We now have access to more data than ever before, amongst incredible people and tools to enable us to do the right thing by our customers and our companies. People are constantly talking about being ‘data-driven’ (I bet you often don’t go a week without hearing this term) and how we must apply this thinking. I’ve been thinking about this lately and it’s become a little bit of sticking point for me; either these people think data should be the key driver or they’ve not thought about this in such a way and are actually informed but keep referring to being driven.

The job that I do and the things I choose to do outside of work often involve some sort of data to help me craft a decision, but ultimately the data doesn’t ‘drive’ all of my decisions. Some, but not all, and that’s why we can’t just say we need to be ‘data-driven’.

How could I let a sample of data from the last 30 days, 3 months, 3 years ‘drive’ a decision?

I can’t, and that’s why being ‘data-informed’ is a much more fitting approach to making decisions, the right ones. The data I get access to ‘informs’ my decisions amongst a ton of other stuff including my gut and as humans that’s how most of us behave.

Being informed enables us to take the data and put it into context so we understand the behaviour that drove this outcome to bring it to life. Being driven relies on a snippet of reality. Context is everything, and I’m pretty sure you’ll read this and a load of situations you’ve been will come to mind where context has filled in the gaps data could not.

Several people are typing, cutting through the noise of data…

Applied thinking at work

If you just use data, you’ll make decisions without having any awareness or understanding of the bigger picture.

A few weeks ago I was presented with a problem, like ‘OH MY… we’ve seen a massive peak in customers interacting with our feedback tool at this point in the journey, there must be a problem with something on our side’.

If the team was data-driven, and only data-driven, we’d have jumped on this immediately and dived in head first looking for a needle in a haystack.

Because we took a step back and considered the bigger picture, we were able to (within minutes) figure out that there was a huge variable outside of our control that drove this behaviour amongst customers, not our journey.

So being ‘data-informed’ over ‘data-driven’, we saved time and put our minds at rest within moments.

Here’s my take on what being informed vs being driven would look like if it were a diagram (of course I’ve used a Venn diagram):

Applied thinking outside of work
Think back to a holiday you booked. You saw photos of the place, you read up about it, took note of some reviews, you discussed it with friends, you compared a few places, checked the price and you thought back to your previous holidays…

…then you booked it.

You didn’t just use the data such as flight time, distance from airport or the star ratings, you combined this with everything else, therefore the data informed your decision but it didn’t drive it, your gut and everything else played a part in this.

Same diagram, different ‘everything else’:

Real-world examples

To validate this thinking even further, let’s take a look at some companies and how they’re approaching it.

Tesco, the world’s third largest retailer (by gross revenue) has two sides, on one hand you could says data driven because of its Clubcard scheme and how it learns more about its customers based on their buying habits. And on the other, it’s informed, it’s evolved over time to stay relevant to customers offering home delivery, collect in store, from just groceries to clothes and electrical items.

Netflix is renowned for its data and the decisions the platform makes on the fly based on our viewing behaviour, which would make everyone think they’re data driven. Back in 2015 they hired an anthropologist, someone to look at the bigger picture as they knew they weren’t as close to reality as they needed to be. A shift in behaviour, driven to informed.

Facebook, has the largest amount of data in Hadoop (manages data processing and storage) more than any other company in the world, yet they base their decisions on more than just their data.

You only need to look at Facebook’s research team and what they’re focusing on to see how they’re leverage data along with user experience to constantly improve the experiences their 2bn users have.

Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and User Experience (UX) researchers at Facebook seek to deeply understand and improve the experiences of the over 2 billion people around the world who use Facebook every month.

An example of their informed approach, was that they came up with an idea to automatically add alt tags to images for their visually impaired users, using image recognition. Rather than just ship this, they got closer to users through interviews and usability studies to iterate and improve the experience.

On the other end of the spectrum, let’s look at one company that didn’t look at the bigger picture and failed because of it. The video store you’d spend hours of your life walking up and down the aisles trying to find something you’d like, the one you’d have to walk through snow, wind and rain to return your video because you’d be charged for a late return. I don’t even need to name them.

They failed to see how the world was changing and how customers expectations and behaviours have shifted.

Netflix spotted a gap in the market and went with their gut alongside data.

And then there’s Skype. Their team had spent days, hours, months to launch something customers didn’t love and therefore didn’t force the update in the end. They’ve now gone back to the drawing board. It makes you wonder what was behind their thoughts, certainly doesn’t sound like it was informed.

Three thoughts to takeaway:

  1. Focus on the bigger picture, take a step back – if you’re only focusing on a snippet of reality by just looking at data, how can you take your end users and other variables into consideration?
  2. Data needs to be part the story, not the story – data can help with the ‘why’, the ‘so what’, but it shouldn’t be the deciding factor.
  3. Change the conversation, ‘challenge the status quo’ – some leaders will send you away if there’s not enough data for their liking, it’s your job to educate them and tell them a story, that’s compelling and informing.

We’re humans, designing for humans

We’ve all got tons of data and tons of experience, so when there’s big decisions to make that’ll improve your customers/peoples’ experience and move the needle for the business then you should use data to support your decisions, but not rely on just that. When you went for that job you’re absolutely smashing, did data drive the decision? I bet it didn’t.

At the end of the day, we’re humans, designing for humans. Whether it be your customers or your people, how can you just use data when your gut and experience as a human leads you to a more nuanced outcome than just data would.

If you’ve enjoyed this, you’ll certainly enjoy Andrew Chen’s thoughts on this from way back when he was at Facebook almost a decade ago. There’s a ton of other stuff he writes about and there’s a reason he’s now part of the world’s most sought after venture capitalist, Andreessen Horowitz that are backing the likes of Airbnb, Lyft and Slack.

Useful links reference above


Moving from being data-driven to data-informed was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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