Tag Archives: continuous improvement

The Myth of the Single KPI for Testing

Continuous Improvement through testing is a simple idea. That’s no surprise. The simplest, most obvious ideas are often the most powerful. And testing is a powerful idea. An idea that forms and shapes the way digital is done by the companies that do it best. And those same companies have changed the world we live in.

If testing and continuous improvement is a process, analytics is the driver of that process; and as any good driver knows, the more powerful the vehicle, the more careful you have to be as a driver. Testing analytics seems so easy. You run a test, you measure which worked better. You choose the winner.

It’s like reading the scoreboard at a football game. It doesn’t take a lot of brains to figure out who’s ahead.

Except it’s usually not that easy.

Sporting events just are decided by the score. Games have rules and a single goal. Life and business mostly don’t. What makes measuring tests surprising tricky is that you rarely have a single unequivocal measure of success.

Suppose you add a merchandising drive to a section of your store or on the product detail page of your website. You test. And you generate more sales of that product.

Success!

Success?

Let’s start with the obvious caveat. You may have generated more sales, but you gave up margin. Was it worth it? Usually, the majority of buyers with a discount would have bought without one. Still, that kind of cannibalization is fairly easy to baseline and measure.

Here’s a trickier problem. What else changed? Because when you add a merchandising drive to a product, you don’t just shift that product’s buying pattern. The customer who buys might have bought something else. Maybe something with a better margin.

To people who don’t run tests, this may come as a bit of surprise. Shouldn’t tests be designed to limit their impact so that the “winner” is clear? ‘

Part of a good experimental design is, indeed, creating a test that limits external impacts. But this isn’t the lab. Limiting the outside impact of a test isn’t easy and you can  never be sure you’ve actually succeeded in doing that unless you carefully measure.

Worse, the most important tests usually have the most macro-impact. Small creative tests can often be isolated to a single win-loss metric. Sadly, that metric usually doesn’t matter or doesn’t move.

If you need proof of that, check out this meta-study by Will Browne & Mike Jones (those names feel like generic test products, right?) that looked at the impact of different types of test. Their finding? UI changes of the color and call-to-action type had, essentially, zero impact. Sadly, that’s what most folks spend all their time testing. (http://www.qubit.com/sites/default/files/pdf/qubit_meta_analysis.pdf)

If your test actually changes shopper behavior, believe me, there will be macro impacts.

It’s usually straightforward to measure the direct results of a store test. It’s often much harder to determine the macro impact. But it’s something you MUST look at. The macro impact can be as or more important than the direct impact. What’s more, it often – I’ll say usually – runs in the opposite direction.

So if you fail to measure the macro impact of a store test and you focus only on the obvious outcome, you’ll often pick the wrong result or grossly overstate the impact. Either way, you’re not using your analytics to drive appropriately.

Of course, one of the very real challenges you’ll face is that many tools don’t measure the macro impact of tests at all. In the digital world, the vast majority of dedicated testing tools require you to focus on a single KPI and provide absolutely no measurement of macro impacts. They simply assume that the test was completely compartmentalized. That works okay for things like email testing, but it’s flat-out wrong when it comes to testing store or website changes.

If your experiment worked well enough to change a shopper’s behavior and got them to buy something, the chances are quite good that it changed more than just that behavior. You may have given up margin. You likely lost some sales elsewhere. You almost certainly changed what else in the store or the site the shopper engaged with. That stuff matters.

In the store world, most tools don’t measure enough to give you even the immediate win-loss results. To heck with the rest of the story. So it can tempting, when you first have real measurement, to focus on the obvious: which test won. Don’t.

In some of my recent posts, I’ve talked about the ways in which DM1 – our store testing and measurement platform – lets you track the full customer journey, segmentfunnel and compare. Those capabilities are key to doing test measurement right. They give you the ability to see the immediate impact of a test AND the ways in which a change affected macro customer behavior.

You can see an example of how this works (and how important that macro behavior is in store layout) in this DM1 video that focuses on the Comparison capabilities of the tool.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbpaeSmaE74&t=13s

It’s the right way to use all that power a store testing program can provide.

Store Testing & Continuous Improvement

Continuous improvement is what drives the digital world. Whether applied as a specific methodology or simply present as a fundamental part of the background against which we do business, the discipline of change and measure is a fundamental part of the digital environment. A key part of our mission at Digital Mortar is simply this: to take that discipline of continuous improvement via change and measurement and bring it to stores.

Every part of DM1 – from store visualizations to segmentation to funnel analytics – is there to help measure and illuminate the in-store customer journey. You can’t build an effective strategy or process for continuous improvement without having that basic measurement environment. It provides the context that let’s decision-makers talk intelligently about what’s working, what isn’t and what change might accomplish.

But as I pointed out in my last post, some analytic techniques are particularly useful for the role they play in shaping strategy and action. Funnel Analysis, I argued, is particularly good at focusing optimization efforts and making them easily measurable. Funnels help shape decisions about what to change. Equally important, they provide clear guidance about what to measure to judge the success of that change. After all, if you made a change to improve the funnel, you’re going to measure the impact of the change using that same funnel.

That’s a good thing.

One of the biggest mistakes in enterprise measurement (and – surprisingly – even in broader scientific contexts) is failing to commit to your measurement of success when you start an experiment. It turns out that you can nearly always find some measure that improved after an experiment. It just may not be the right measure. If folks are looking for a way to prove success, they’ll surely find it.

Since we expect our clients to use DM1 to drive store testing, we’ve tried to make it easy on both ends of the process. Tools like funnel analysis help analysts find and target areas for improvement. At the other end of the process, analysts need to be able to easily see whether changes actually generated improvement.

This isn’t just for experimentation. As an analyst, I find that one of the most common tasks I have do is compare numbers. By store. By page. By time-period. By customer segment. Comparison provides basic measurement of change and context on that change.

Which makes comparison the core capability necessary for analyzing store tests but also applicable to many analytics exercises.

Though comparison is a fundamental part of the analytic process, it’s surprising how often it’s poorly supported in bespoke analytics tools. It took many years for tools like Adobe’s Workspace to evolve – providing comprehensive comparison capabilities. Until quite recently in digital analytics, you had to export reports to Excel if you wanted to lay key digital analytic data points from different reports side-by-side.

