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Posted by on Oct 15, 2012

Use “small data” to get more from “big data” input

Use “small data” to get more from “big data” input


My colleague Evelyn Smeets  attended “The Human Mind and Usability“,  a one-day session at the traveling Nielsen Norman Group usability conference.   As an experienced customer experience professional, she was disappointed. The session didn’t provide the depth she was expecting, or touch on any of the news  around behavioural psychology and human actions she had hoped to hear of (such as in Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit).

So she wrote a polite email explaining why she felt that the day wasn’t worth the money she paid for, and what the Nielsen Norman group (“NNg”) could have done differently to make it worthwhile. The NNg woman responded that she was sorry she couldn’t help  because

“the course gets very high ratings and covers what it says in the online description”.

In other words, Evelyn was mistaken.  This was a beginner’s class, and was labelled as such, so she should not have been expecting anything else.   The representative was kind enough to offer a free pass to another class.

This response shows how companies – even those dedicated to improving the user experience – can get side tracked by “big data”. By focussing soley on the statistical feedback, companies miss a chance to improve the customer experience.  For what is hidden in Evelyn’s thoughtful input – and in almost every “outlier” input – are what we call  “golden insights” that have the power to transform a business.

So what  can a company do to make sure they get all they can from customer input? We have 3 guidelines.

  • Use “big data” to see the  big picture. The statistical accumulation of feedback is invaluable. As the NNg representative points out, the vast majority of attendees loved the day. So from a big picture point of view,  management should be happy to know that the content is good, the offering is spot on, and the presenters are  doing a good job.
  • Use “small data” to look for golden insights and start a dialogue.  Look at the “outliers” – those who respond  higher or lower than the average. Delve into what prompted the response and interview them if possible.  Evelyn’s input – with a thoughtful interview afterwards – could have catapulted the day to a higher level (which is also relevant for beginners) and could have lead to a mini-redesign of the marketing of the conference.
  • Give the data – both big and small – to those responsible :  We suspect that the email interchange Evelyn had with NNg never even made it to those who gave the talk or to the NNg leaders.  Check your organisation : how is  data disseminated?  Who gets what? If top executives are only getting the “big data” make sure they get the outliers too.

Evelyn chatted recently with a friend who attended the same session in London 6 months later. The content is still the same.  And it will probably remain so  so until the “big data” needle starts to move. In the meantime, the door opens for others to bring fresh insights into this exciting field (even at a basic level).


What to read more? I liked this post on the importance of small data from Robert Plant at Harvard Business Review blogs.



1 Comment

  1. Lea, that’s a fascinating article and it would be amusing if the cost both to ‘customers’ like your colleague, and to the service provider company weren’t so high.

    One concept that’s tough to always get right is the exchange value of handling customer complaints. Some companies give in and give a free X, Y or Z which may vastly outweigh the benefit of solving the customer problem. Others, as you demonstrate don’t go far enough.

    The most powerful point, which you made eloquently, is the value the provider company COULD gain from talking with your colleague about her experience. And of course their big data may be inadequate. If they are asking questions like “how great was our training session, A. really great, B. great, C. quite great” they never have any useful data to analyse.

    Do you think Fred Reichheld has found the ultimate customer service question?

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