The importance of asking the right questions

Data Scientist and Founder of Analytical Solution, Analytical Solution

Each time I am called upon to consult with a business, I ask the same question: “What is your ultimate goal with this project?” Often it is to increase sales via correctly identifying their potential audience or customers. Of course, this isn't usually what's said; initially all I get is a panicked look that says “we can’t get what we want out of our database—it isn’t working right…how do we fix it??”

Typically, there is nothing wrong with the database: the master and all its clones are just as they were designed to be, the variables are entered correctly and the reporting functions are pulling exactly what they were coded and designed to pull.

So what’s the issue? Every database contains different information (client addresses and phone number, medical information and sales, debt and credit information), but how much of that information is connected? What I mean is: is there a unique quantifier that connects each table or database together? If I want to select all the people with diabetes out of a database, complete with demographic, sales and personal information, in order to run a campaign advertising a new drug or a new medical device, can I accomplish this with my current database? By design relational databases are just that: “relational.” Therefore, everything should flow, if set up correctly in the very beginning.

questions_Blog.jpgWhich brings us back to asking the right questions—which might look a bit like these:

  • What is it really that I want to be able to answer with my data collection?
  • Do I want to link social data to what I collect from customers? (3rd party sign in via Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc)
  • Structured vs unstructured data, am I asking the right questions and giving them choices or offering a space to add comments (be careful of this)? Example a) agree b) disagree c( unsure ----- Can I work with unstructured data?
  • Are you offering incentives to "complete additional info" as to glean a more complete pictures of your customer? (5 dollar iTunes or Starbucks card)
  • Are you including IT in your business meetings?

A gap analysis usually reports on what is missing, but it doesn’t have to be this way (reactive and not proactive). If you ask the right questions initially, your design and results will reflect this. Know what you are trying to accomplish.

If you say "my database is broken," but what you really mean is “I need to be able to sustain sales throughout the next five years; I’m concerned with increasing what we have in the pipeline,” well, ask for help in identifying your customer so you can offer them better service and increase sales. Make sure you have the correct data to indicate their buying habits, including seasonality. Can you collect third party data or have them log into their account on your website through a social network, such as Facebook or Twitter?

Do you have census data or behavioral data to help form a more three dimensional view of your client? A data-centric view into your target audience is so valuable, but unless you ask the right questions when collecting your data and setting up your database, you may end up trying to build a predictive model using only name, address and phone number! As Chief Engineer Scotty Montgomery of the USS Enterprise might say, “I can’t do it captain!”

Go well armed on your journey towards big data and analytics, and, remember to ask the right questions!

Read more about data science and my experience at IBM Insight 2014

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