DM1’s Comparison tool is simple. It’s not a completely flexible canvas for analysis. It just takes any analytic view DM1 provides and allows you to use it in a side-by-side comparison. Simple. But it turns out to be quite powerful in practice.

Suppose you’re running a test in Store A with Store B as a control. DM1’s comparison view lets you lay those two Stores side-by-side during the testing period and see exactly what’s different. In this view, I’ve compared two similar stores by area looking at which areas drove the most shopper conversions:

Retail Analytics and Store Testing: Store Comparison in DM1

You can use ANY DM1 visualization in the Comparison. The funnel, the Store Viz or traditional reports and charts. In this view, I’ve compared the Shopper Funnel around a single merchandising category at two different stores. Not only can I see which store is more effective, I can see exactly where in the funnel the performance differences occur:

Retail Analytics and Store Testing: Time Comparison

Don’t have a control store? If you’re only measuring the customer journeys in a single store or if your store is a concept store, you won’t have another store to use as a control. No problem, DM1’s comparison view lets you compare the same store across two different time periods. You can compare season over season or consecutive time periods. You don’t even have to evenly match time periods. Here I’ve compared the October Funnel to Pre-Holiday November:

Retail Analytics and Funnels: Store Testing

Store and Date/Time are the most common type of comparison. But DM1’s comparison tool lets you compare on Segments and Metrics as well. I often want to understand how a single segment is different than other groups of visitors. By setting up a segmentation visualization, I can quickly page through a set of comparison segments while holding my target group constant. In the first screen, I’ve compared shoppers interested in Backpacks with shoppers focused on Team Gear in terms of how effective interactions with Associates are. With one click, I can do the same comparison between Women’s Jacket shoppers and Team Gear:

Funnel Analytics and Store TestingStore Analytics Comparison: Store Testing Segments

The ability to do this kind of comparison in the context of the visualizations is unusual AND powerful. The Comparison tool isn’t the only part of DM1 that supports comparison and contextualization. The Dashboard capability is surprisingly flexible and allows the analyst to put all sorts of different views side by side. And, of course, standard reporting tools like Charts and Table provide significant ways to do comparisons. But particularly when you want to use bespoke visualizations like Funnels and DM1’s store visualizations, having the ability to lay them side by side and quickly adjust metrics and view parameters is extraordinarily useful.

If you want to create a process of continuous improvement in the store, having measurement is THE essential component. Measurement that can help you identify and drive potential store testing opportunities. And measurement that can make understanding the real-world impact of change in all its complexity.

DM1 does both.

Click here to sign-up for a Demo of DM1.

Digital Transformation in the Enterprise – Creating Continuous Improvement

I’m writing this post as I fly to London for the Digital Analytics Hub. The Hub is in its fourth year now (two in Berlin and two in London) and I’ve managed to make it every time. Of course, doing these Conference/Vacations is a bit of a mixed blessing. I really enjoyed my time in Italy but that was more vacation than Conference. The Hub is more Conference than vacation – it’s filled with Europe’s top analytics practitioners in deep conversation on analytics. In fact, it’s my favorite analytics conference going right now. And here’s the good news, it’s coming to the States in September! So I have one more of these analytics vacations on my calendar and that should be the best one of all. If you’re looking for the ultimate analytics experience – an immersion in deep conversation with the some of the best analytics practitioners around – you should check it out.

I’ve got three topics I’m bringing to the Hub. Machine Learning for digital analytics, digital analytics forecasting and, of course, the topic at hand today, enterprise digital transformation.

In my last post, I described five initiatives that lay the foundation for analytics driven digital transformation. Those projects focus on data collection, journey mapping, behavioral segmentation, enterprise Voice of Customer (VoC) and unified marketing measurement. Together, these five initiatives provide a way to think about digital from a customer perspective. The data piece is focused on making sure that data collection to support personalization and segmentation is in place. The Journey mapping and the behavioral segmentation provide the customer context for every digital touchpoint – why it exists and what it’s supposed to do. The VoC system provides a window into who customers want and need and how they make decisions at every touchpoint. Finally, the marketing framework ensures that digital spend is optimized on an apples-to-apples basis and is focused on the right customers and actions to drive the business.

In a way, these projects are all designed to help the enterprise think and talk intelligently about the digital business. The data collection piece is designed to get organizations thinking about personalization cues in the digital experience. Journey mapping is designed to expand and frame customer experience and place customer thinking at the center of the digital strategy. Two-tiered segmentation serves to get people talking about digital success in terms of customer’s and their intent. Instead of asking questions like whether a Website is successful, it gets people thinking about whether the Website is successful for a certain type of customer with a specific journey intent. That’s a much better way to think. Similarly, the VoC system is all about getting people to focus on customer and to realize that analytics can serve decision-making on an ongoing basis. The marketing framework is all about making sure that campaigns and creative are measured to real business goals – set within the customer journey and the behavioral segmentation.

The foundational elements are also designed to help integrate analytics into different parts of the digital business. The data collection piece is targeted toward direct response optimization. Journey mapping is designed to help weld strategic decisions to line manager responsibilities. Behavioral segmentation is focused on line and product managers needing tactical experience optimization. VoC is targeted toward strategic thinking and decision-making, and, of course, the marketing framework is designed to support the campaign and creative teams.

If a way to think and talk intelligently about the digital enterprise and its operations is the first step, what comes next?

All five of the initiatives that I’ve slated into the next phase are about one thing – creating a discipline of continuous improvement in the enterprise. That discipline can’t be built on top of thin air – it only works if your foundation (data, metrics, framework) supports optimization. Once it does, however, the focus should be on taking advantage of that to create continuous improvement.

The first step is massive experimentation via an analytics driven testing plan. This is partly about doing lots of experiments, yes. But even more important is that the experimentation be done as part of an overall optimization plan with tests targeted by behavioral and VoC analytics to specific experiences where the opportunity for improvement is highest. If all you’re thinking about is how many experiments you run, you’re not doing it right. Every type of customer and every part of their journey should have tests targeted toward its improvement.

Similarly on the marketing side, phase II is about optimizing against the unified measurement framework with both mix and control group testing. Mix is a top-down approach that works against your overall spending – regardless of channel type or individual measurement. Control group testing is nothing more than experimentation in the marketing world. Control groups have been a key part of marketing since the early direct response days. They’re easier to implement and more accurate in establishing true lift and incrementality than mathematical attribution solutions.

