How can we collect and use data to build better products?

Better data, product design, and everything in between
Better data, product design, and everything in between

“How do we collect better data to build better products? “

This may seem like a simple enough question, because data in itself is a base form. Data is either valid or invalid, but how do we then optimise to collect, and make use of data?

My idea of better data in the context of product design and marketing is based on experience trying to build a technology business in Nigeria. In developed markets, data has been collected for decades at least, which allows creators build better products. Where data doesn’t exist, it’s arguably easier to collect than in Nigeria.

An example is something as simple street/house numbers. These are things taken for granted in the developed world, and even in parts of the developing world. But in Nigeria, house numbering is pure chaos. Yet, this is an integral part of the logistics and fulfilment system. While Amazon is trying to launch drone deliveries in America, depending largely on existing numbering and GPS systems, Konga literally had to build their own postal service. (What would be interesting is Konga’s data on how many times it takes their delivery guys to identify a home to deliver to, and how they do that.)

This inherent chaos is our system is not an accident. If I may borrow the word, anyhowness is a real thing. But we need to build products and services, irrespective of this chaos. And we need data to make these products/services work well, because without data, our products and services cannot operate optimally. So how do we get better data?

I was recently speaking with a technology team at a top 4 bank, helping redo their service design for Internet banking, and we were stuck on whether certain fields on their interface should be displayed at all. Bankers are fun people to work with – they had filled their software with fine banking language, like ‘liens’, ‘facility’ etc, and we’re unwilling to make changes.

So I asked: why are we making these changes?

They answered: because we want our online banking services to appeal to younger customers.

Me: How many young customers understand these big words?

Banker: They do!

Me: I don’t. And I’m not very stupid.

Banker: Well…you should.

Me: Ok, but more importantly, how many of your users, statistically click on those sections of your website, or use the service?

It emerged that it was less than 5 percent, maybe 2%. Less than 5% of users accessed a feature, yet we were fighting over it being front centre.

This is the problem. It’s a bigger problem than not having data. Understanding the place of data in the design process is the bigger problem.

The era of assuming when you build, customers will use it just because you have built it never existed. Only Apple gets away with that, and that’s because Apple understands great design better than all of us combined. Since we’re not Apple, we must behave like we’re not Apple.

A website design for example, is more than just wireframe and new CSS tricks. It’s not carousels and new HTML5 widgets. Designers must see themselves as the forerunners of intelligent service design. This means they can’t work alone.

Design is a destination which describes the entire customer journey in one location. Hence, if the design doesn’t not understand and properly capture the customer journey, and how the customer interacts with the brand, then the design product is a failure.

We must remember though, that collecting data for product design is not rocket science. Especially for people who already own their platforms, the data is there already. You probably have already collected enough, or could with minor adjustments. The challenge is in asking the right questions, and being honest to self. “What am I currently doing right? Where am I failing, and how can I improve?”

Over the last couple of months, we’ve designed various data collection models. The most successful ones have been those disguised as products.

It is very interesting that if we look at things differently, we could completely change the way we see data collection (and their applications to design), mostly from sources which are not very obvious to the user. How do viewing patterns on iRokoTV help Nollywood create better films (which score in the market)? This was an unstated, but critical observation, casually dropped in a recent blog by Jason Njoku.

The gaming industry is an example of where data is currently being harvested, with meaningful real life applications. The new Kim Kardashian game could deliver valuable user behaviour data to hotels, TV and entertainment producers, Candy Crush could help study addiction and compulsive behaviour, and law enforcement could do very interesting things with Grand Theft Auto data. It could be argued in gaming that building a great product is not an end in itself, but the beginning.

This is indeed the experience we have had over the last couple of years at Anakle, but the last 15 months have been the most interesting. While I was out being notorious for building the Bride Price app (again, I didn’t build it, Ofure’s team did), our servers were quietly collecting various kinds of data (which was one of the reasons the app was designed in the first place). We were lucky to have a few million interactions to play with, and when the various data points were reviewed, the emerging patterns provided very interesting feedback.

