Small Data in Consumer Research

“If you want to study animals, don’t go to the zoo, go to the Amazon.” This encapsulates Martin Lindstrom’s philosophy on conducting consumer research. Martin Lindstrom is a Time magazine Influential 100 Honoree and the Author of Small Data, Buyology, and Brainwashed. He believes that valuable consumer insights can best be attained through collecting small data by getting closer to the consumer and meeting them where they’re at; whether that be at home, in a supermarket, or on an airplane. This can be a very intimidating task, far away from the comfort of an office desk. However, there are treasures to be found for those venture out into the world of immersive consumer research.

If you immerse yourself into the lives of consumers, you are able to develop a deep sense of empathy for their present situation by seeing the world through their eyes. You feel joy with their laughter and sadness with their pain. More specifically, you are able to encourage them to express emotions they have regarding a product or service, which will provide powerful insights into their relevant problems, wants, and needs. This can be a powerful source of ideas and inspiration.

In Martin Lindstrom’s course, Methods for Consumer Driven Innovation, he discusses the process for which he helped redesign the economy class of Swiss International Airlines to improve passenger experience. Moreover, he was tasked to do this at as little cost as possible. Rather than gathering large amounts of data behind a screen or though impersonal surveys, Martin and his team put themselves in the shoes of Swiss Airline passengers all over the world. They go through security with Swiss Airline passengers, check in with them, fly with them, and talk with them. In other words, they place themselves in a better position to deeply understand and empathize with the passengers’ experiences.

Through such immersion, they discovered obvious passenger wants, such as more leg room, better catering food, and lower prices. However, there was another distinct problem that occupied the headspace of passengers, and it can be distilled into one word: anxiety. Passengers were anxious. They were anxious about traffic jams and missing their flight, about long airport security lines, anxious about clearing immigraton and customs, and anxious about losing their luggage. Uncertainty in these areas breeds anxiety. If Swiss International Airlines wanted to improve their customer experience, they needed to minimize uncertainty in these areas. This is exactly what Martin recommended.

Imagine yourself on a flight in route to JFK International Airport. You’re nearing your destination and hear the following announcement:

“We’re going to land at JFK in about 40 minutes. Now here’s some wonderful news for you. I’ve just been in contact with ground control, who informs me that we will arrive at gate 109. This good news is because it’s only a seven minute walk from immigration. Even better, I just spoke to immigration and they tell me that there’s only a 17 minute waiting time. Ground handling staff also informs me that everything is up to speed today and there will only be about a 14 minute wait to get your luggage. With a bit of luck you will be back out of the system in around 45 minutes. Now if you guys are living in Manhattan, I also just checked on the traffic conditions for you. I’ve learned that there’s only a 47 minute drive into Manhattan. With a bit of luck, you’ll be back home in around two hours. I hope you enjoyed flying Swiss International Airlines.”

How would you feel after listening to this broadcast? Chances are, you would be a little less anxious than before because uncertainties about upcoming stressful events have been mitigated. The best part is, broadcasting this information is virtually a no-cost solution to a salient problem! This exemplifies the power of insights gained through immersion in consumers’ experiences.

Notice the contrast between this method of consumer research versus more typical consumer research methods such as mass email questionnaires or surveys. This is the contrast between big data and small data. In the eyes of Martin, “big data” is useful for establishing correlations and trends, but is limited in its ability to draw causal relationships. Larger data sets tend to have more conflating variables, making causal connections more difficult to isolate. In other words, it is difficult to connect the dots and draw a hypothesis about how distinct phenomena are related. Conversely, by using “small data” one is able to easily draw causal lines between events. In the previous example, stepping into the shoes of airplane passengers and chatting with them about their experiences was an effective way of collecting “small data” and identifying the factors that were causing passengers’ experiences to be less pleasant.

The same method of collecting small data through immersion and empathy can be applied not only to consumers, but to employees as well. Step into the shoes of an employee with an open mind. This is not just a hypothetical thought experiment. Role-play as your employee for a day, talk with them about their experience, immerse yourself in their lives. This will help you develop a strong sense of empathy, understanding, and insight that can be used to identify problems in the workspace that can be turned into opportunities for improvement and innovation.