Recently on a nature hike, I had an epiphany about data analysis while photographing the scenery. It occurred to me that there were metaphors galore out there that relate to data analysis. Searching for just the right picture in the natural world is very similar to telling our clients just the right story with their data.
Catherine Creek is a state park on the Washington State side of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. It’s well-known for its wonderful array of wildflowers in the spring, and the hiking trails are interesting without being exhausting. I highly recommend going there in the spring or even in the fall. But be forewarned, you won’t find large breath-taking flowers like you would at nursery or garden shop. Instead there is a vast ecosystem of very tiny flowers. To see them you have to look close—really close. You have to get down on your hands and knees in some places, and really zoom in. But if you just zoom in all the time, you miss the stunning vistas. So you have to have a balance. That’s when I realized the similarities between nature appreciation and data analysis.
FIRST: DON’T MISS THE BIG PICTURE
At Catherine Creek, if you look up from the meadows, you see the river below. It’s quite inspiring! This is the Columbia River National Scenic Gorge, after all, carved in part by historic Ice Age floods, and visited two centuries ago by Lewis & Clark. So this was my first lesson – don’t just zoom in and miss the big picture. The client company is counting on the research consultant to get into the details and slice and dice the data, with graphs, call-outs and highlights. But don’t start with the debris underfoot—zoom out to see the effort and impact of the whole organization. I’ve worked with many organizations whose impact I admire, even when they are having problems. They’re pretty smart to try to diagnosis the problem and make tough decisions.
SECOND: EXAMINE THE SMALL DETAILS
While examining the low scrub at Catherine Creek, you’ll see a multitude of tiny flowers, patterned rocks, vivid moss and gnarled trees. On one trip we only hiked about 100 yards from the parking lot in the first 20 minutes. We were so caught up in the details of the tiny vegetation that we didn’t log a lot of steps. This gave me a new perspective on data analysis. Those small details are an essential element of the bigger story. For example, a first-person narrative, which has been collected directly from your client’s front lines, provides specific details that anchor the analysis and can be quite profound.
THIRD: PATTERNS REINFORCE THE MAIN NARRATIVE
Once you see the details, you can re-focus slightly in order to see the patterns and connections that the details merge into. Those patterns provide examples you might use. Is this pattern representative of the whole picture? Can this information be extrapolated to complete the puzzle? In what way are the parts interdependent?
FOURTH: LET THE DATA TALK
As in data analysis, an important picture or story can be ruined by your own impressions—in the case of nature photography, a simple boot print or paw print can wreck a shot. You need to get out of the way and let the data tell the story. That’s why in
win/loss analysis we recommend working with an unbiased outside consultant who can be a dispassionate observer. In one-on-one interviews with a third party, clients do not feel pressured to temper their remarks based on their business relationship with you. Their voice is heard and noted. No foot print.
FIFTH: ADJUST YOUR FOCUS
In photographing nature, sometimes you zoom in on a seed pod or a single leaf and blur the rest of the image. Other times, you zoom out and let the foreground get fuzzy in order to capture a far-off vista. That really resonates when we’re letting the data tell a story. In qualitative research, there are always contradictory stories. Your customers may complain about pricing, but what is it about your product or service where they feel the value is missing? The challenge is to do two things at once – to be immersed in the data AND see the whole story.
At Catherine Creek, I also tried to push myself to focus in on a single detail AND enjoy the grandeur all around me. It’s a tricky balance, but if you get it right it can really pay off. That’s when I realized the similarities between nature appreciation and data analysis.