The drive toward continuous improvement doesn’t end there, however. I’m a big fan for tool-based reporting as a key part of the second phase of analytics driven transformation. The idea behind tool-based reporting is simple but profound. Instead of reports as static, historical tools to describe what happened, the idea is that reports contain embedded predictive models that transform them into tools that can be used to understand the levers of the business and test what might happen based on different business strategies. Building tool-based reports for marketing, for product launch, for conversion funnels and for other key digital systems is deeply transformative. I describe this as shift in the organization from democratizing data to democratizing knowledge. Knowledge is better. But the advantages to tool-based reporting run even deeper. The models embedded in these reports are your best analytic thinking about how the business works. And guess what? They’ll be wrong a lot of the time and that’s a good thing. It’s a good thing because by making analytically thinking about how the business works explicit, you’ve created feedback mechanisms in the organization. When things don’t work out the way the model predicts, your analysts will hear about it and have to figure out why and how to do better. That drives continuous improvement in analytics.

A fourth key part of creating the agile enterprise – at least for sites without direct ecommerce – is value-based optimization. One of the great sins in digital measurement is leaving gaps in your ability to measure customers across their journey. I call this “closing measurement loops”. If you’re digital properties are lead generating or brand focused or informational or designed to drive off-channel or off-property (to Amazon or to a Call-Center), it’s much harder to measure whether or not they’re successful. You can measure proxies like content consumption or site satisfaction, but unless these proxies actually track to real outcomes, you’re just fooling yourself. This is important. To be good at digital and to use measurement effectively, every important measurement gap needs to be closed. There’s no one tool or method for closing measurement gaps, instead, a whole lot of different techniques with a bunch of sweat is required. Some of the most common methods for closing measurement gaps include re-survey, panels, device binding and dynamic 800 numbers.

Lastly, a key part of this whole phase is training the organization to think in terms of continuous improvement. That doesn’t happen magically and while all of the initiatives described here support that transformation, they aren’t, by themselves, enough. In my two posts on building analytics culture, I laid out a fairly straightforward vision of culture. The basic idea is that you build analytics culture my using data and analytics. Not by talking about how important data is or how people should behave. In the beginning was the deed.

Creating a constant cadence of analytics-based briefings and discussions forces the organization to think analytically. It forces analysts to understand the questions that are meaningful to the business. It forces decision-makers to reckon with data and lets them experience the power of being able to ask questions and get real answers. Just the imperative of having to say something interesting is good discipline for driving continuous improvement.

foundational transformation Step 2

That’s phase two of enterprise digital transformation. It’s all about baking continuous improvement into the organization and building on top of each element of the foundation the never ending process of getting better.

 

You might think that’s pretty much all there is to the analytics side of the digital transformation equation. Not so. In my next post, I’ll cover the next phase of analytics transformation – driving big analytics wins. So far, most of what I’ve covered is valid for any enterprise in any industry. But in the next phase, initiatives tend to be quite different depending on your industry and business model.

See you after the Hub!

Building Analytics Culture – One Decision at a Time

In my last post, I argued that much of what passes for “building culture” in corporate America is worthless. It’s all about talk. And whether that talk is about diversity, ethics or analytics, it’s equally arid. Because you don’t build culture by talking. You build culture though actions. By doing things right (or wrong if that’s the kind of culture you want). Not only are words not effective in building culture, they can be positively toxic. When words and actions don’t align, the dishonesty casts other – possibly more meaningful words – into disrepute. Think about which is worse – a culture where bribery is simply the accepted and normal way of getting things done (and is cheerfully acknowledged) and one where bribery is ubiquitous but is cloaked behind constant protestations of disinterest and honesty? If you’re not sure about your answer, take it down to a personal level and ask yourself the same question. Do we not like an honest villain better than a hypocrite? If hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue, it is a particularly nasty form of flattery.

What this means is that you can’t build an analytics culture by telling people to be data driven. You can’t build an analytics culture by touting the virtues of analysis. You can’t even build an analytics culture by hiring analysts. You build an analytics culture by making good (data-driven) decisions.

That’s the only way.

But how do you get an organization to make data-driven decisions? That’s the art of building culture. And in that last post, I laid out seven (a baker’s half-dozen?) tactics for building good decision-making habits: analytic reporting, analytics briefing sessions, hiring a C-Suite analytics advisor, creating measurement standards, building a rich meta-data system for campaigns and content, creating a rapid VoC capability and embracing a continuous improvement methodology like SPEED.

These aren’t just random parts of making analytic decisions. They are tactics that seem to me particularly effective in driving good habits in the organization and building the right kind of culture. But seven tactics doesn’t nearly exhaust my list. Here’s another set of techniques that are equally important in helping drive good decision-making in the organization (my original list wasn’t in any particular order so it’s not like the previous list had all the important stuff):

Yearly Agency Performance Measurement and Reviews

What it is: Having an independent annual analysis of your agency’s performance. This should include review of goals and metrics, consideration of the appropriateness of KPIs and analysis of variation in campaign performance along three dimensions (inside the campaign by element, over time, and across campaigns). This must not be done by the agency itself (duh!) or by the owners of the relationship.

Why it builds culture: Most agencies work by building strong personal relationships. There are times and ways that this can work in your favor, but from a cultural perspective it both limits and discourages analytic thinking. I see many enterprises where the agency is so strongly entrenched you literally cannot criticize them. Not only does the resulting marketing nearly always suck, but this drains the life out of an analytics culture. This is one of many ways in which building an analytic culture can conflict with other goals, but here I definitely believe analytics should win. You don’t need a too cozy relationship with your agency. You do need objective measurement of their performance.

 

Analytics Annotation / Collaboration Tool like Insight Rocket

What it is: A tool that provides a method for rich data annotation and the creation and distribution of analytic stories across the analytics team and into the organization. In Analytic Reporting, I argued for a focus on democratizing knowledge not data. Tools like Insight Rocket are a part of that strategy, since they provide a way to create and rapidly disseminate a layer of meaning on top of powerful data exploration tools like Tableau.

