A Missing Link in Business Analytics (Part 2)

In a previous post, we described how NFL coaches and players use film study as their approach to analysis. We argue that "slicing and dicing" statistics doesn’t help much when deciding on a game plan. Business intelligence tools can explain the size of the problem (how good is the opponent?) and trends (what are their preferred offensive weapons?). These same tools do not, however, provide real perspective on customer behaviors or insights that give your organization data-driven direction.

The question remains: How do we bring the value of film study to business intelligence? The solution we’ve used is inspired in equal parts by Edward Tufte and Malcolm Gladwell.

Deficit Sparkline

Tufte is a well-known expert in presentation of informational graphics. Among numerous concepts, he popularized the idea of sparklines: "data-intense, design-simple, word-sized graphics." Here is a sparkline showing deficit spending from 1983 to 2003: What if there was a way to create data-intensive pictures that represent customer behaviors? They could draw on customer usage of a product, marketing touch-points, service calls, and any number of other relevant interactions. The goal: create a simple representation that quickly shows customer behaviors that matter to your business. Here are a few examples from our work:

Customer Sparkline Examples

These pictures are intriguing, but can they be useful? In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell introduces the idea of thin slicing: "the act of relegating the decision-making process to the adaptive unconscious by focusing on a small set of pertinent key variables, as opposed to consciously considering the situations as wholes over much longer periods of time." He explains how people become experts at quickly evaluating the relevant data and arrive at a rapid understanding of a situation.

We want to give business people a sense of their customers in a blink of an eye. To do so, customer sparklines need to be intuitive and easy to learn. Success is the ability to show these pictures to anyone in the organization—from senior executives to front-line customer service reps—and have them grasp what they are seeing with just a few minutes of explanation.