Uncharted Territory: Getting away from ‘just in case tables’
Kate Slater, Research Director at DJS Research explores the role of automation in data analysis and how, technology and innovation helps researchers to deliver value for money through insight and strategy, instead of producing tables and charts, ‘just in case’.
As I watched the Royal Wedding recently, I thought about the phrase ‘if you kiss enough frogs, eventually you will find a prince.’ I’ve come to realise that data analysis and more importantly, finding the story in research data is a bit like kissing frogs – there’s a lot of data out there, and the process of working your way through it to find the data that works for you can take time. Some stories or hypotheses you drop straight away, clear that it’s not the one for you, others you spend a bit of time with before eventually deciding it’s not working, and eventually you find the one – the one that gets you excited, the one that you can’t stop thinking about. It’s the insight that connects the dots, or brings the research to life; the story that will engage your audience and ensure that the research is used to generate action.
Like the dating scene things have changed a lot since the early 2000s. Everything is faster, quicker, more focussed. Clients don’t want a 2 hour presentation with a hundred slides, they want insight and strategy, stories and action, preferably distilled into a thirty or forty minute presentation with time at the end for discussion and debate about what it means, and what can they do with it. They don’t want to be taken through lots of slides, covering every data point, question by question. At DJS Research we put storytelling and strategic insights at the heart of what we do. It’s what our clients tell us they like about us, but it isn’t always an easy sell. Some people still feel the need to create a slide for every question, and there are clients who say that they want a more insight led presentation, but when it comes down to it they start to get a bit twitchy, worried about how the audience will react to the ‘missing data’. But taking it slowly and providing reassurance that the analysis is at least as in depth, probably more so, the response has been positive. Stakeholders in the audience have stopped sneaking in late, sitting quietly at the back and excusing themselves with an apology about another meeting, before we’ve quite finished. Instead they arrive early, ask questions, and take the time to come up to us at the end to say thank you.
Learning how to interpret the data and distil it down to a concise insight led story, instead of just reporting numbers is something that takes time and comes with experience. Without that experience a lot of people rely on the production of charts to help them visualise the data and understand it. This means going through laborious process of writing table specs, creating tables, checking them, getting some edits, creating charts, looking at the cross breaks, requesting further cross breaks etc etc. Aside from the number of people and amount of time involved it’s also too easy to still end up back where we started: with large PowerPoint decks, reporting figures, not telling stories. And then once researchers become more skilled and confident about analysis, another problem arises… and it’s a big one. It’s the unknown, the what if… What if we need some data that wasn’t included in the presentation, and we need at short notice. So we’re still back where we started; as we’ve moved to these shorter presentations we’ve also moved towards a longer appendix. An appendix is used like a safety net – it’s a visual output of the data tables. It can be a hundred slides or more, usually without any analysis or insight. They aren’t designed for presentation and in most cases no-one will even look at them. They are there ‘just in case’.
So, this is where data dashboards come in. They are a form of automation, and maybe there are some who feel threatened – you might argue, why do we need an agency, if we can use a dashboard to create our own slides? But automation from dashboards can only go so far. Dashboards organise information, reduce risk of error and make the data more accessible. You can create your own tables, add some cross breaks or run a different filter and you can automatically export the data into slides. It all makes the data more accessible - we’re not limited to only what we deliver at the presentation; clients can access the data themselves, test their own theories and hypotheses. But these are tools that help us and make it easier to find those elusive stories – a bit like online dating is the tool that helps a lonely heart to find their perfect match. We still need the human element, the insight, interpretation and strategy. It takes the knowledge, expertise and experience of a skilled researcher to interact with the data, find that special something and deliver it in an engaging way, just like it takes real human interaction to work out if that spark is there in a potential partner.
This is the role of the research agency: by delivering the insight skill and expertise to interpret data and deliver strategic recommendations; by providing the opportunity for clients to take ownership of the insights, so they are more likely to use them as a vehicle for driving change within their own organisation. This all works together to embed the research findings, make sure that they are used and helped to make insight part of the culture of an organisation. This is what value for money from a research agency looks like, not spending days on end churning out charts to be saved on a directory somewhere, ‘just in case’.
DJS Research Ltd is a full service market research agency that carries out projects throughout the UK and overseas. We operate within consumer and b2b markets offering both qualitative and quantitative research services. We work for private sector clients, along with public sector and voluntary organisations.