Why is it important to use both data and intuition in your decision-making?

Hint: it’s not:

  • because you want to balance the “left-” and the “right-” brains of your organization, or
  • because visionaries like Steve Jobs go with their gut, or
  • because it sounds “wise” to do so

It’s because you simply can’t run a data-informed team without intuition.

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Your intuition defines how you approach your data

When you’re faced with comprehending a large amount of data, your intuition helps you contextualize and understand it.

In his book Tempo, Venkatesh Rao uses the example of driving to illustrate how this works. Every time you’re behind the wheel of a car moving at 30 miles per hour, he says, you’re encountering (on average) 1,320 “bits” of information—every minute.

That’s a lot of raw information. You can’t make the split-second decisions you need to make while driving by processing it. And yet for anyone who knows how to drive, going 30 miles per hour is basically an effortless task. That’s largely because you know how you should focus your attention:

  • You check your rearview mirrors when turning
  • You look straight ahead at the car in front of you, and the car in front of it
  • You check your blindspots when merging

These processes are hammered into your head in Driver’s Ed so that when it’s just you and those 1,320 pieces of information coming at you every minute, you don’t get overwhelmed. You have methods to make sense of the complexity.

Data and intuition work hand in hand every-time you get in your car to drive somewhere. And they work hand in hand whenever you’re looking at your product, too.

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How to understand your customers

Another great example of how data and intuition work together is in the common idea of “buyer personas.”

Whether you’re selling to consumers or other businesses, you know that you should take your customer-base and organize it into different groups. These different groups should each have certain kinds of needs, price sensitivities, contexts for using your product, etc.

The pricing consultancy Price Intelligently has found that the most important things to note about any buyer persona are:

  • What features they care most/least about
  • What messaging appeals most to them
  • How much they’re willing to pay

There are a lot of benefits to creating buyer personas, especially when you collect valuable information like this.

When you know what features a particular kind of buyer actually values most about your product, you can make decisions much more confidently. You can zero in on your most high value customers and reorganize your business around them, or you can re-align a new feature launch around a set of customers you previously didn’t even realize the true value of.

You’re going to have a very hard time making sense of the quantitative results of these surveys, however, if you don’t know who your customers are off the page.

Deep customer intuition

As Ash Bhoopathy, startup founder and designer of products like Chameleon notes, buyer persona data on its own is “abstract, nebulous, and decontextualized.” It tells you that there exists a “certain individual that behaves in certain ways, and has a certain set of needs,” but it can’t give you the kind of nuance that you get actually talking to people and hearing their stories.

That’s because you’re always distanced from the product you’re building. Even if you were once a salesperson, and you’re building a tool for salespeople, your understanding is limited by your own cognitive biases.

Buyer personas composed of a few cute graphics and some bullet points can obscure the fact that the lives of your customers are largely very complex. You have to go out and meet with them if you want to learn what they really want. To learn from your customers, you can:

  • Set up actual meetings to observe how they use your product or do their job
  • Sign up for a user testing service to put real people through your product’s paces
  • Call or email your early users and ask if you can interview them

The notes, transcripts, recordings, and other assets you take away are going to be invaluable as you begin looking at your customers more closely. Chris Savage, the CEO and founder of Wistia, recounts what happened when they first resumed doing actual in-person visits to their customers’ offices:

In person, customers tell you things they would never tell you over the phone. The very same person telling you over the phone that a new feature sounds like a great idea may admit, when you’re actually there to watch them use the product, that your idea is horrible and would never help them. There’s something about being in person that lets you get to the raw honest truth.

Simply looking at data from customer surveys is never going to be sufficient for understanding what your customers really need or want. It’s only by combining a quantitative approach with a qualitative approach—bringing the data and intuition together—that you can start to get the full picture.

Intuition in analytics

The right tools and processes can help align your intuition with your data. They don’t just help you navigate the complexity of your data, they help get you the kinds of answers that are actually going to be helpful.

They make it possible for anyone on the team to ask questions about like, “How was two-week retention for users that started a month ago?” and get an answer back.

Without the right kinds of tools to foster a culture of data, you wind up funneling everything through the “high priests” of data. You assign one person or one team the responsibility of digesting all the information requests your company makes, and your output slows to a crawl.

Teams that are data-informed can make decisions faster and learn from their results faster. Intuition operates not as a compromise, but as a shared heuristic that helps everyone on the team come to insights that can benefit the business.