This why you should STOP COLLECTING DATA about customer behavior

The 2016 US Presidential Elections had a Himalayan prediction failure, although based on data

I know that this article’s title is completely against conventional product development mantra. If you don’t collect data, how will you learn from your product experiments? How will you know what the customer wants and does not want? How will you know if it is time to pivot? How can you understand anything in the world without data?
I have heard statements like Data is the next oil” and “Always back your assumptions with data and “Let’s build a data-driven company” and da da ta ta da da ta.

All of these concerns are valid and all of the above golden startup statements are still very 24 karats but we are forgetting one important assumption here — “Are we collecting the right data?” Do you really want your browser to be filled with those re-targeting lingerie ads just because you checked out their website once? Do you really care about what bathrobe brand Donald Trump wears just because you followed the US elections closely? Will you be interested in buying a discounted hotel room package with your flight even when you are flying back home?

These might be extreme examples but our predictions of customer behavior based on behavior data has missed the bulls-eye by far and sometimes even turned back to poke us in the eye. The epitome of data analytics, Google, overestimated the prevalence of flu in the 2012–2013 and 2011–2012 seasons by more than 50%. There are much more examples in Vivek Dehejia & Rupa Subramaniam’s humorous economics book Indianomix”. Data has failed to predict election results, ad campaign success, product demand, and even flu trends. Sometimes, the predictions are as good as the roll of a die. But why?

Enter Context & Intent (Yes, Androiders! You always had the answer within you….r code). Every time a human being takes a decision, it is done in a specific context and with a specific intent. However, it is difficult to understand these two attributes as there are gazillion factors affecting them: culture, situation, personality, life events, ideology, economy, friends, family, pets, media, hormones, etc etc etc.

As Product Managers, we like to assume the context and intent as per our convenience and spend long hours staring at a dashboard full of colorful lines, circles, and rectangles made out of data that promise to magically read the customers’ minds and tell us what they exactly want.

“Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get”
-Forrest Gump

So, do we just quit on data? No, contrary to the title of this article, keep collecting them but not in isolation. Find out the context and intent. But how? Quite simple. TALK TO CUSTOMERS! Empathize. Get into their shoes. Don’t treat them as data-spitting robots. Treat them as your best friend who just had a breakup. Listen to them. Find out what makes them happy and what makes them sad. Are they more individualist or collectivist? What are they doing this weekend? What are their favorite childhood stories? Do they strongly believe in a cause? Stalk them! Just don’t get too creepy. Supplement your dull data points with this exciting new knowledge and get ready to witness some fireworks.