ethnographic research, qualitative research methods, consumer insights, new innovations, big data,

Big Data, Creativity and Big Data, Innovative Solutions, Innovation Consulting

Connie Williams, CMO & General Partner Synecticsworld

By Connie Williams

Big Data is the rage. Consulting companies are advising left and right on how to get amazing results; new start-ups are leveraging the power of Big Data to bring new products and services to market, especially in technology. If not leveraging truly Big Data, led by advancements in massive computing power, then data analytics or data science is key to today’s business environment. No matter what, most companies rely strongly on quantitative analysis for decision-making and customer knowledge.

For instance, in the area of the customer experience, a hot topic today, most companies do assessments. Yet if your company relies on survey data almost exclusively to determine how they are performing and what customers want, I believe they are missing something significant. If you’ve ever filled out a survey and thought “none of these answers fit”, you know what I mean.

So, I want to keep a candle burning in my professional window for what I will call “Small Data”.

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What is Small Data? Is it the realm of little people doing little things with little numbers? No, of course not. Small Data is the power of real conversations with real people. It is qualitative; it is about behavior, language, nuance, and motivation. It is about the power of visualization, metaphor and analogy to learn what people really feel about subjects. It is about forming hypotheses. It’s discovering the depths that people think about things and finding what is underneath those thoughts at a more subconscious level.

I was recently asked to talk about qualitative research vs. quantitative research. When should you use each type of research and why? Of course, quantitative research is great for measuring data among a particular cohort or subject matter and projecting that to a larger population. Smart researchers build amazing models based on themes and patterns in groups using mathematical and statistical principles. I am in awe of the abilities of our best researchers to confirm hypotheses and predict outcomes. Yet why do a large number of quantitative studies fail to fully predict actual human behavior? That’s where Small Data comes in. It is critical to explore and engage human beings, beyond the survey. It is the only way to gain context, shading, perceptions and to know the issues to ask about in quantitative studies.

Small Data is supported by neuroscience, it is a foundational truth that 100% of human beings without brain injury make 100% of their decisions based first on their emotions. Brain scans show that the emotional parts of the brain lights up first. Then the rational areas kick in to justify the decision. So, while you claim that performance statistics justify that gorgeous BMW you just bought, the truth is that you feel great and powerful when you drive it! Great qualitative research brings underlying meaning, relationships, emotions and even the subconscious into play. Small Data should almost always be a prerequisite to quantitative studies and analytics. Here’s how to make it great:

  • Establish a climate of trust so that human beings share in honest and transparent ways
  • Spend enough time talking in real conversation
  • Use open-ended questions that allow for discussions to move in unanticipated ways
  • Allow occasions for unstructured discussion about the subject matter
  • Ask “Why?”, “tell me more”, “help me understand…..”
  • Build opportunities for rich inputs – comparisons, analogies, visual exercises and then follow those ‘trails’ to gain new perspectives and context
  • Check understanding through the power of the paraphrase
  • Use your time with people well; never ask a question you can ask in a survey!

Small Data: That’s a beautiful thing!


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