Discovering insights in your data requires two distinct modes of data analysis: wandering and navigating. Choosing the correct mode can save you significant time and effort.
One day, I coined these two modes while walking my Golden Retriever, Remy. As you can imagine, we go on multiple walks per day in the hopes of burning his endless energy off. Sometimes we navigate through the same streets and neighborhoods, and sometimes we go and wander somewhere new.
Navigating is predictable for Remy and me. He knows where we turn, where we stop, and where he’s more likely to see other dogs. Likewise, I can anticipate obstacles like cars and even remember key landmarks like a cozy-looking coffee shop near the seawall.
Wandering is the opposite of navigating. When Remy and I wander, we walk based on how we feel. I might let him follow his nose, which means he will make random turns until he sees a dog. I might arbitrary turns and streets with no clear aim. Wandering is about the journey and being surprised.
Navigating through your data means knowing exactly what you’re looking for. Looking at the performance of marketing campaigns or analyzing your product’s onboarding flow are examples of straight-to-the-insight navigating. It gives you answers to questions you already know.
Wandering is an exploration of your data in the hope of finding insights. You may look at your marketing strategy with fresh eyes and open minds. It is inherently slower and less structured. Some clients see wandering as a waste of time but it is the complete opposite.
My work with clients has shown me that many of them aren’t aware of their data analysis mode. For example, they may want to know the performance of their new email campaign, but they wander through the data instead of navigating straight to the answers. Alternatively, they may futilely tackle hairy challenges, such as retention, by navigating to the same two or three reports instead of wandering for hidden insights.
Let’s dive deeper into each mode and the use cases.
Navigating Directly to Insights
A fitness consumer app came to me with a seemingly simple question: what is the true performance of our marketing campaigns? They were spending upwards of six figures monthly on different channels, but it wasn’t clear how many conversions they were driving. They were watching their money leave their bank without any tangible results.
My first question was about their navigating efforts. Did they have pre-built dashboards that they can just open for insights? They didn’t. They wandered through the data. Their calculations were slightly different, and they were easily distracted by random data points.
I worked with them to create the necessary reports and dashboards. As a result, they could now navigate directly to insights about their campaigns.
Navigating is the ideal mode when you know what you’re looking for. It’s a mode of efficiency because you already did the work of thinking through your KPIs and goals. For my fitness client, they needed an easy way to track their performance regularly. Once we had these reports built, they could use them to optimize their campaigns.
How to Navigate Properly
Proper navigation has a clear destination in mind. It should take a few seconds to open up the necessary reports because your team knows where they are. They might even have them bookmarked in their browser or saved on their computer. Reading and thinking about them takes another few minutes. That’s it!
If your experience doesn’t match my above description, your team is wandering. They’re wasting time in the wrong mode, and it’s one of the reasons why data analysis may be difficult for your team.
If your team isn’t finding navigation smooth, these may be the reasons:
Poorly defined problem: if you can’t define the issue, you will first need to wander through the data. Navigating questions are concise and to the point.
Lacking reports: your team’s reports should already exist and be easily accessible.
Lack of training: your team should have basic training to understand what they are looking at and how to make sense of it quickly.
Navigating has a natural connection to wandering. However, in some cases, clients need me to help them wander before we can navigate. Let’s look at those cases.
Wandering For Insights
An art marketplace came to me asking for help auditing their marketing technology. They had poorly integrated 10–15 software tools and didn’t know what was working well. They dreamt of a smooth marketing technology stack that didn’t require hours of manual intervention every week.
I ran an audit, which is inherently a wandering exercise. It’s not entirely random, but I’m also open to anything that could be useful. After a couple of weeks, I had a list of fifteen recommendations to bring order into their world of chaos.
For example, their email tool wasn’t talking to their CRM which prevented them from sending basic emails that could easily help them convert new customers. Surprisingly to them, I didn’t recommend replacing their CRM, something they had been pondering for months.
Their team took the recommendations and started working through them. They could eliminate the redundant tools, swap out existing ones for better options, and better integrate everything into a cohesive, well-oiled machine.
Wandering is an exploration that could lead to nothing or to unexpected insights. It is fantastic for thinking big—i.e., innovation—and can be done with any kind of data. You could even use machine learning to help you wander.
Deliberate wandering means choosing big areas or questions to explore. I wish more companies would wander on purpose! If they devoted a small amount of time each month to an open-ended process of looking at new data, and trying to get new insights, they would quickly build an impressive library of reports that they could choose from when they need specific insights.
How to Wander Properly
Several challenges come up with my clients when it’s time to wander:
Navigating feels more useful: wandering doesn’t have immediate rewards and can be dismissed as a “waste of time.” It’s not until companies try it consistently that they will see the benefits.
Journey is too random: don’t let your team members wander too randomly. Give them direction and constraints. It could be as simple as limiting the wandering to paid marketing efforts or marketing technology.
Data isn’t easily explorable: to wander easily, your data needs to allow it. You need self-service options where anyone can generate reports in a few minutes.
Wandering is one of my favorite exercises with my clients. It’s incredible what insights you will find without even looking for them.
I’m not sure if Remy has a preference for wandering or navigating. To him, all walks are an opportunity to explore the world. He doesn’t know what kind of delicious treats he might find on the ground or what dogs he might meet. Perhaps we all need more of this mindset with our data.
I would love to hear from you! Message on Twitter @ugarterd and tell me which mode you use more often in your daily work. Do you navigate or wander through your data?
Featured Image by Liz Sanchez-Vegas