Why it builds culture: There aren’t that many places where technology makes much difference to culture, but there are a few. As some of my other suggestions make clear, you get better analytics culture the more you drive analytics across and into the organization (analytic reporting, C-Suite Advisor, SPEED, etc.). Tools like Insight Rocket have three virtues: they help disseminate analytics thinking not just data, they boost analytics collaboration making for better analytic teams, and they provide a repository of analytics which increases long-term leverage in the enterprise. Oh, here’s a fourth advantage, they force analysts to tell stories – meaning they have to engage with the business. That makes this piece of technology a really nice complement to my suggestion about a regular cadence of analytics briefings and a rare instance of technology deepening culture.

 

In-sourcing

What it is: Building analytics expertise internally instead of hiring it out and, most especially, instead of off-shoring it.

Why it builds culture: I’d be the last person to tell you that consulting shouldn’t have a role in the large enterprise. I’ve been a consultant for most of my working life. But we routinely advise our clients to change the way they think about consulting – to use it not as a replacement for an internal capability but as a bootstrap and supplement to that capability. If analytics is core to digital (and it is) and if digital is core to your business (which it probably is), then you need analytics to be part of your internal capability. Having strong, capable, influential on-shore employees who are analysts is absolutely necessary to analytics culture. I’ll add that while off-shoring, too, has a role, it’s a far more effective culture killer than normal consulting. Off-shoring creates a sharp divide between the analyst and the business that is fatal to good performance and good culture on EITHER side.

 

Learning-based Testing Plan

What it is: Testing plans that include significant focus on developing best design practices and resolving political issues instead of on micro-optimizations of the funnel.

Why it works: Testing is a way to make decisions. But as long as its primary use is to decide whether to show image A or image B or a button in this color or that color, it will never be used properly. To illustrate learning-based testing, I’ve used the example of video integration – testing different methods of on-page video integration, different lengths, different content types and different placements against each key segment and use-case to determine UI parameters for ALL future videos. When you test this way, you resolve hundreds of future questions and save endless future debate about what to do with this or that video. That’s learning based testing. It’s also about picking key places in the organization where political battles determine design – things like home page real-estate and the amount of advertising load on a page – and resolving them with testing; that’s learning based testing, too. Learning based testing builds culture in two ways. First, in and of itself, it drives analytic decision-making. Almost as important, it demonstrates the proper role of experimentation and should help set the table for decision-makers tests to ask for more interesting tests.

 

Control Groups

What it is: Use of control groups to measure effectiveness whenever new programs (operational or marketing) are implemented. Control groups use small population subsets chosen randomly from a target population who are given either no experience or a neutral (existing) experience instead. Nearly all tests feature a baseline control group as part of the test, but the use of control groups transcends A/B testing tools. Use of control groups common in traditional direct response marketing and can be used in a wide variety of on and offline contexts (most especially as I recently saw Elea Feit of Drexel hammer home at the DAA Symposium – as a much more effective approach to attribution).

Why it works: One of the real barriers to building culture is a classic problem in education. When you first teach students something, they almost invariably use it poorly. That can sour others on the value of the knowledge itself. When people in an organization first start using analytics, they are, quite inevitably, going to fall into the correlation trap. Correlation is not causation. But in many cases, it sure looks like it is and this leads to many, many bad decisions. How to prevent the most common error in analytics? Control groups. Control groups build culture because they get decision-makers thinking the right way about measurement and because they protect the organization from mistakes that will otherwise sour the culture on analytics.

 

Unified Success Framework

What it is: A standardized, pre-determined framework for content and campaign success measurement that includes definition of campaign types, description of key metrics for those types, and methods of comparing like campaigns on an apples-to-apples basis.

Why it works: You may not be able to make the horse drink, but leading it to water is a good start. A unified success framework puts rigor around success measurement – a critical part of building good analytics culture. On the producer side, it forces the analytics team to make real decisions about what matters and, one hopes, pushes them to prove that proxy measures (such as engagement) are real. On the consumer side, it prevents that most insidious destroyer of analytics culture, the post hoc success analysis. If you can pick your success after the game is over, you’ll always win.

 

The Enterprise VoC Dashboard

What it is: An enterprise-wide state-of-the-customer dashboard that provides a snapshot and trended look at how customer attitudes are evolving. It should include built in segmentation so that attitudinal views are ALWAYS shown sliced by key customer types with additional segmentation possible.

Why it works: There are so many good things going on here that it’s hard to enumerate them all. First, this type of dashboard is one of the best ways to distill customer-first thinking in the organization. You can’t think customer-first, until you know what the customer thinks. Second, this type of dashboard enforces a segmented view of the world. Segmentation is fundamental to critical thinking about digital problems and this sets the table for better questions and better answers in the organization. Third, opinion data is easier to absorb and use than behavioral data, making this type of dashboard particularly valuable for encouraging decision-makers to use analytics.

 

Two-Tiered Segmentation

What it is: A method that creates two-levels of segmentation in the digital channel. The first level is the traditional “who” someone is – whether in terms of persona or business relationship or key demographics. The second level captures “what” they are trying to accomplish. Each customer touch-point can be described in this type of segmentation as the intersection of who a visitor is and what their visit was for.

Why it works: Much like the VoC Dashboard, Two-Tiered Segmentation makes for dramatically better clarity around digital channel decision-making and evaluation of success. Questions like ‘Is our Website successful?’ get morphed into the much more tractable and analyzable question ‘Is our Website successful for this audience trying to do this task?’. That’s a much better question and big part of building analytics culture is getting people to ask better questions. This also happens to be the main topic of my book “Measuring the Digital World” and in it you can get a full description of both the power and the methods behind Two-Tiered Segmentation.

 

I have more, but I’m going to roll the rest into my next post on building an agile organization since they are all deeply related to the integration of capabilities in the organization. Still, that’s fifteen different tactics for building culture. None of which include mission statements, organizational alignment or C-Level support (okay, Walking the Walk is kind of that but not exactly and I didn’t include it in the fifteen) and none of which will take place in corporate retreats or all-hands conferences. That’s a good thing and makes me believe they might actually work.

Ask yourself this: is it possible to imagine an organization that does even half these things and doesn’t have a great analytics culture? I don’t think it is. Because culture just is the sum of the way your organization works and these are powerful drivers of good analytic thinking. You can imagine an organization that does these things and isn’t friendly, collaborative, responsible, flat, diverse, caring or even innovative. There are all kinds of culture, and good decision-making isn’t the only aspect of culture to care about*. But if you do these things, you will have an organization that makes consistently good decisions.

