Book review: Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends by Martin Lindstrom


Over the last few years, we have been inundated with articles about the importance that Big Data has for business and how predictive analytics will be the way forward. Big Data is not going anywhere, and it feels like we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to utilizing the findings that it offers. That is why when I saw the title of “Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends” by Martin Lindstrom, it caught my attention immediately. I did a little research on the author and found that in 2009, Lindstrom was selected by Time Magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. That was the tipping point for me to pick up the book.

Martin Lindstrom is a “global professional outsider” or, more formally, an ethnographic researcher. He is hired by companies around the world to discover how ordinary people live their lives, generating valuable insights into what they truly want and value. This kind of research is the key to gaining a full understanding of your customers and of your own business. Lindstrom discusses at length his idea that there is no detail too small to be valuable. Even the most mundane everyday behaviours form secret patterns, which when discovered reveal important lessons about the way people work. When he comes to visit, he examines everything from hand gestures to wall décor. While living with families as part of his research, he has been known to rummage through their garbage and recycling bins for clues.

For me, Lindstrom’s book solidifies the fact that observation and research are essential when building a product or service and confirms that relying on Big Data alone won’t get you the outcomes that you are looking to achieve. It also underlines the need for empathy in design, and confirms my vision of Design Thinking as a critical part of our product and service design process.

Chip Heath, author of“Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die”, nails the book’s importance in his foreword:

“In today’s business environment, Big Data inspires religious levels of devotion and Martin Lindstrom is an atheist… Big Data does not spark insight. New ideas typically come from juxtaposition — combining two things that previously haven’t been combined. However, Big Data typically lives in databases that are defined too narrowly to create insight… Big Data is data and data favors analysis over emotion. It’s hard to imagine data capturing many of the emotional qualities we most value: beautiful or friendly or sexy or cute. If data fostered better emotional decisions, then accountants, not poets, would be the cultural prototype for great lovers… In sum, Big Data has problems, and Martin is successful at showing how Small Data is essential to overcoming them.”

Although Lindstrom does digress quite a bit sometimes in building a case, the journey is fascinating regardless. It’s an easy read/listen and I recommend it if you are fascinated by the “why” of things.

Originally published at www.linkedin.com.

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