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.


GTBank Responds: We know there are challenges, but we are improving

Listen to your customers: they often know where you’re going before you do – @levie

Just over a month ago, I wrote a blog post about how not to destroy a great brand, it’s subject: GTBank. It was easy – the flaws were there, customers had been complaining and it didn’t seem there was much being done by the bank to fix the problems. I probably should not have put that post on my personal blog – suddenly, hundreds of people were visiting my blog everyday, reading, sharing and leaving comments on a blog that had previously just been there as my sounding board.

In hindsight now, it was inevitable that I would get a call from GTBank concerning that post. It only took a month to happen. This post is mostly about that call, and the events that followed. It also is probably the most difficult I have ever written.

The first time I visited the GTBank head office, I expected at least a mild air of hostility from the their communications team. The day before, I had called my lawyer as soon as I got the call from GTBank’s representatives, to be sure that we are ready with a defence, should we need it. However, there were no threats. The communications lead was very businesslike, almost nice. I’m not sure what the team thought about me when I walked in, but if they felt any animosity, they did a great job of masking it.

Straight away, the lead went on to tell me she has read the blog, and held no grudges, as she understood it was written by someone who meant well for the bank. Next on, I heard a five minute introduction to how GTBank works, the commitment to quality, the QC process and how customer complaints are handled. In the end, I realised they must know about all the troubles the bank has – and they confirmed this. “Yes, the bank understands the issues, and is working on them”, they said.

The summary of the opening presentation was that:

  • GTBank is already aware of all these issues.
  • They are glad the customers hold them in such high regard.
  • They did not expect the amount of growth they had in the last two years, and obviously, that’s taken a toll on the banks resources, and they’re currently working hard at fixing the shortfalls.
  • Taking down the 3rd party transfer from Savings accounts, for example, was a pro-active security measure – it just was not communicated properly.
  • The internet banking platform is currently undergoing major improvement work, and should improve user experience and performance as soon as the changes are implemented.

When I got the call from GTBank, I didn’t only call a lawyer and my advisers, I also prepared a presentation which laid out in very simple language the source of my disappointment with the bank, how some of the issues may be fixed. To tell the truth, the presentation savaged GTBank services, and had a line that effectively said the new website is “absolute nonsense”. The presentation ended with a little final statement – if it was hoped somewhere that the blog post will be taken down, that it was not going to happen, because that would not solve any of the problems highlighted in it. Luckily, that point never came up, as far as I could hear.

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In the end, the team went line by line through each of the issues I raised, and addressed them. Obviously they had prepared for the meeting, but that in itself bought my respect.

Before my meeting ended on Friday, I had requested my hosts to please send me detailed summaries of their improvement strategy, what they are currently doing to improve services, and the the numbers to support those activities. On Thursday evening, I got an email with the subject “Thank you”. Thank you was a reference to GTBank’s appreciation of the customer’s (me) comments, suggestions and recommendations, and was followed with a deck of information on how GTBank is fixing service quality (only excerpts shown).

Over the last two weeks, I have had two meetings with big communications people at GTBank, exchanged a couple of emails, and even had discussions on fixing some of the problems the bank has. Best thing I can say is that GTBank seems to understand that gaps exist in their services and platforms, and if their teams are to be believed, they are working to fix the problems. I also think they believe in constructive criticism. There are potentially thousands of reasons why my post went viral, but I have come to think, for the most part it was because many people who complain about GTBank truly love the bank and would love it to succeed.

In 2010, the world was introduced to a new brand management strategy by Steve Jobs. After reading that story, I realised that there’s no better way to promote one’s brand than getting full on with customers and stakeholders and addressing their issues. After my meetings with GTBank, and the subsequent emails, I found more reason to respect the brand. They may not have addressed all my problems, and my friend still has outstanding internet banking issues to deal with; but I am just one little customer, and top level GTBank staff spent hours to convince me that the bank was doing it’s best to improve services and banking platforms.

The questions on customer experience and quality of service remain. I know now what GTBank’s plans for the future, and hopefully they can communicate these better to their customers, but how soon are those changes coming in?

I was privileged to meet a guy from IT, whose ideas told me that the bank is thinking right along the same directions as I was thinking, in terms of technology (I can’t resist saying that our UI guys are a little better than their UI guys), but how soon are these changes coming on stream? GTBank is seriously working on staying ahead of the market with their Internet Banking platform, but how soon will these changes happen?

Of course, being a big bank, stuff takes a little longer to get done, approved and tested. But maybe the management could create special R&D silos, which have direct access to the decision makers, so they don’t get caught up in the bureaucracy. That’s what Steve Jobs and Jony Ives did at Apple, which built up a 10 year advantage in product innovation.

A focus group would be great for GTBank too. In my head, GTBank is not a bank – it’s a brand, built on great banking products. Often times though, a successful product team could get stuck. This is where a focus group helps. Feedback and ideas could be crowdsourced from people who love the brand and would love to see it succeed. And the cost of this could be as expensive as a few cups of coffee and open communication channels.


