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Big Data Isn’t That Important: It’s The Small Insights That Will Change Everything
March 18, 2016

Big data has been the next big thing for several years. We’ve heard about the potential of big data and programs like Watson that will change everything. McKinsey, the Harvard Business Review and others have focused on big data’s potential to align on organizational strategy choices and guide high-level company decision-making. And yet, with each passing year, the only big thing from big data has been a big disappointment. It’s not that big data is bad, but by looking for the big wins, we risk losing the most exciting potential of big data: the very small actionable insights that are unique to each individual. The real future potential of big data isn’t in its capacity to be big, but rather in just how small it can get.


When we’re able to use big data to make decisions smaller, we can give individual consumers exactly what they want, when they want it. These are personal, simple and actionable answers that are delivered in the right context and happen to fit a wide range of consumer needs. This isn’t some wild-eyed vision of a far-out future but rather information that can and will impact how we live our lives every day. We’re already seeing the first stages from innovative companies that have figured out how to transform industries like transportation and media with these big-data-driven small insights. These companies — the Wazes and Pandoras of the world — are transforming their industries through the small insights they provide to individuals like you and me. These disruptions, while substantial, have only begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible. And while better directions and better music may not transform the world, information driven by big data’s small insights is headed straight for the most important things we do, dramatically increasing our productivity, making our lives and the decisions we have to make easier and improving the quality of those decisions.

If big data and small insights are going to change the world, they will have to conform to four principles: Make It Personal, Make It Simple, Make It Context Aware and Make It Actionable. Let’s explore each one:

Make It Personal. Big data actually gets worse for consumers before it gets better. It just means more to sift through in consumers’ already cluttered and busy lives. But when the data is made small and truly personalized — relevant to us — consumers benefit enormously from big data’s power. Let’s look at the example of Pandora. Before Pandora, there were already many more songs available than most of us could sort through, and adding more wouldn’t have made much difference. After all, choosing between 300,000 songs or 400,000 songs is equally overwhelming. Pandora’s power is that it distills all that information into a personalized recommendation that matters most to you and is available just when you need it. All the time and effort of selecting the next song is removed and replaced by just the right personalized selection. All the data is simplified into exactly what you’re looking for without any effort on your part — it just happens automatically or “automagically.”

Make It Simple. If it’s not simple, all you’ve done is shift complexity to the consumer. More choice isn’t better unless it’s organized and easy. The most successful companies have simplified their interfaces to make them so smart that anyone could use them. Peter Lynch, the famous Fidelity investor, once said he invests in companies that any idiot could run because eventually any idiot would be running them. Similarly, you need an interface any idiot could use. Think Google Search: one box to fill in that sits in the middle of the screen, and if you spell your search term wrong, it suggests (based on sophisticated algorithms constantly updated by our own choices spun from big data) what you likely meant to type. Hard to think how it could be easier. This principle is best exemplified by an interaction I had with my son some years ago. He was playing his latest role-playing video game, and I decided it was time for me to learn. Like any good parent, I told him I was ready to learn the game and asked where the instructions were. He replied, “Dad, anything good doesn’t need instructions. You just play and it teaches you.” Now that’s great design and user interface. It caused me to think about my own business at the time. Could I meet his standard?

Make It Context Aware. Your phone rings. You answer and the caller says they can be there within five minutes to fix your flat tire — but you don’t have a flat tire. The call is more than an irritation. You want to know how they knew your cell number and why they interrupted your day, and you’re not at all happy. That is, unless you have a flat tire — then the call is a lifesaver. The exact same call with the exact same words. The difference is context. Get it right and you win. Get it wrong and your potential customer isn’t neutral. They actively dislike you. Context-aware technology goes beyond interacting directly with consumers. Sensor technology is used by Brad Keywell’s new startup, Uptake, which, working with customers like Caterpillar, allows technology to “call home” when the machines are about to break versus after they do, saving dollars, increasing productivity and taking the guesswork out of service. It’s all about context.


This article was originally published and can be viewed in full here