Sometimes Big Data Just Isn’t Enough For A Product Manager…

by drjim on January 12, 2015

Product Managers Need To Understand That Big Data Does Not Solve All Problems

Product Managers Need To Understand That Big Data Does Not Solve All Problems

Image Credit: infocux Technologies

If you’ve had a chance to see just about any magazine associated with your industry lately, I’m sure that you’ve stumbled across an article that was talking about “big data”. There are a lot of different definitions for just exactly what Big Data is, but in a nutshell it’s taking very large data sets and processing them using sophisticated analytical tools in order to try to uncover just exactly what your customers are really thinking. Is it possible that this approach is all wrong?

The Problem With Big Data

Big data solves all problems, right? If we can only find a way to include in our product development definition a way to tease the answers of out the massive collection of data that we are sitting on, then all of our questions about our customers should be answered. Or so the story goes. The reality is a bit different. It turns out that Big Data is very good at telling product managers WHAT our customers do. What it is not very good at is telling us WHY they do it.

I happen to like Big Data. This kind of thing looks good on a product manager resume. The belief that all of the answers are “in there” and I just need to find the way to coax them out is very appealing to me. However, thanks to some work done by researchers Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel Rasmussen it turns out that there is a lot more to this understanding of our customers that an initial glance would reveal.

If we choose to only focus on the data that we’ve been able to collect about our customers, then we’re going to be missing out on a lot. What we’ll be missing is that our customers exist in a complex environment and this environment plays a big role in how they make decisions. If we only focus on the data, then we’ll miss the environment.

What Product Managers Should Really Be Doing

So if this customer environment thing is so important, what should we product managers be doing about it? The first thing that we need to be doing is to take the time to understand how our customers first encounter our product. We need to understand the emotional context in which our customers will come into contact with our product.

What we all need to keep in mind is that the world in which we live is always evolving. This means that our customers are changing and our business is also changing. This means that we need to take the time to get in touch with the reality of our customer’s everyday lives.

The way that product managers can do this is by observing our customers. We need to sit down with our customers and understand what types of problems they are trying to solve. We need to watch and learn how they use our products when they go to solve a problem. Does our product help them solve the problem or are we just creating another set of problems for them to deal with? Yes, Big Data is powerful, but keeping your eyes open and understanding your customer’s real-world environment is even more powerful.

What All Of This Means For You

The latest buzz word that is sweeping through the product management community is “big data”. It seems to be a part of every product manager job description these days. It seems that everyone is telling us that we need to gather up all of the data that we can get our hands on and crunch it in order to finally determine what our customers really want from us.

It turns out that if we take this approach, we’re going to miss out on what our customers are really trying to tell us. Data can provide a product manager with some great insights; however, if we only use data then we’ll miss the big picture. Understanding the environment in which our customers encounter our products and where and when they use them are critical questions that need answers that big data can’t provide.

As product managers we need to be careful every time a new “silver bullet” comes along. Each of these novel solutions promise us that all of the questions that we have about our products will now finally be answered. It turns out that using old fashioned leg work we can get answers to our questions; however, there are no magic answers.

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: How should a product manager go about collecting data on the environment in which his / her product is being used?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

In the U.S. the Wendy’s fast food chain is well known. They may not be as large as McDonalds or have as many restaurants, but they do all right and I for one really like their salads. However, the product managers at Wendy’s recently got bitten by the mobile application (app) bug and decided to update their product development definition and create and app that would make it easy for repeat customers to buy food. The problem is that they did a bad job of this. Perhaps we can learn from their mistake…

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Brad Perine April 20, 2015 at 10:26 am

Jim,

Congratulations on a very good article! As a long-time product management professional, I have frankly found the whole “Big Data” concept a bit mysterious and perhaps a bit over-hyped as you hinted in the article.

A seasoned VP of Marketing once told me many years ago, “You can’t do marketing from behind a desk”. Now he came for a Sales background, so I would expect him to be biased toward face-to-face customer interaction, but I quickly learned that he knew what he was talking about. You absolutely must understand how a customer conducts his business and why he conducts it in a particular way before you can suggest/recommend how your product can make his/her life better. I learned that lesson by accompanying salespersons on customer visits, making observations, and asking questions. I sincerely doubt that Big Data could have done better than the executing “in the field” marketing.

I suspect that Big Data can (and will) help to make good product/feature decisions, but I see it as secondary research, and any good product manager knows that he must used both primary research (customer meetings and interactions) and secondary research to get a more complete picture of the marketplace.

Once again, congratulations on a great article, and I thank you for your time.

Best Regards,
Brad Perine
bperine@comcast.net
630.360.0742

Reply

drjim April 26, 2015 at 12:03 pm

Brad: all of your points are well made. Now the big question is once the “big data” mania blows over, what are we going to be left with? Yes, we’ll understand that we now have powerful tools that can help us sort through all of the data that is showing up on our doorstep, but will we realize that this is just part of the solution — not the entire solution? As you point out, meeting with customers to better understand them will always be required…

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