Can Big Data Answer "Why?"

As consumer researchers, we are constantly in pursuit of the elusive "why." We gather voluminous quantitative data, probe deeply during in-person interviews and apply ethnographic methods. The focus lately seems to be around the data gathering part of the equation - “big data." Yet the complaint I continue to hear from clients is not about more data, but about more analysis. Specifically, not more reporting or dashboards, but more meaning. In that light, something I’ve found to be very helpful in the analysis stage is understanding the influence of cultural “editors.” 

Simply put, daily life is just a series of decisions we make in response to continuous sensory inputs. Because we can’t make conscious decisions about everything, we systematically process these inputs by applying meaning, enabling us to quickly and efficiently focus on what needs attention. This meaning is based on our held beliefs and self identity, shaped over time by the culture in which we live.

Cultural editors are influences in a culture that are deeply ingrained and influential in a person’s life, shaping how members of a group feel, think and act, often subconsciously. During childhood and adolescence, it is often parents, friends or institutions. As we age they shift in terms of priority, all part of the normal (and messy) process of shaping self identity over time.

As we seek to gain insight into why people do what they do, understanding these editors and how they influence decisions can offer a new perspective on the data we have. Some possible questions:

  • What cultural systems have influenced them over the course of their life? 
  • How have those systems influenced their past and current identity? 
  • Who are the influential editors in these systems? 
  • How do they influence, and why?
  • How have they changed over time?
  • Is their influence known or systemic? 

Applying this line of questioning won’t necessarily answer “why,” as there is no set formula. Instead, it requires the application of judgement and critical thinking, all with the intent of developing a new perspective. That new perspective is what leads to a new thought or insight about people. 

To me, that's the goal. When we help design teams think differently about a problem and inspire new ideas and solutions, we’ve earned our keep. That has nothing to do with the amount of data we collect and everything to do with depth of analysis we apply.