The value of data close

Rachel Wilde
Rachel Wilde
In Codegent College
21st June 2012
The value of data

Econsultancy recently released a report about the use of Technology and Data in digital agencies ( 

In its 59 pages, it essentially concluded that digital agencies need to be flexible so that they:

a) can stay on top of technological advances, advise clients how to stay ahead of the game and adapt to their needs, and
b) use the vast opportunities for data collection to continuously learn and respond to what audiences are telling us.

Neither of these learning’s are particularly revolutionary. Of course a digital agency should keep abreast of what’s going on in the industry. And in an ideal world we would always be listening to and responding to users to optimise performance. But, reality is that the latter just doesn’t happen that often enough. Why?

From my experience, in the digital world there tends to be three types of clients:

1. Those that don’t have the time or budget to spend on user research or data collection
2. Those that value data, collect vast amounts of it but become so overwhelmed that ultimately they ignore it
3. Those that invest in collating and analysing user data resulting in usable insights

Unfortunately, very few clients successfully fall into the third category. But why is this a concern, what is the true value of data and what difference can it make it digital design?

An objective brief

New site designs are normally lead by digital or marketing managers that have been immersed in the brand for many years and know it inside out. They also believe that they know their customers inside out, what they want and how to deliver it to them. And sometimes, but only sometimes, this is correct.

The truth is that 9 times out of 10 nobody in our immersion sessions (when we receive our briefs) is a true member of the target audience or user of the site in question. Not the client, IA, project manager, nor the designer. Even if we do fit into the target audience demographic and no matter how much we immerse ourselves in the brand, we are approaching the brief with a much more informed opinion than the average user.

The result of this is that sites, and wider digital campaigns, are often briefed based on the preferences of the companies designing and developing them as opposed to the preferences of the target audience. Big mistake. We need to remain objective, know that every statement in the brief is true and every solution that we propose meets users’ needs as well as the clients.

User centric design

At some point in any agency pitch you will hear them say the words ‘user-centric design process’. Good digital teams intend to bring your users into the heart of the design process and find out exactly what they need. And so they should. But very rarely is this actually able to happen, due to time or money. Despite all good intentions on both sides, when push comes to shove user research is cut. 

What normally happens is that we second guess. We put ourselves in the shoes of the audience and try and predict how they would react on their first visit to a page we have seen 100 times before. And we’re not always (hopefully rarely!) wrong, but for the sake of a small amount of time and possibly money we can be sure. 

It may sound like a cliché, but there is a reason that agencies harp on about user-centricity. Ensuring your site appeals, is easy to use, and gets the audience to do what you want them to do is your aim. Without testing this how do you know? 

Opportunity to optimise

Once the briefing, IA and designs have been completed the need for data analysis doesn’t stop. Throughout the launch and post go-live you should observe user behaviour on the site, validate the end result against the brief and listen to what your audience is telling you to improve performance. 

As highlighted in the Econsultancy report, the digital world is constantly changing. Agencies are striving to be flexible to adapt to these changes, but the impact on every brand will not be the same so we need to know how your users specifically are behaving. We need to understand how they are reacting to technology and what appeals to them. Only then can we work together to optimise your digital offering.

The DIKW Pyramid

So, you’ve started to recognse the true value of data, researched your audience to give us an accurate brief, you’ve allowed budget for user testing along the way and you’re willing to continuously invest in site optimisation. But what are the potential dangers? 

At the other end of the scale to those that don’t use research data at all is those that have so much they simply don’t know what to do with it. They've done the work to collect it but dont know how to use it in a logical way, so it becomes waste. This is just, if not worse, than not recognising its value in the first place.

The DIKW Pyramid (or Knowledge Pyramid) is very useful when thinking about data collection and putting it to best use.

It’s based on the concept that you start with Data in a raw form, with no context or meaning. Once this is summarised into relevant learning’s it start to become Information. Only then when it’s been analysed, questioned and applied in context does it start to become Knowledge and finally Wisdom. These later stages cannot be reached without human understanding and that’s where we as marketeers come in.

It’s this wisdom that allows us to increase effectiveness over time. It’s not merely enough to know what has happened, but you need to know what will happen, make judgements and recommendations about future decisions. 

Following these best practices can mean that data really does add value to your business and digital campaigns. And it often can be done without a large impact on time or money. After all, technological advances and data requirements often go hand in hand, take social media as an example and the way this provides us with free continuous feedback from customers. All we need to do recognise its value and be prepared to transform it into powerful wisdom.