Opinions Research

Make sense, not order, in storytelling consumer research

Posted by Nigel Cartman on November 1st, 2012 at 8:42 pm

My high school years were framed with the tightly cut edges of strong discipline, long echoing corridors, heavy textbooks and the deep green fields on which the real stars of the class were born.

These stars were the hardened rugby players who marched past the rest of us as we ate our lunches under gently waving trees and talked of encounters we could imagine, but had not yet experienced. The days would pass in a dull sequence of desks, sandwiches and diesel-tainted bus journeys.

But in the midst of these days of shadows and dry cheese between bread, and in the path of the rough flowering senior years, a text was delivered with a dry thump onto our desks by the English teacher.

It was called ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. It was an unspoken acceptance of our right and ability to confront the most adult of issues. It was this acknowledgement of our maturity, earned or otherwise, and the promise of passion in its pages which made this book so special.

If you have never read this DH Lawrence book, it is the story of a love affair between an upper class woman in an unhappy marriage, Constance, and a rugged gamekeeper. She discovers passion, and eventually herself, in its harsh passage of tumbling temptation and inevitable destruction.

Going beyond order

An enduring memory of the time is my teacher, with dusty chalk in his hand, explaining the text, dragging his elegant vowels over the heavy sounds as he etched out the words ‘order’, ‘society’ and ‘class’ on the board.

‘Her behaviour was shocking,’ he said, ‘because it went against the known order for society’.

Before him sat 30 teenage boys in thread worn dark blue shorts, their young acne-marked faces still flushed from the image that had been summonsed of the pale, fragile Constance as she at first hesitantly, and then completely, sacrificed the structures of her time.

‘She made sense of her life by escaping the order of her society’ he muttered with a heavy, breathless smoker’s conclusion.

The message of going beyond order, as I look back, was perhaps offered too narrowly. And although the years make me hesitate at the wisdom of Constance and her gamekeeper, I can see more and more the value of looking beyond established structures.

Data is social and we should encourage data conversations

For those of us who work with the visualization of data, it is perhaps a message at the heart of our task.

Data, like people, is social. Individual pieces of data do not operate in isolation and there is not a linear passage from which one piece falls to the next. Instead it is more like the complex structures of a chemistry diagram, with all the pieces linked with varying degrees of tension, one against the other.

The problem actually lies in its apparent order. This mass of data is collected in structures, each source is collected independently and each variable within each source is stored in bold separate section headings. The clean rigidity of the structures of its collection provides an instant, but lazy reference for the shaping of the patterns for their retrieval.

Of course, the challenge of consumer research data visualization is not to replicate the structures of its collection, but to provide guidance and consumer insight to those who need to understand and access information.

This may involve the referencing of one data source directly against another, removing the walls between these sets of information. Or it may require cutting across distant aspects of the same study to provide more of a landscape than an incremental view. It may even be the harsh placement of two distinct pieces of information together, to force confrontation of their meaning and the relevance of each in the context of the other.

Make sense of your data – don’t just place things in order

If we fail to work the story in our data, we cannot expect understanding to escape the bonds of our sturdy index. It is too easy to think of structure in terms of order, when what is really required is to find sense.

And order can be the enemy of sense, as Constance discovered when she walked the path of her garden, down the marble stairs and into the vast open fields with untamed bramble and scattering wildlife. She was very far from where she had been tidily placed, but closer to where she seemed to fit, to where she made sense.

In a similar way, maybe it is time our charts and numbers went beyond the tidy hedges of their own gardens.

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