*Incidentally, if you want to build culture in any of these other ways, you have to think about similar approaches. Astronomers have a clever technique for seeing very faint objects called averted vision. The idea is that you look just to the side of the object if you want to get the most light-gathering power from your eyes. It’s the same with culture. You can’t tackle it head-on by talking about it. You have to build it just a little from the side!

Analytics with a Strategic Edge

The Role of Voice of Customer in Enterprise Analytics

The vast majority of analytics effort is expended on problems that are tactical in nature. That’s not necessarily wrong. Tactics gets a bad rap, sometimes, but the truth is that the vast majority of decisions we make in almost any context are tactical. The problem isn’t that too much analytics is weighted toward tactical issues, it’s really that strategic decisions don’t use analytics at all. The biggest, most important decisions in the digital enterprise nearly always lack a foundation in data or analysis.

I’ve always disliked the idea behind “HIPPOs” – with its Dilbertian assumption that executives are idiots. That isn’t (mostly) my experience at all. But analytics does suffer from what might be described as “virtue” syndrome – the idea that something (say taxes or abstinence) is good for everyone else but not necessarily for me. Just as creative folks tend to think that what they do can’t be driven by analytics, so too is there a perception that strategic decisions must inevitably be more imaginative and intuitive and less number-driven than many decisions further down in the enterprise.

This isn’t completely wrong though it probably short-sells those mid-level decisions. Building good creative takes…creativity. It can’t be churned out by machine. Ditto for strategic decisions. There is NEVER enough information to fully determine a complex strategic decision at the enterprise level.

This doesn’t mean that data isn’t useful or should not be a driver for strategic decisions (and for creative content too). Instinct only works when it’s deeply informed about reality. Nobody has instincts in the abstract. To make a good strategic decision, a decision-maker MUST have certain kinds of data to hand and without that data, there’s nothing on which intuition, knowledge and experience can operate.

What data does a digital decision-maker need for driving strategy?

Key audiences. Customer Journey. Drivers of decision. Competitive choices.

You need to know who your audiences are and what makes them distinct. You need (as described in the last post) to understand the different journeys those audiences take and what journeys they like to take. You need to understand why they make the choices they make – what drives them to choose one product or service or another. Things like demand elasticity, brand awareness, and drivers of choice at each journey stage are critical. And, of course, you need to understand when and why those choices might favor the competition.

None of this stuff will make a strategic decision for you. It won’t tell you how much to invest in digital. Whether or not to build a mobile app. Whether personalization will provide high returns.

But without fully understanding audience, journey, drivers of decision and competitive choices, how can ANY digital decision-maker possibly arrive at an informed strategy? They can’t. And, in fact, they don’t. Because for the vast majority of enteprises, none of this information is part-and-parcel of the information environment.

I’ve seen plenty of executive dashboards that are supposed to help people run their business. They don’t have any of this stuff. I’ve seen the “four personas” puffery that’s supposed to help decision-makers understand their audience. I’ve seen how limited is the exposure executives have to journey mapping and how little it is deployed on a day-to-day basis. Worst of all, I’ve seen how absolutely pathetic is the use of voice of customer (online and offline) to help decision-makers understand why customers make the choices they do.

Voice of customer as it exists today is almost exclusively concerned with measuring customer satisfaction. There’s nothing wrong with measuring NPS or satisfaction. But these measures tell you nothing that will help define a strategy. They are at best (and they are often deeply flawed here too) measures of scoreboard – whether or not you are succeeding in a strategy.

I’m sure that people will object that knowing whether or not a strategy is succeeding is important. It is. It’s even a core part of ongoing strategy development. However, when divorced from particular customer journeys, NPS is essentially meaningless and uninterpretable. And while it truly is critical to measure whether or not a strategy is succeeding, it’s even more important to have data to help shape that strategy in the first place.

Executives just don’t get that context from their analytics teams. At best, they get little pieces of it in dribs and drabs. It is never – as it ought to be – the constant ongoing lifeblood of decision-making.

I subtitled this post “The Role of Voice of Customer in Enterprise Analytics” because of all the different types of information that can help make strategic decisions better, VoC is by far the most important. A good VoC program collects information from every channel: online and offline surveys, call-center, site feedback, social media, etc. It provides a continuing, detailed and sliceable view of audience, journey distribution and (partly) success. It’s by far the best way to help decision-makers understand why customers are making the choices they are, whether those choices are evolving, and how those choices are playing out across the competitive set. In short, it answers the majority of the questions that ought to be on the minds of decision-makers crafting a digital strategy.

This is a very different sort of executive dashboard than we typically see. It’s a true customer insights dashboard. It’s also fundamentally different than almost ANY VoC dashboard we see at any level. The vast majority of VoC reporting doesn’t provide slice-and-dice by audience and use-case – a capability which is absolutely essential to useful VoC reporting. VoC reporting is almost never based on and tied into a journey model so that the customer insights data is immediately reflective of journey stage and actionable arena. And VoC reporting almost never includes a continuous focus on exploring customer decision-making and tying that into the performance of actual initiatives.

It isn’t just a matter of a dashboard. One of the most unique and powerful aspects of digital voice-of-customer is the flexibility it provides to rapidly, efficiently and at very little cost tackle new problems. VoC should be a core part of executive decision-making with a constant cadence of research, analysis, discussion and reporting driven by specific business questions. This open and continuing dialog where VoC is a tool for decision-making is critical to integrating analytics into decisioning. If senior folks aren’t asking for new VoC research on a constant basis, you aren’t doing it right. The single best indicator of a robust VoC program in digital is the speed with which it changes.

Sadly, what decision-makers mostly get right now (if they get anything at all) is a high-level, non-segmented view of audience demographics, an occasional glimpse into high-level decision-factors that is totally divorced from both segment and journey stage, and an overweening focus on a scoreboard metric like NPS.

It’s no wonder, given such thin gruel, that decision-makers aren’t using data for strategic decisions better. If our executives mostly aren’t Dilbertian, they aren’t miracle workers either. They can’t make wine out of information water. If we want analytics to support strategy – and I assume we all do – then building a completely different sort of VoC program is the single best place to start. It isn’t everything. There are other types of data (behavioral, benchmark, econometric, etc.) that can be hugely helpful in shaping digital strategies. But a good VoC program is a huge step forward – a step forward that, if well executed – has the power to immediately transform how the digital enterprise thinks and works.