On Tuesday, the 20th of November, I took a ‘trip’ to GTBank Ikoyi to make an FX deposit (hint: I shouldn’t have to ‘source’ for FX and pay into the bank. Why can’t I buy from the bank? CBN?). Of course I wasn’t just there for a transaction. This was my first time back in a GTBank branch my meeting at GT HQ, so I was looking out closer than normal. First thing I noticed was that I did not recognise any of the guys I knew at the branch, but there was no queue in the banking hall, as the staff were getting around very busily.

The customer care desk was no longer where it used to be – instead, there was a single desk with a self service desktop computer on it, for internet banking. Cool, I thought, except it looked rather random the way it sat there, and could have done with a decent potted plant on the side to give it character. I went straight to the pay counter, where I was next in line for service. My turn came quickly enough, but I had forgotten my FX account number. The customer care lady didn’t smile, but she helped by telling my to just write my current account number and all will be well. It was. I was done in less than 3 minutes.

As I was leaving, I noticed that there was a recessed hall to the right of the entrance, where a decently sized customer care desk was. The bank had apparently expanded the customer care desk, and people seemed to be getting served rather efficiently. I only wished the hall was more obvious as I walked into the bank earlier. Like having a really bold sign that tells me I can get help ‘here’.

I see here how GTBank is trying to improve the experience in banking halls. It could be better, but I hope whatever the bank is currently planning and doing to improve the experience of customers, it does quickly. The customers who truly love their bank will appreciate it.


Because I also had to deal with a lot of random people asking if I was writing so GTBank would ‘pay’ me, and probably will have to answer if this post was paid for by the brand, I must clearly state that I was not paid then, and haven’t been paid to write this follow up. If two cups of coffee qualify as payment, then maybe I have been paid, otherwise, we could all treat this as a conversation between a brand and a friend.

The farmer and the burning farm

A millet farmer, living on the edge of the dry Sahel decided to burn his field after a harvest. He had had a particularly large harvest, and the dry millet stalks piled sky high, towering over his home, which was at the edge of the farm.

Late in the day, as the sunset cast dark shadows around his home, he lighted a dry branch, stuck it into the smaller piles of chaff, striding around the harvested field as he did so. One after the other, each heap of dry millet stalks was set afire. Then the man, with great ceremony, set fire to the largest heap of them all. There was a great roar, as the giant heap went up in flames, lighting up the early night sky, as the sun was in its final descent beyond the end of the sky.

There was a great fire. The fire was so bright, it looked like daylight. The man then thought, the fire is so bright; why don’t I save some of my oil, and use this light to eat dinner? So he went into his home, which was now very warm, a welcome change from the harmattan cold. His wife and son were already making the evening meal by the light of the roaring fire, which looked very bright indeed. It was better than his bush lantern, and the family was happy that they were saving their oil. They made a great meal and ate with no small amount of joy.

Heavy with the evening meal, the man and his family lay down on the grass mat in the middle of their home and fell into a deep, warm sleep, contented in the warmth of their home.

Deep into the night, a great wind blew. It was a terrible wind, because it blew the glowing embers of smoldering branches back into a burning fire. Some of the grass and chaff, which had not caught fire in the evening were blown into the air, and caught fire too. Some of the flying grass, burning red in the windy night, landed on the grassy roof of the farmer’s home. In no time, the farmer’s home had been burned to the ground, and no one had come running out of it.

The morning after the fire, the farmer woke up in the afterlife. He was very angry. He was angry because he had lost his home, his wife and his son. He was angry that he had made a fortune in the harvest, but because of the fire, he was not going to enjoy that fortune. Angered as he was, he went before the Creator, demanding justice for the fire.

After much thought, the Creator asked that the fire be brought before him to answer for itself. The great fire, which had burned the night before, was brought before the Creator, and before the great throne, was accused of burning the farmer’s home, and in doing so, murdering the farmer, his wife and his son.

The fire, afraid for its fate, thought for a long moment, it’s raging tongues now nearly still. Deep from its thoughtful belly, the fire murmured, saying it was the wind that lifted it to the farmer’s roof. The fire said it had no will of its own, and only burned where it is placed.

The Creator was impressed by the wisdom of the fire’s defense. The fire may as well have been innocent, the Creator thought. So he ordered that the wind be brought before Him. It took a long time to catch the wind, which indeed could not be caught, but out of respect for the Creator, the wind agreed to appear to defend itself.

Like the fire before it, the wind protested its innocence, saying that it blows where it pleases, and was not to blame for what he carries. In the case of the fire, the wind said it cannot be blamed for the fire, because it did not start it. The wind told the Creator and his assembly that it met the embers already glowing when it passed through the field. The wind also said that the Creator can only find the guilty if he found who started the fire.

