Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends
February 24, 2016
In his new book, Martin Lindstrom gets off the internet and our into the wider world to bring us insights that big data can't provide.
Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends by Martin Lindstrom, St. Martins Press, 256 pages, $25.99, Hardcover, February 2016, ISBN 9781250080684
Big data is very much en vogue these days. Everyone is trying to figure out what it means, how to get it, how to parse it, and most importantly how to feed it back into our organizations and use it to improve the decisions that are made. And big data is important, but it also has its problems. Chip Heath, author of Made to Stick, highlights two in the foreword to Martin Lindstrom’s new book, Small Data: “Big Data doesn’t spark insight” and “Big Data … favors analysis over emotion.”
What Big Data doesn’t capture is the look in someone’s eye, the well-worn heel on a favorite pair of skateboarding shoes, the refrigerator magnets ubiquitous on most Eastern Russian mothers’ refrigerators and what they might teach us about the Siberian psyche, and the small stories told in all of that nonverbal communication that tell us what how we live, and what it looks like when we fall in love with a brand. Brand, as Lindstrom defines it, by the way, is:
… anything from the music on our playlists to our shoes, to our sheets, to our toothpaste, to the art hanging on our walls …
And all of it, Lindstrom asserts, has “the profoundest possible things to say about who we are.” So it is that information Martin Lindstrom seeks out in his globe-trekking travels. He believes fervently that:
No matter how insignificant it may at first appear, everything in life tells a story.
Lindstrom describes himself as “a forensic investigator of small data, or emotional DNA,” performing a sped up version of ethnographic anthropology—though Chip Heath warns us in the foreword that Lindstrom is no social scientist. (I’ve never seen a warning about an author in a book’s introduction, which was perhaps the first sign of many that the book I was holding was different than most.) Lindstrom, though, is no pretender. He tells us up front, that he’s “never studied social science, or trained as a psychologist or a detective” even though he’s been told he behaves like all three.
Because small data takes many shapes, Lindstrom has to get very close to those he studies to mine it, and he asks for and receives unparalleled access to the lives of those he studies. Whereas most researchers would try to see the “big picture,” while consulting for a company, Lindstrom gets on the ground. Not only on the ground, but in people’s homes, closets, handbags, and garbage cans. And he does this all over the world, which leads to an understanding of human nature and connections between cultures that make his perspective unlike any other I’ve encountered in business literature. He’s one part a couch surfing bohemian and one part mastermind of brand research. He’s one part William T. Vollmann, and another part Paco Underhill.
The people I study and interview could be teenaged girls living in a Brazilian favela; merchant bankers in the Czech Republic; housewives living in Southern California; sex workers in Hungary; mothers-in-law in India; or sports-obsessed fathers in Geneva, Beijing, Kyoto, Liverpool or Barcelona. Sometimes I go so far as to move inside people’s houses or apartments where, with the owners’ permission, I make myself at home. The families and I fraternize, listen to music, watch television and eat our meals together. During these visits—again with permission—I go through refrigerators, open desk drawers and kitchen cabinets, scour books, magazines, music and movie collections and downloads, inspect purses, wallets, online search histories, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, emoji usage and Instagram and Snapchat accounts. In the search for what I call small data, almost nothing is off-limits.
But why? That seems like an awful lot of work, and terribly invasive work, for a brand consultant to take on just for product research. I’ll leave it up to you to discover or decide what drives Lindstrom, but I suppose when you consider the reams of information we give up online, his work is rather relative in terms of privacy. The difference is in what the information gathered says about us. Online, we always wear a mask of what we wish ourselves to be, whereas offline we just are. Or, as Lindstrom puts it:
Online, what we leave behind is largely considered and strategic, whereas the insides of our refrigerators and dresser drawers are not, as they were never intended for public exhibition.