 

This is probably my last post of the year – so see you in 2016! In the meantime, my book Measuring the Digital World is now available. Could be a great way to spend your holiday down time (ideally while your resting up from time on the slopes)! Have a great holiday…

Is Data Science a Science?

I got a fair amount of feedback through various channels around my argument that data science isn’t a science and that the scientific method isn’t a method (or at least much of one). I wouldn’t consider either of these claims particularly important in the life of a business analyst, and I think I’ve written pieces that are far more significant in terms of actual practice, but I’ve written few pieces about topics which are evidently more fun to argue about. Well, I’m not opposed to a fun argument now and again, so here’s a redux on some of the commentary and my thoughts in response.

There were two claims in that post:

  1. I was somewhat skeptical that data science was correctly described as a science
  2. I was extremely skeptical that the scientific method was a good description of the scientific endeavor

The comment that most engaged me came from Adam Gitzes and really focused on the first claim:

Science is the distillation of evidence into a causal understanding of the world (my definition anyway). In business analytics, we use surveys, data analysis techniques, and experimental design to also understand causal relationships that can be used to drive our business.

On re-reading my initial post, I realized that while I had argued that business analytics wasn’t science (#1 above), I hadn’t really put many reasons on the table for that view – partly because I was too busy demolishing the “Scientific Method” and partly because I think it’s the less important of the two claims and also the more likely to be correct. Mostly, I just said I was skeptical of the idea. So I think Adam’s right to push out a more specific description of science and ask why data science might not be reasonably described as a kind of scientific endeavor.

I’m not going to get into the thicket of trying to define science. Really. I’m not. That’s the work of a different career. If I got nothing else out of my time studying Philosophy, I got an appreciation for how incredibly hard it is to answer seemingly simple questions like “what is science?” For the most part, we know it when we see it. Physics is science. Philosophy isn’t. But knowing it when you see it is precisely what fails when it comes to edge cases like data science or sociology.

When it comes to business analytics and data science, however, there are a couple of things that make me skeptical of applying the term science that I think we might actually agree on and that use our shared, working understanding of the scientific endeavor.

In business analytics, our main purpose isn’t to understand the world. It’s to improve a specific part of it. Science has no such objective.

Does that seem like a small difference? I don’t think it is. Part of what makes the scientific endeavor unique is that there is no axe to grind. Understanding is the goal. This isn’t to say that people don’t get attached to their ideas or that their careers don’t benefit if they are successful advocates for them – it’s done by humans after all. It would be no more accurate to suggest that the goal of a business is always profit. External forces can and often do set the agenda for researchers. But these are corruptions of the process not the process itself. Business analytics starts (appropriately) with an axe to grind and true science doesn’t.

To see why this makes a difference, consider my own domain – digital analytics. If our goal was just to understand the digital world, we’d have a very different research program than we do. If knowledge was our only goal, we’d spend as much time analyzing why people create certain kinds of digital worlds as how people consume them. That’s not the way it works. In reality, our research program is entirely focused on why and how people use a digital property and what will get more of them to take specific actions – not why and how it was created.

We are, rightly I believe, skeptical of the idea that research sponsored by tobacco companies into lung cancer is, properly speaking, science. That’s not because those researchers don’t follow the general outline of the scientific endeavor – it’s because they have an axe to grind and their research program is determined by factors outside the community of science. When it comes to business analytics, we are all tobacco scientists.

Perhaps we’re not so biased as to the findings of our experiments – good analytics is neutral as to what will work – but we’re every bit as biased when it comes to the outcomes desired and the shape of the research program.

Here’s another crucial difference. I think it’s fair to suggest that in data science we sometimes have no interest in causality. If I’m building a forecast model and I can find variables that are predictive, I may have little interest in whether those variables are also causal. If I’m building a look-alike targeting model, for example, it doesn’t matter one whit whether the variables are causal. Now it’s true that philosophers of science hotly debate the role and necessity of causality in science, but I tend to agree with Adam that there is something in the scientific endeavor that makes the demand for causality a part of the process. But in business analytics, we may demand causality for some problems but be entirely and correctly unconcerned with it in others. In business analytics, causality is a tool not a requirement.

There is, also, the nature of the analytics problem – at least in my field (digital). Science is typically concerned with studying natural phenomena. The digital world is not a natural world, it’s an engineered world. It’s created and adapted with intention. Perhaps even worse, it responds to and changes with the measurements we make and those measurements influence our intentions in subsequent building (which is the whole point after all).

This is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle with a vengeance! When we measure the digital world, we mean to change it based on the measurement. What’s more, once we change it, we can never go back to the same world. We could restore the HTML, but not the absence of users with an alternative experience. In digital, every test we run changes the world in a fundamental way because it changes the users of that world. There is no possibility of conducting a digital test that doesn’t alter the reality we’re measuring – and while this might be true at the quantum level in physics, at the macro level where the scientific endeavor really lives, it seems like a huge difference.

What’s more, each digital property lives in the context of a larger digital world that is being constantly changed with intention by a host of other people. When new Apps like Uber change our expectations of how things like payment should work or alter the design paradigm on the Web, these exogenous and intentional changes can have a dramatic impact on our internal measurement. There is, then, little or no possibility of a true controlled experiment in digital. In digital analytics, our goal is to optimize one part of a giant machine for a specific purpose while millions of other people are optimizing other, inter-related parts of the same machine for entirely different and often opposed purposes.

This doesn’t seem like science to me.

There are disciplines that seem clearly scientific that cannot do controlled experiments. However, no field where the results of an experiment change the measured reality in a clearly significant fashion and are used to intentionally shape the resulting reality is currently described as scientific.

So why don’t I think data science is a science – at least in the realm of digital analytics? It differs from the scientific endeavor in several aspects that seem to me to be critical. Unlike science, business analytics and data science start with an agenda that isn’t just understanding and this fundamentally shapes the research program. Unlike science, business analytics and data science have no fixed commitment to causal explanations – just a commitment to working explanations. Finally, unlike science, business analytics and data science change the world they measure in a clearly significant fashion and do so intentionally with respect to the measurement.

