When it comes to numbers, there are three types of people:
People who react without any supporting data whatsoever.
You’ve probably worked with quite a few of these before. You’re doing your designated task like a happy hamster on a wheel, when someone else reads a new article, goes to a conference, talks to a vendor, gets a random complaint, or whatever, and it’s time for you to reverse course and spin the wheels in another direction. I used to say it’s like some crazy Jim Collins’ bus metaphor where the bus driver changes direction each time a new person gets on and says he wants to go somewhere else; the bus moves in circles.
People who ask for numbers but have no clue what they want them for.
These people collect raw data like my my kids collect broken crayons. What do they do with the data? They can’t possibly decipher it. Much like an abstract work—or my kids’ artwork—they pretend it holds some deeper meaning, hold it at arms length, share it at meetings with others hoping to hell that it speaks for itself and that someone will explain it to them.
People who actually know how to get the information they need from numbers.
These people possess are rare talent: the art of assessing data. Whether you are are talking needs assessment or Web analytics, hard numbers don’t tell you the story of what’s really going on.
Shelby Thayer, of Trending Upward, would say, “It’s all about trends. Percentages. Is our bounce rate for this landing page up or down? Is it high or low? I don’t care that we get 100,000 visits a week. I care if that number goes way down or way up. I need to know why that’s happening and that makes you dig deeper.” Here’s where filtering comes into the picture.
So we have this block of raw data that we have to carve into something that tells us something meaningful. How do we know what to cut away? That’s where qualitative data becomes valuable. Though you will encounter people from group #2, who hear the word “anecdotal” and completely discount the validity of qualitative data (true story), as Shelby says, “You can’t have strictly quantitative or qualitative data and really know what’s going on. The quantitative tells you what, and the qualitative tells you why! If you strictly rely on the quantitative, you might dump a bunch of money or assets into fixing something that really just needed to be tweaked!”
Gathering good quantitative data helps you segment to a particular audience, issue, etc. Sometimes you can get this data from tools on your site. On occasion, I’ve gotten an open-ended comment on a survey or heard an anecdote while conducting personal interviews that led me to filter my raw numeric data and discover new patterns I hadn’t considered. Sometimes it’s a manual process of getting out and interacting with people. When I was a student teacher, well over a decade ago, my student teaching supervisor called it “withitness”. Or you could consider it management by walking around (MBWA) for your data. I’ve had people make “off the record” comments because I have taken the time to get to know them as people first. Later I have been able to refine my data based on what I know about these people.
When you work with raw data and apply enough filters to it based on how well you know the segment you are working with, you will have the best likeness of what’s going on. Like Michelangelo said, “It is easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.”
Photo Credit: “Michelango’s David” by Robert Scarth