the final model performance with the testing set, which is unseen data and can again return unbiased results and prevent over-fitting.


There is a variety of evaluation metrics, such as confusion matrix, gain and lift charts, Gini coefficient, R-squared and adjusted R-squared, area under the ROC curve (AUC), and Mean Squared Error (MSE). These metrics will allow us to evaluate the performance of our algorithms. It is also important to know which metrics to use depending on different situations. For example, when target variable has a skewed distribution, that is, the proportion of product A purchasers only accounts for 1% of all customers, we may get misleading results if we rely on confusion matrix to evaluate the model accuracy, since by labeling all customers as non product A purchasers, we can randomly achieve 99% accuracy. Instead, other metrics such as MSE may provide us with more adequate evaluation.


We can also tune the parameters of our algorithms to achieve better results on the validation data set. For example, in the random forests algorithm, we need to specify the number of nodes to include, whether to include all variables, half the amount of variables, or squared-root of the variables. This is a relatively time consuming step, as we have to explore different options on all the selected models. By doing so, we are tuning our algorithms to fit the validation set better, which inevitably results in over-fitting situations.


Finally, in order to obtain un-biased performance on the final model, we will apply the algorithm with tuned parameters to the testing data, in order to evaluate the true performance.

Step 5: Performance Testing

With the tested final model, before actual implementation or actual marketing campaign, we need to do testing to see if there is an actual lift. For example, the final model indicated that product A purchasers are male customers in their 30s, who visit our website from Google paid search via their PCs, and most often on Saturday nights. We can spend a small budget on Google paid search to see if this particular segment purchases more against other segments. Alternatively, we can also A/B test each variable, such as PC versus Mobile or Saturday nights versus non-Saturday nights.

To properly set up and interpret the A/B testing results, we need to keep a few things in mind, such as sample size, confidence level, and the confidence interval for proportion.

For instance, when we are testing this particular segment against other segments, since we already know the normal purchase rate is around 5%, with 1,000 customers as the sample size, a 95% confidence interval for other segments would be between 3.81% and 6.53%. If we estimate the purchase rate of the identified segment to be at 10%, then with the same 1,000 sample size, the confidence interval is between 8.29% and 12.02%, which does not overlap with the confidence interval for other segments. As a result, we can conclude that with 95% confidence, sample size of 1,000 customers is sufficient enough for us to say that the identified segment indeed has an actual lift on purchases. However, if the estimated purchase rate of the identified segment is lower than 10%, then we may need to conduct the test on more than 1,000 customers. If we are happy with the A/B testing results, we can go ahead and create larger scale marketing campaigns.

Final Thoughts

This sums up for the blog post. We have covered the 5-step framework to solve business problems with data science. While we use an E-commerce client as the demonstration case, potential applications are not limited to digital marketing only.

In terms of the three pillars in data science — domain expertise and critical thinking, hacking and programming, mathematics and statistics, steps 1 and 2 require industry knowledge and creativity; hacking and programming skills come in handy when we are extracting and cleaning data from different sources; math and statistical background are necessary to understanding the advantages and limitations on different algorithms as well as result interpretations.

The 5-step framework is of course a general approach, while the order of some sub-steps is interchangeable, and should be modified and tailored to fit different client projects.

Questions, comments, or concerns?