Given that we have no fixed and entirely adequate definition of science, none of this is proof. I can’t demonstrate to you with the certainty of a logical proof that the definition of science requires X, data science is not X, so data science is not a science.

However, I think I have shown that at least by many of the core principles we associate with the scientific endeavor, that business analytics (which I take to be a proxy in this conversation for data science) is not well described as a science.

This isn’t a huge deal. I’ve done business analytics for many years and never once thought of myself as a scientist. What’s more, once we realize that being scientists doesn’t attach a powerful new methodology to business analytics – which was the rather more important point of my last post – it’s much less clear why anyone would think it makes a difference.

Agree?

 

A few other notes on the comments I received. With regards to Nikolaos’ question “why should we care?” I’m obviously largely in agreement. There is intellectual interest in these questions (at least for me), but I won’t pretend that they are likely to matter in actual practice or will determine ‘what works’. I’m also very much in agreement with Ake’s point about qualitative data. The truth is that nothing in the scientific endeavor precludes the use of qualitative data in addition to behavioral data. But even though there’s no determinate tie between the two, I certainly think that advocates for data science as a science are particularly likely to shun qualitative data (which is a shame). As far as Patrick’s comment goes, I think it dodges the essential question. He’s right to suggest that the term data science is contentless because data is not the subject of science, the data is always about something which is the subject of science. But I take the deeper claim to be what I have tackled here; namely, that business analytics is a scientific endeavor. That claim isn’t contentless, just wrong. I remain, still, deeply unconvinced of the utility of CRISP-DM.

 

Now is as good a time as any (how’s that for a powerful call to action?) to pre-order my book, ‘Measuring the Digital World’ on Amazon.

What is Data Science and (closely related) what is a Data Scientist?

I came across an interesting read recently on the definition of both data scientist and data science. Now, even though I’m about to disagree with almost everything in the article, that doesn’t mean I think it’s wrong-headed or not worth a read. It’s a fairly conventional, industry standard view of the world and provides a common-sense and reasonable set of definitions for both data scientist and data science. I’d encourage you take a look if you’re interested in this type of question.

Meanwhile, if you’re willing to rely on my summary, here’s what I take to be the gist of the article:

  1. Data Science is about finding insights in data to make better decisions
  2. Data Scientists bring to bear three primary skills: subject matter expertise, programming and data manipulation skills, and statistical knowledge to find those insights.
  3. Using survey techniques and asking data professionals to classify their skills, there are four major styles of data scientist. Three styles (business management professionals, developers, and researchers) map directly to the three key skills elaborated above (subject matter expertise, programming and statistics). Then there’s a fourth category appropriately titled “Creatives” who aren’t good at any of these skills…okay I jest…perhaps it’s more fair to say they are balanced fairly equally across the skill sets.
  4. Popular analytics methods (SMART and CRISP-DM) are essentially no more than variants of the “Scientific Method” and, when you get right down to it, data science is nothing more (or less since the diminutive is not meant to imply anything) than the application of that method to whatever problem a data professional is trying to solve. In other words, and here I quote directly, “data science just is science”.
  5. Science works via the “Scientific Method” described as:
    1. Formulate a question or problem statement
    2. Generate a hypothesis that is testable
    3. Gather/Generate data
    4. Analyze data to test the hypotheses / Draw conclusions
    5. Communicate results to interested parties or take action

That’s it. And you’re probably wondering how or why I would disagree with any of this since it’s pretty innocuous stuff. Yes, I’ve written in the past about my suspicions around the whole ‘data science’ term – though heaven knows I use it myself since the market seems to reward it. Taken as it generally is, it’s either a cunning replacement for the label statistician (since we all “know” statisticians aren’t much use when it comes to driving business value) or a demand that analysts should have “full-stack” skills. I don’t necessarily buy the idea that full-stack skills are critical or that there’s a huge benefit in combining them in a single person instead of spreading them across a team, but it’s not something I lose sleep over.

What’s more, once you start flavoring data scientists based on their real proficiencies inside that three-part set, you’re really just back to having analysts (the subject matter expertise folks), programmers, and statisticians. The same people you always had except now they call themselves data scientists and charge you quite a bit more for doing the same stuff they’ve always done. Since I’m one of those people, I not deeply opposed to the whole trend. Here’s a way to think about all this that I think is a little more useful.

None of which is really worth bothering to disagree about though. It’s semantics of a fairly uninteresting sort.

No, what really bothers me about this conventional view is encapsulated in the last two claims:  #4 and #5. The idea that data science is science and that the scientific method is applicable to business analytics. I’m not at all sure that business analytics is or should aspire to be science and I’m quite sure that the scientific method won’t save us.

On the other hand, I agree with the first part of the claim in #4. Namely, that methodologies like CRISP-DM are just faintly warmed over versions of the scientific method.

Despite what most people would assume, that’s not a good thing and here I’m going to go all “philosophy guy” on you to explain why, and also why I think this is actually a pretty important point.

 

Debunking the Scientific Method

In the past five hundred years, the dominant theme in Western culture has been the continuing and astonishing success of the scientific endeavor. Only the most hardened skeptic could doubt the importance and success of scientific disciplines like physics, chemistry and biology in dramatically improving our understanding of the natural world. When it comes to the success of the scientific endeavor, I’m not skeptical at all. It’s worked and it’s worked amazingly well.

But why is that?

The popular conception is that science works because scientists apply the scientific method – testing theories experimentally and proving or refuting them. It’s the five step process enumerated above.

And it just isn’t right. Since way back in the day when I was studying philosophy of science, there’s been a broad consensus that the “scientific method” is a deeply flawed account of the scientific endeavor. Karl Popper provided the best and most influential account of the traditional scientific method and the importance of refutation as opposed to proof. Thomas Kuhn pretty much debunked that explanation as an historical account of how science actually works (despite having his own deeply unsuccessful explanation) and Quine absolutely destroyed it as an intellectual model. It turns out that it’s basically impossible to refute a single hypothesis in isolation with an experiment. Quine actually influenced my thinking on why KPIs, taken in isolation, are always useless. Depending on the background assumptions, any change of a KPI (and in any direction) can have diametrically opposed meanings. It’s pretty much the same thing with a hypothesis. You can rescue any hypothesis from experimental refutation by changing the background assumptions. What’s more, Kuhn showed that this happens all the time in science – punctuated by dramatic cases where it doesn’t.

