How To Build Your Analytics Confidence

Do you know someone that is afraid of Analytics? Not afraid in the sense that if you open a dashboard the person will climb a chair and start screaming… I mean afraid as in the 3rd definition of Merriam-Webster: “having a dislike for something – afraid of hard work”

Over the years I noticed that people often ask questions without even checking their Analytics tool. The information is sometimes one click away, right after signing in. So how come they didn’t find it? My assumption is that people are generally afraid of Analytics, they won’t login and surf their reports looking for data and insights, like they probably do at YouTube or at Wikipedia. And this is probably a syntom of a lack of confidence.

A few weeks ago I watched the video below, a TED Talk by David Kelley, founder of legendary design firm IDEO. The presentation provides interesting facts of life, psychological theories, business and life-changing experiences. And I believe it is very relevant for Analytics.

After watching the video I realized how similar creativity is to Analytics:

  1. It is undermined early in our lives (usually as a result of Mathematical anxiety).
  2. It is frightening to start doing it.
  3. It is not fun for most people.

Below I discuss these three issues and offer insight on how to build your Analytics confidence.

1. Be Constructive About Numeracy

Mathematical AnxietyAs David Kelley mentioned in the presentation, there are countless examples of children that started believing that they are not creative because they had a traumatizing experience. I believe the same is true for Analytics or, to be more exact, for numbers in general.

Learning numeracy, the ability to understand and work with numbers, is a hard job. It is not like learning to paint or to draw or even to make sculptures; I have never seen a toddler doing math on his own… While some people are really good at it and grok the idea very fast, Mathematics and Statistics are languages invented by us, so they are more complex and require a lot of mentoring and practice.

The first issue is the educational system. As children learn mathematics they are confronted with a dry process, where you are supposed to learn formulas by heart and often solve abstract exercises not related to their everyday life. In addition, classrooms usually have more children than a teacher can support, so teachers are obliged to find the average and force everyone into it; this means that half of the class is pulled down and half is pushed up. Without getting too much into the educational problems, this creates a suboptimal situation for learning numeracy. But, hopefully, sites like the Khan Academy are helping to bridge that gap.

But how do we make sure we are being constructive about numeracy in our working environment? Here are two rules that I find to be efficient.

The first rule is: never ever mock a person for not understanding a chart (even in your thoughts). This is extremely destructive: it may lead people to build fortresses around themselves that will fire cannonballs every time they hear “Analytics” till the end of their lives. And it will be your fault, so don’t do it.

The second rule is an anecdote I heard from my father countless times. He used to be a Statistics professor at university early in his career, and everyday after the class was over, he would ask: “Any questions?” Whenever the class was silent, with no questions, he would start from the beginning, it meant no one understood a word. So, be patient and understand between the lines, don’t force people to say they don’t get it, no one is comfortable with not understanding things.

2. Overcome The Fear Of Analytics: One Step At A Time

Overcoming Analytics Fear

David Kelley mentions Albert Bandura, the fourth most frequently cited psychologist of all time, and his famous study with herpetophobics – people with a neurotic fear of snakes. Bandura built an experiment that shows that if you get someone with a psychological disorder to observe another person dealing with the same issues in a more productive fashion, the first person will learn by modeling the second. Below is a summary of the experiment:

Bandura’s original research on this involved herpetophobics – people with a neurotic fear of snakes. The client would be lead to a window looking in on a lab room. In that room is nothing but a chair, a table, a cage on the table with a locked latch, and a snake clearly visible in the cage. The client then watches another person – an actor – go through a slow and painful approach to the snake. He acts terrified at first, but shakes himself out of it, tells himself to relax and breathe normally and take one step at a time towards the snake. He may stop in the middle, retreat in panic, and start all over. Ultimately, he gets to the point where he opens the cage, removes the snake, sits down on the chair, and drapes it over his neck, all the while giving himself calming instructions.

After the client has seen all this (no doubt with his mouth hanging open the whole time), he is invited to try it himself. Mind you, he knows that the other person is an actor – there is no deception involved here, only modeling! And yet, many clients – lifelong phobics – can go through the entire routine first time around, even after only one viewing of the actor! [source]

The experiment above is very interesting in that it shows a practical way to help people overcome their fears. And it shouldn’t be different with Analytics. By giving a hand to people, and walking them through Analytics one step at a time, you could help them overcome their Analytics fear. But sometimes this approach might not be scalable, so you could use technologies like Google+ Hangouts to walk people through this experience and record it for future use.

And one important tip: overcoming fears (and learning in general) are more effective one step at a time. Don’t try to start from complex visualizations and analytical concepts, go easy… Start by looking at your overview reports for 15 minutes once a week, then you will notice that you (or your colleague) will start drilling down and deeper with time. It is important to let the knowledge sink and be digested in its own time.

3. Make Analytics Fun

Creative MRI ScannerAs we saw in the presentation, one way to create a better user experience is to “dress” the problem in a different way, like GE Healthcare did with their Adventure Series of MRI scanners for children. Bringing fun situations into the product is a great technique to make the product usage more pleasant.

Well, I am not sure I can envision Google Analytics dressed up as a pirate or spaceship (although I would find it pretty awesome!); but this can be accomplished with some basic programming knowledge and a lot of creativity. The Analytics Woman Chrome Extension, for example, is a funny way to make the Google Analytics homepage a bit funnier.

Another technique that has been growing steadily is gamification. According to Wikipedia:

Gamification is the use of game-thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts in order to engage users and solve problems. Gamification is used in applications and processes to improve user engagement, ROI, data quality, timeliness, and learning.

One idea would be to create internal games in your organization, like voting for insightful charts on your Intranet or even distributing badges for people completing the Analytics Academy. Be creative!

An example of gamification I specially like is Amazon’s community badges. The reason these badges are so successful is that they managed to build an incentive for readers to write about books and it ultimately built a community of reviewers: it fits like a glove. I am not the type of person that likes gamification too much, I am a serious person :-), but even Amazon managed to grab my attention at some point and I played the game for a while. Below is a screenshot with a few of the badges available, check this link for a full list:

Gamification on Amazon Community Badges

Closing Thoughts

In summary, I truly believe that the reason the Analytics community is not growing like a weed is because professionals are not confident enough with numbers and charts. If you would like to help foster the Analytics world, here are three points I think we should do better in order to make the field grow healthily:

  1. Be constructive: never mock people for not understanding charts (even in your thoughts), and if a person is silent after an explanation, just explain it again.
  2. Encourage people to overcome their fear: baby-steps are a great way for people to get used to Analytics.
  3. Make Analytics more fun: this is up to the tools, but you can create some games too, use your imagination!

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