Best Practices

Drive more impact with your data: Just add a dash of psychology | Census

Nicole Mitich
Nicole Mitich September 21, 2022

Nicole Mitich is the content marketing manager @ Census. She's carried a love for reading and writing since childhood, but her particular focus is on streamlining technical communication through writing. She loves seeing (and helping) technical folks share their wisdom. San Diego, California, United States

There’s nothing more frustrating than presenting business teams with a beautiful report filled with data so clean and pure it could make a grown analyst cry – and then seeing those same business teams move in the opposite direction than that data says they should. 😒

If you’re a data leader focused on sharing raw, analytical insights with the rest of your company, you’re missing a critical part of the equation: Psychology. Don't worry; that doesn't mean you have to apply some Pavlovian conditioning to make your business leaders salivate at the sound of a bell. 🐶 It simply means breaking down the data into what it really means, why they should care about it, and how they should use this newfound knowledge.

You know what the data is telling you, but business leaders can’t read your mind. 🧠 By mixing a dash of persuasive psychology into your data science soup, you connect the dots for business teams – and increase the data team’s impact across the business in tandem. 

“Psychology can really help you on your data journey in terms of building better insights and getting more impact in your company,” Census Co-founder and CEO Boris Jabes said. “Data people tend to be in the unfortunate situation where you have to influence a lot of people to get what you want, done. The better you are at that, the more powerful and successful you’ll be.”

Jessica Zhang, a data scientist at Notion, has learned a lot about data science in a career that’s taken her from the bank sector to the world of mobile gaming to the SaaS industry. If she could go back and change one thing about how she worked, she wouldn’t build better models – she’d apply better psychology.

“My biggest mistake was focusing my energy on producing this pristine report on why the numbers look this way,” she told Boris in a recent episode of The Sequel Show podcast. “If I could time-travel back, I would spend more time translating those insights to my business partners, so they were more equipped to adjust their workflow.”

Storytelling increases data’s impact on business

As data people, we tend to love numbers. ❤️ But it turns out lone data sets are not necessarily the best way to be persuasive. 🤯

The people using your data are persuaded by stories. While processing numbers involves only one part of the brain, processing a story engages multiple parts and leads to a better understanding and ability to recall the point you’re trying to make.

The more that story relates to the audience’s personal experience, the more impactful it is. After all, that’s why politicians pepper their addresses with anecdotes.

“Heads of state don’t say, ‘We need to do this because inflation is 2.3%,’” Boris said. “They say, ‘Look at Jill; she couldn’t buy a loaf of bread this year.’ The process of getting the numbers needs to be rigorous, but people aren’t easily convinced by pure numbers.” 

Characters in a story have a motivation. Have you ever looked at data about user behavior and wondered why people do what they do? Hypothesizing user motivations is the first step in building a narrative. 📝

The next step is testing your hypothesis. The more you can dig in and test the data, the better you understand user psychology – and the more impactful that story can be.

When Jessica worked at mobile game company Zynga, advertising A/B tests consistently showed that female audiences responded better to game ads with women and male audiences responded better to game ads featuring men.

The obvious resulting action? Use that data to inform ad targeting, resulting in better ad conversion. A less-obvious action? Think about why players prefer to see characters like themselves. That data can then influence everything from marketing to the development of future games.

“We experimented with a ton of different creatives paired with copy to see what resonated,” Jessica recalled. “My hypothesis was that maybe people are looking for role models in their games. They want to imagine themselves in this virtual experience. When you have all this data from all these different genres, you can build a more complete picture. Then you can walk into a room with a recommendation already in hand.”

Data predicts behavior; psychology influences it

Most companies use data to identify and segment audiences. Adding psychology to that data science can help us go one level deeper and impact what the business does with those segments. For example, when Jessica worked in the banking industry, part of her job was thinking about how to prevent late payments.

“The questions shifted from, ‘How can we identify the customers at risk to go delinquent?’ to ‘What are the yellow flags, and once they’re raised, how can we engage customers to make sure they pay on time?’” she said. “How can we set up guard rails to track each monthly cohort?”

Data can tell us how an audience segment responded to a product feature. Psychology can tell us why they responded that way and predict how they might respond to other features. The more you can help the business understand its customers, the more you can impact those customers’ experiences.

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When your data team can not only provide marketing and product teams with data but guide them through what it might mean for future behavior, they can make better decisions about how to apply it. Better marketing and product decisions lead to happier customers and more money for the company. And, when you can directly connect a data-backed decision to cash, it proves the value of data to business users and boosts your team’s ability to impact future decisions.🌟

“Both Slack and Notion have invested in user research so we can tag, say, the power user versus the decision maker who is probably in meetings all day and doesn’t actually use the product that often,” Jessica explained. “The B2B product is always a multi-stakeholder conversation. The type of questions decision-makers ask is totally different from what the procurement person asks which is totally different from the engineers, designers, or power users of the product. We look into the data to help the user research team understand our user base so we can present a product that resonates.”

For data to impact the business, data leaders have to influence people

There’s a misconception that, as data people, all we do is build pipelines and run reports. Actually, Jessica pointed out, that’s less than half of what we do. A big part of a data leader’s job is project management: Coordinating engineers to ensure pipelines run properly, helping marketing align strategies with the data product, and working with the business team to ensure forecast modeling will surface the right data points.

Data leaders spend as much time working with the people in the business as the data. So, if all we present to them is pristine numbers out of context, we’re not as influential as we could be.

“Your impact in a company is tied to how magnified your output is,” Boris said. “There are two ways to magnify your output. The one everyone in tech thinks about is code that can be infinitely replicated and deployed. But the other way is influencing larger and larger numbers of humans.”

In a previous episode of The Sequel Show, Mode Founder and Chief Analytics Officer Benn Stancil pointed out there’s no such thing as a “true neutral” data analyst – everyone has an agenda. If you want to make an impact at your company, you have to go beyond presenting data and start presenting arguments.

The most compelling argument isn’t necessarily the one with the best data. It’s the one that persuades people to agree. Incorporating psychology into data science – both the psychology of users and the psychology of the business teams we work with – helps us make a case that increases the impact of data on the business.

Want to hear more? You can catch the full conversation between Boris and Jessica below or on your favorite streaming platforms. 🎧

Then head on over to  The Operational Analytics Club to join the conversation around this and many other data best practices. ✨