For example, returning female users tended to score higher marks in the quiz. Does that tell anything? Imagine that a user had scored N200,000 in the first taking of the quiz, then returned to take it – the pattern was that most returning users ended up with higher scores. What were the most popular skin tones in a given location? What image of themselves did users see in their minds? But these are the more obvious pieces of information users left behind, without filling any forms.

Most of the data we collected is currently helping our team design a more serious, real life services, and we’re approaching the product design with a lot more confidence than we did months before.

For our advertising team servicing clients in various industries, it is an advantage that we are able to predict user behaviour. While hypotheses are good, real data allows us to walk into battle with a more significant amount of confidence.

Users don’t have the time to fill our surveys, and most times, when people actively fill surveys, they are more inclined to put their best foot forward. I believe we would find more valuable data by hacking passive user activity to collect real life data. Of course nothing I am saying here is new. Silicon Valley perfected this model decades ago. But in Africa, we need to get started too, as a mainstream model.

So Jason Njoku got $8m. Now you want to make yours too?

Jason Njoku
Yep, that's him. Copyright

A few days ago, we got news the Jason Njoku and the Iroko Partners team for $8m in funding. First question a close friend asked was “What are we building? In fact what are you going to build?” I have heard this same question in different forms over the last couple of days. Now I have a question of my own.  Actually, I have questions?

  1. Must you build?
  2. Why are you building?
  3. What are you bulding?

To put these questions in perspective, I’m mostly asking: now that you want to do your own startup because Jason Njoku got $8m in funding (and you want to go get yours too), what exactly are you thinking?

I’m not going to go into the whole argument of what to or not to build, there’s EContent and Afrinnovator for that for that.

I’ll want to point out that Njoku/Iroko did not begin in one day. You just don’t get up to build something because of Iroko – it’s great to feel inspired, and indeed we all are, but there’s a name for jumping in that excited, inspired state to build ‘that app’ just because – it’s called suicide. Maybe there’s a softer name. Maybe it’s knocking your head in with a wooden mallet, which is sure to put out your lights for at least week and half, but it’s just not the thing you’d like to do.

There’s at least a million things to think about in order to build a successful app or startup. You won’t and can’t figure them all out in a day. You will need to put a decent, emotionless amount of work into the thinking process. You’ll need the equivalent of a ballistics resistance test on your idea before you even begin building – you take the idea out to the shed, setup a firing range, unload a few magazines of lead into it. If it survives, take it out again, do same with a business hat on. If it survives, then maybe you can start building.

Why is the business idea so important? In all of this hoopla, it should not be forgotten that Njoku didn’t sell an app or a complex, built up product. What he sold was an idea, a business plan! If your app or idea does not cut the business mustard, you are not going to see a dime. Because the funding is NOT free, funders will need to know that they will make money from their investment – I’m going to emphasize this, funding is AN INVESTMENT. This is why Njoku isn’t closing down his street for a major owambe anytime soon.

Here’s a few thoughts if you’re sure you are ready for that startup.

Be ready to not make money – yet. In fact, be ready to lose money. It’s important to not think your startup will magically start making money from Day 1.

Recognize the local environment. A tip on this is that the biggest impediment to monetization of apps and startups in Nigeria is payment systems. Ask any business minded developer, or startup owners. Until a mainstream payment solution is available for those little payments you need to collect from your app, most apps will not be profitable. Unsurprisingly, the big problem the Iroko team is still trying to nail is the “monetization problem”. The monetization problem has NOT been solved yet!

What to build? You could begin from where you know, where you have strong background knowledge. If you grew up in Alaba, think Alaba. If you know SMS, think SMS. You could then work it backwards, from the known to unknown. Of course this is not the Law of Moses, but it’s a bit of common sense.

Read. It is possible someone may have thought about that bright idea you have and walked away. Do you research. You just may find why the person walked away, or crack the kink that drove the previous idea owner off the land.

What this blog isn’t saying is for you not to build your app or startup – that’ll make me an effing idiot, you see. What it is saying is, think through it before you begin. Don’t do it just because someone else did, or you want to make money like Iroko Partners. Do something ridiculous, that actually makes sense, and maybe then, you can ask Jason how to get funding.