August Event Review: “When Sharks Attack! – How Data Saves Product Managers From Becoming Shark Bait” with Robert Green, Director Product Management, Tableau Software
By Neha Nayak
August 2015 Event
“Tonight we are going to talk about sharks, data and how data is going to help product managers stay away from becoming shark bait” was Robert Green’s opening statement at the August session of SVPMA.
Upon introducing the theme for the evening, Robert Green, Director of Product Management at Tableau Software, engaged the audience in a story that stemmed from a recent headline in USA Today claiming “Shark Attacks Are on the Rise.” Admitting that the news had gotten him and his wife worried and concerned about the safety of their child in water, Robert continued to narrate how the effective use of data helped him address his family’s concern.
Robert described how he started the process by pulling international shark attack data from 1960 to 2015 and analyzing it for relevant parameters including areas most affected by shark attacks, and survival rate. He further explained how transforming this rich information into a visual format, examining factors such as the scale, and factoring in the accuracy of data collection mechanism over time as well as the impact of population growth, were key to reaching the right conclusion.
Demonstrating how effective use of data helped the family conclude, “Shark Attacks were Actually Not on the Rise!” and regain peace of mind, Robert introduced the three main topics for the session ahead:
- Why visualizing data is important
- Lessons that can be learned from companies that ignored data compared to companies that used data effectively to make informed decisions
- Tools and suggestions for current and aspiring product managers to get started on the path to a data-driven culture
Importance of Visualizing Data
Robert explained that seeing and understanding data starts with the human brain – the fastest computer in the world. The human brain can recognize a familiar picture faster than the fastest supercomputer in the world. However, when the picture is replaced with text, the computer does a better job of processing the information and deciding the action required.
He explained that the reason for this lies in how the human eye communicates and sends data to the brain – studies have shown that the human brain can receive imagery at 8.96 megabytes/sec, however an average person reads about 120 words/minute or 81.6 bits/sec. Robert concluded, “A picture truly is worth a thousand words! Humans are not wired to read data but to see data.”
Questioning “why as product managers would we then still want to be in the world of Excel, text, rows and columns,” Robert further demonstrated the importance of visualization. Multiple exercises helped depict the difference between Attentive Processing, where information is processed row by row, and column by column, and Preattentive Processing, where attributes like color, size, shape, distance, bring the data forward and make processing information much easier and faster.
The exercise helped communicate the key conclusion, “We think slowly and inefficiently but we see instantaneously and can detect patterns immediately. If we can, let’s put our data in a visual system that sets us on a path to growth and success.”
Examples of data ignored or used incorrectly, vs. used to make well informed decisions
To further illustrate the importance of data in decision-making, Robert shared with the audience examples of various national and multinational corporations and their use of data.
- Tibco software lost millions of dollars while taking the company private due to misrepresentation of data. Under-recording of shares outstanding (in a non-visual format) cost the company $100 million dollars in a private equity deal.
- The City of Santa Barbara lost over $1.7 million during a project requiring replacement of current water filtration systems to meet new government standards. Using the wrong data for the required government standard resulted in incorrect water filters and millions of dollars in taxpayer money.
- Kodak commissioned a study to learn the effects of digital photography on their business years before the company went out of business. Learning that the data suggested the company had no more than 10 years to save its business, Kodak actually bet against the data, and the rest is history…
- Blockbuster was at the top of the game in 2000, with no real competitors, and a growing workforce of thousands. Netflix approached Blockbuster to be bought out for $50 million and thereafter operate as a part of their online business. Data required to make the right decision was available. Blockbuster was aware of its higher insurance costs, real estate costs, employee costs and continued ability to sustain profitability. On the other hand, Netflix was seeing an increase in downloads, devices were getting better, and technology was improving. Blockbuster ignored the telling trends in the data. Fast-forward 10 years, Netflix is a $28 billion company, and Blockbuster is a name the next generation might never know.
As a point of contrast, Robert spoke about companies from different industries that are effectively managing data to improve business outcomes.
- Fast Food Industry: Stalwarts in the fast food industry like KFC are using data to increase sales by offering coupons related to the social activity of their regular customers, thereby also improving brand awareness. The fast food industry is also using data to manage lines and drive profitability. The drive-thru menus are adjusted based on the length of the lines to serve food with higher prices and longer prep time during slow traffic and vice-versa.
- Retail: Macy’s adjusts prices in real time on extremely successful merchandise on its racks at multiple locations simultaneously, thereby generating consistent profit improvements. Nordstrom has been able to achieve 60% improvement in margins by using data to enhance customer experience.
At this point, Robert shifted gears to share ways every product manager could become a part of using data effectively to drive well thought, informed decisions. Stating that “customers fuel ideas, data fuel decisions,” Robert asked current and aspiring product managers to follow the steps below to get started:
- Download any free data visualization tool and take the free training. (Tableau is one option)
- Get your hands on some data , corporate data would be ideal
- Create a story with the data, as stories are more memorable and share with as much as possible.
In his closing remarks he reiterated, “if we embrace and enhance data, a lot of progress can be achieved.”
Neha Nayak is a data centric thinker and has over 7 years’ combined experience in market research and product marketing. She can be contacted at email@example.com.