I doubt there is a single working historian or philosopher of science who would accept the “scientific method” as a reasonable explanation for how science works from either an historical or intellectual perspective.

What’s more, the scientific method as popularly elaborated is almost contentless. Strip away the fancy language and it translates into something like this:

  1. Decide what problem you want to solve
  2. Think about the problem until you have an idea of how it might be solved
  3. Try it out and see if it works
  4. Repeat until you solve the problem

Does this feel action guiding and powerful?

It feels to me like the sort of thing you might sell on late-night TV. Available now, limited time only – a one stop absolutely foolproof method for solving any problem of any sort in any field! The Scientific Method! Buy!

The only part of the scientific method that feels significant in any respect is that requirement that your idea should be capable of specific refutation (testable) via experiment. Sadly, that’s exactly the concept that Quine showed to be impossible. So the scientific method as popularly understood is pretty much a bunch of boilerplate with one mistaken idea bolted on.

The idea that this type of general problem solving procedure is the explanation for the success of science seems implausible on its face and is contradicted by experience.

Implausible because the method as described is so contentless. How do I pick which problems to tackle from the infinite set available? The method is silent. How do I generate hypothesis? The method is silent. How do I know they are testable? The method is silent. How do I test them? The method is silent. How do I know what to do when a test doesn’t refute a hypothesis? The method is silent. How many failures to refute a hypothesis is enough to prove it? The method is silent. How do I communicate the results? The method is silent.

If what we want in a methodology is a massively generalized process that provides zero guidance on how to accomplish the tasks it lays out and has one impossible to meet demand, then the scientific method is great.

Hence the implausibility of the claim that the scientific method is a reasonable explanation for why science works. The scientific endeavor is neither defined, nor described, by the scientific method.

On a less important note, I’m not at all sure that it’s correct to think of data science as even potentially a scientific endeavor – at least when it comes to business analytics. The belief that the scientific endeavor works in general is broadly contradicted by experience – it doesn’t work for everything. Yes, the scientific endeavor has worked extraordinarily well in physics and biology. But smart people have tried to emulate the scientific approach in lots of other places too. Fields like history, sociology, philosophy and psychology (and lots of other disciplines as well) have all drunk the “scientific method” moonshine with a conspicuous absence of success. Clearly something about the scientific endeavor makes it very effective for some types of problems and not effective at all for others. That seems to me a pretty important fact to keep in mind when we claim that business analytics and data science are “just science”. It’s comforting to think we can re-cast business as science, but it’s not clear why we should think that’s true. I’ve never thought of business analytics as a truly scientific enterprise and renaming it data science doesn’t make it seem any more  likely to be so.

 

Why CRISP-DM and most other generalized analytics models are the scientific method…and LESS

Unfortunately, methods specific to analytics like CRISP-DM are worse not better. They lack even the idea of specific testability which, though incorrect, at least made some sense as a driver of a method. CRISP-DM lays out a process for analytics that essentially says it works like this: figure out what your problem is, figure out what data you need, setup your data, build your model, check your model, deploy your model.

Wow. That’s very helpful.

Here’s a CRISP-DM like method for becoming President of the United States.

  1. Decide which political party to join
  2. Register as a candidate for president
  3. Create lots of positive press about yourself and your positions
  4. Raise a lot of money
  5. Convince people to vote for you

Armed with a cutting-edge method like this, your path to power is assured. Donald Trump beware!

Really, how different is CRISP-DM from this? It adds a few little flourishes and some academic language but it lives at the same level of empty generality. I suppose it’s good to know that you deploy models only after you build them, but I’m thinking a formal methodology should give us a little more utility than that.

Methodologies like Six Sigma or SPEED (which I laid out last week and which is why this topic is much on my mind and seems important) provide something real and essential – they provide enough guidance to actually drive a process.

As a side note, I’d point out that successful methodologies are nearly always domain specific (SPEED is entirely specific to digital analytics and Six Sigma has been mostly successful in a very specific range of manufacturing production problems) for the simple reason that generality destroys utility when it comes to method.

 

So is Business Analytics a “Science”?

It’s a real question, then, whether business analytics can reasonably be considered a science and, in fact, it’s a much more ambitious claim than most people would realize (at least when it’s cloaked in the idea that data science is a science – after all, it says science right there in the title). I’m highly skeptical of the idea that data science is science because I’m highly skeptical that business analytics problems are scientific problems.

They don’t seem like it to me. Business analytics problems map very poorly indeed to the natural sciences and only very partially to the social sciences where the track record of the scientific endeavor is, to say the least, mixed.

So claiming that data science is about using the scientific method on data problems might seem like a “Mom and Apple Pie” kind of thing, but I think it’s wrong on two counts.

It’s wrong because business analytics problems are not obviously the types of problems that are scientific. I can’t say for sure that they aren’t – and I might be persuaded otherwise – but first glance I think there are strong reasons for skepticism and little reason to think that advocates of this view really understand what they are saying or have good reasons to back their claim.

It’s especially wrong because the scientific method as popularly understood is neither meaningful nor a method. This is important. In fact, this is the one really important thing you really should take away from this post. If you think hiring data scientists ensures you have a method (and not just a method but a “scientific” one), you’re going to be sadly disappointed. Data scientists don’t arrive at your doorstep complete with a real method for continuous improvement in digital.  It doesn’t matter how data sciencey they are. And if you believe that telling your analysts to use the “scientific method” is going to make your analytics more successful…well that, my friend, is even more absurd.

I have strong reasons for thinking that Six Sigma (for example) isn’t an appropriate methodology for digital analytics. But at least it’s a real method. Flawed as it is when applied to digital analytics, it’s rather more likely to drive results than the “scientific” method. And, of course, I have my own axe to grind. The methodology I described in SPEED is purpose-built for digital and is action-guiding. I’d love to have people adopt and use it. But even if you don’t like SPEED, the importance of having a real method and using that method to drive continuous improvement shouldn’t be discounted.

Go ahead, build your own. Just make sure it’s not of the “figure out your problem, then solve your problem, then iterate” variety; unless, of course, you want an analytics method to sell on late-night TV.

 

I promise there’s no (well…very little) philosophy in ‘Measuring the Digital World’ – but I do think there is some good method! It’s available for pre-order now on Amazon.