The all wise Creator nodded in contentment. He was glad that the wind he had created was able to reason with such wisdom. Rising from his throne, he asked with a solemn voice: who started the fire?

The farmer, staring at his feet, did not say anything.

The Creator, to show the farmer who was guilty, said to all “a man who starts a fire must take care, lest it burns his own home”.

I grew up reading Achebe, whom I greatly respect, admire and regard as Africa’s greatest story teller. I have read his latest story, and I’m still gathering my thoughts on the subject. Respect must be paid though, for him bringing us back to where we are discussing history, whatever our conclusions from that discourse may be.

On the subject of the core of Achebe’s Story, specifically on the origins of the war, I have thought it over, and I thought to deal with it the way Achebe would – tell a story.

These are my thoughts on Achebe, Biafra and ’66

Nigerian technology bloggers: A search for relevance

Image credits: Seyi Taylor

For the record, I’m not a tech blogger, or any sort of classified blogger for that matter. However, yesterday, I inadvertently got mixed up in a conversation revolving around a Nigerian tech blogger who felt more than a little insulted by being excluded from the CNN list of Africa’s leading tech voices on Twitter. I won’t go into the details of the story, but my imperfect take on the matter follows below.

As the biggest market in Africa, depending which indexes you believe, we Nigerians tend to assume leadership of almost any issue on discussion across the continent. We are a nation with a big population and even bigger potential to do great things (whether we do go on to do great things is a matter for another day). We love the fact that we’re the largest internet market in Africa, and that our mobile telephone market is the largest on the continent, as well as one of the fastest growing in the world.

Make no mistake, bragging rights is great stuff, and is great for innovation in my opinion, but the rights to the stuff that matter in the telecoms industry is one we have not got a firm handle on.

The leadership of Nigeria in the telecoms market notwithstanding, Nigeria is NOT the leading country in terms of technology innovation and emerging technology startups. The size of Nigeria’s telecoms market is based on the sheer purchasing power of its 160 million population, and this doesn’t translate into leadership in innovation in the spinoff startupshpere which is associated with other emerging telecoms markets around the world .

So in other words, as concerns the matter of technology and innovation, we’ve not arrived yet. This is not saying we’ve “carried last”, but we definitely aren’t top of the pile.

So how does this relate to tech bloggers and relevance? Simple: if we’re not the biggest technology market in Africa, it’s likely that the leading ideas people, or thinkers and influencers may not be from our shores, notwithstanding what we may think of ourselves.

Honestly speaking, I have tried but failed to remember when a Nigerian technology blog delivered really hot industry news to me, long before anyone else knew. My thoughts on whether this is because the average tech news day in Nigeria is slow, or that I’m generally cynical depends on my daily mood, but I’ll just say it comes down to “e no dey, e no dey”. So how is a technology blogger relevant if all I get is old, rehashed news that I’ve already heard, read, digested and moved on from? How do I respect a ‘top’ tech blog which does not have any unique insights on emerging tech events? How relevant is a technology blog, whose enduring  claim to fame is the founder’s oversized sense of entitlement?

On the question of relevance in itself, I would like to think of the relevant blogger or “Twitter voice” as the guy who always has the scoop in his area of expertise. Say, if I want information on what’s going on in Kano and the general Nigerian North, I would most likely check up @dawisu. General info on politics? That’s @eggheader. Am I worried that this new tax code looks funny? That’s a discussion I’ll be taking up with @doubleph. And then there’s @toluogunlesi who’s mouth (or handle) is in everything, and @tejucole who’s likely to reduce the mundane details of our daily existence into “small fates.” That’s relevance to ME!

Two days ago, one of Nigeria’s top three telecoms brands was launching their “3.75G” network in Lagos and I waited to see the news break on Nigerian tech blogs or on Twitter. Nothing happened. My honest expectation was that there would be leaks in the blogoshpere about the impending launch, and leading tech bloggers would be at the event to cover it, but that did not happen – at least as far as I could see. So if a ‘major’ industry is happening and Nigerian tech bloggers aren’t covering or reporting it, what exactly are they supposed to do? Peel news from TechCrunch?

Relevance is when the industry respects and recognizes not only your existence, but your importance. If you have not been given priority pass to an industry event (not conferences, but A brand events, launches and briefings), if you’re not quoted by industry leaders as first rate authority, if the people who REALLY matter do not contact you for information, then just maybe there’s some ways to go towards being as relevant as we would like to think we are.

So if our bloggers feel a need to lay entitlement claims at the doorsteps of international media organizations (who, by the way, are not the leading voices in technology), isn’t it a basic requirement that they at least be relevant? If a Nigerian (read Naija) blogger is really badass, and gets snubbed by international press, I’m sure the Nigerian people will defend their own (not that we need validation form outside to prove our worth). But until our bloggers arrive, make we humble small.