Making Data Meaningful

My wife asked me a question while we were driving the other day: “How much gas do you have left?”  My answer: “220 miles.”  That might sounds like a normal conversation but look at it again.  I really didn’t answer my wife’s question, at least not in the normal sense.  If she had asked me that a few years ago I would have responded with “Half a tank” or maybe “10 gallons.”  When did we start measuring gas in terms of miles?

I’m not sure when it was but a few years ago cars got a lot more sophisticated and started telling you how many miles you had left until you ran out of gas.  They used to tell you how full the tank was.  Think about how ridiculous that is though.  Who cares how full the tank is.  What you care about is how far you can drive.  It’s subtle but think about the implication in terms of how it makes a number meaningful.  When your old car used to tell you that your tank was half full we as human beings interpreted that information into something meaningful.  Maybe we said to ourselves, I can drive another 3 hours until I need to refuel, or maybe we said, that’s a few more days until I need to stop at the gas station.  However we interpreted the data our minds had to go through the step to make that information meaningful. 

Let me give two more examples and then I’ll get to the point.  Apple changed the MP3 device industry in the same subtle way.  While Microsoft and Philips where selling MP3 players to customers with “500 Megabytes” or “2 Gigabytes” in the product description Apple changed the conversation to something meaningful.  They found a way to take a meaningless number and make it meaningful.  The ad is classic… “1,000 songs in your pocket.”

Again, its so subtle you might miss it.  Apple changed the conversation from a meaningless number into one that had meaning.  Who really cares how many megabytes your MP3 player had.  What you really wanted was to know that if you bought their product you could copy all those pirated MP3s (keep in mind this was back in the era of Napster) to it.  

And while I’ve written about FitBit before let me just say that I believe the genious of Fitbit is that they took a meaningless number, Calories, and turned it into something we can all see and feel… Steps.

We still see clients do this all the time in their online reporting systems.  They ask us to pull revenue from their accounting system, inventory from their WMS, cost control numbers from their SAP system, and on and on.  When we sit down and ask what they really want from all this they tell us that once they get all those numbers they know how many days their factory is booked for.  Why not have a dashboard with that single number instead?  Business Intelligence is all about focusing on what really matters.  It’s about giving relevant information to the right people at the right time.  It’s not about pulling information for the sake of pulling information.  Take a look at the numbers you review in your business or even personally and ask if there is something else you need to be looking at.