Small data is not just about observation, though, but in connecting the dots. Lindstrom pieces together many seemingly unrelated elements and observations from years of experience all over the world, and the stories of how he has done so are engrossing, to say the least. They are inebriating. For instance, after a few false starts in Russian Siberia, he settled on fridge magnets. Noticing that there was always “an enormous number of magnets on every refrigerator door” and discovering a familiar pattern to how they were placed—around waist high, with the mother always placing the first one and other family members adding others around it—he started down a path that would ultimately lead to him building an e-commerce website and community around (and to empower) mothers and their children for his client.
To tell you that story, he takes the reader inside real homes in Siberia and Saudi Arabia, explaining how he discovered Saudi women’s widespread fear of fire and their children’s love of emergency-response toys (fire trucks, cop cars, etc.) and how that affected the design of, of all things, a shopping mall. He explains how that experience informed the website he built for Russian mothers, and what role the two countries opposing, but similarly oppressive climates (political and atmospheric), along with Russia’s rampant alcoholism—and refrigerator magnets—played in it all. He tells us later how the layout of apartment blocks in Russia’s Far East resemble that of the upscale gated communities of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and how that helped him redesign the experience at a Southern grocery store chain.
The book is, as you can probably tell, written in tangents, in digressions from the initial focus of a chapter into other travels, one story folding into another and merging into yet another until, almost magically, at the end of each chapter, the original story resurfaces with all this tangential information attached to it and comes to a commercially useful conclusion. It reads like a stream-of-consciousness business monologue, but things are always tidied up with all dots connected in the end. And then you’re on to the next crazy chapter.
There you’ll learn how the unusual red color of hand soap in India sparked an idea that brought Indian mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, traditionally at odds in the same household, to agree on something, and what that has to do with a 1981 Harvard University study of elderly men in New England. You’ll learn, along the way, why the smell of “fresh” is associated with a chemical rendition of seasonal flowers in the US, and “the scent of cold air, soil and the outdoors” in Russia. You’ll then return to the mothers- and daughters-in-law of India, and how that all led to a new breakfast cereal box.
Lindstrom’s focus on his own adventures and business stories can seem self-congratulatory at times, but the wide-swath of the stories take you across the world in unexpected and incredibly interesting ways. It is a globetrotting, dot-connecting, mind-blowing adventure through human society—and Lindstrom’s mind. It is as much Kerouac’s On the Road, on a global, professional scale, as it is a traditional business book. But it does focus on business solutions, and what is becoming lost in finding them:
The habit of noticing, like letter writing, is a vanishing art, in part because today our cell phones give us an automatic out whenever we are alone with ourselves, away from the usual distractions that keep us from focusing on our surroundings. Even if we weren’t seduced by the digital sirens in our hands, it’s fair to say that most of us aren’t in the habit of stringing together clues as evidentiary; moreover, what if a single clue causes all the others to unravel?
The truth is that sometimes you have to entertain a symphony of insights or observations that at first make no sense, and follow them to wherever they may take you. You may in fact end up Small Mining a bunch of clues that lead nowhere. But you may also notice that a narrative has begun forming, that threads connect the figurine on the windowsill with the old, half-tied shoe with the mayonnaise inside the refrigerator—or in this case, that a thread links together the placement of kitchen spices with a generational color preference that’s ubiquitous across India.
Those two paragraphs almost sum up exactly how I feel about this book as a whole. It often seems as if it’s going nowhere, but suddenly, aha, it’s all tied together!
He does offer, at the end, a framework for doing the kind of small data mining he does. It is the 7Cs, which are: Collecting, Clues, Connecting, Causation, Correlation, Compensation, and Concept. And I don’t want to belittle its importance (which even he admits is no secret), but it seems like an afterthought, as if he threw it in because, well, Nestle asked him for a formula, and he developed one, so here it is.
But the true importance in this book (in any book, really) lies in the perspective, talents, and knowledge of the author. Lindstrom’s perspective that, while big data is important, that “In our small data, now and forever, lies the greatest evidence of who we are and what we desire” and the knowledge and talent he brings to back that up, is incredibly important to the contemporary business conversation. I hope it doesn’t get lost in all of that big data floating around.