Big data have quickly evolved from trend to expectation. And why not, right? Our moves, our patterns, our preferences and more are being captured with nearly every choice and decision we make. When mined and analyzed with just the right algorithm these data can literally save lives. For example, a recent collaboration between academia and industry demonstrated the potential to identify congestive heart failure, one of the most common and costly conditions, earlier and more efficiently than office visits alone.[i]

It is easy to get caught up in the power of big data. But what good are insights if we forget the user, or in our case, the patient. Diagnosing a patient loses much of its impact if we cannot translate that into earlier intervention and treatment adherence. Understanding why people do what they do when they do it is critical if you need or want to make a meaningful difference. Enter thick, or small, data.

Consultant, branding expert and author Martin Lindstrom describes an experience at Lego when big data alone led a brand in the wrong direction:

“[LEGO was] convinced that thanks to computers and video games, the new-generation of kids demanded instant gratification, lacking the patience or the attention to engage with complex building projects.  Big data studies suggested that future generations would lose interest in LEGO. But the Small Data told LEGO a different story.  LEGO learned from a 14-year LEGO fan that his skateboard exploits were measured (and honored) by the appropriate wear and tear on his shoes.  The worn look of the sneakers was a badge of honor. That’s when LEGO realized that children attain social currency amongst their peers based on the mastery they displayed of their chosen hobby. The result was that LEGO refocused on its core product, and created more challenging, labor-intensive, construction challenges. Customers, it turned out, valued a challenging LEGO experience. Fast forward 10 years, and LEGO had become the world’s largest toy maker, surpassing Mattel for the first time.”

Thick data aim to put the personality, or humanity, back into the big data conversation by layering in ethnography and anthropology to create a deeper insight. Lindstrom visits hundreds of people in their homes each year to gather the types of insights he believes are the difference maker. With privacy requirements and overall challenges in working with patients directly, it may seem thick data are out of reach for healthcare communicators and marketers — but not so. There are a variety of technologies and approaches that can help us get to know our patients, a few examples include:

  • In office listening: a variety of research firms can capture unscripted, anonymous conversations between patients and their healthcare providers.
  • Pick up a book: many patients living with chronic or life-threatening conditions chose to share their stories. These personal, first-hand accounts can provide an unmatched window to the patient experience. And if you’re not up for the commitment of a book, blogs, tweets and other social posts are a great introduction.
  • Meet an advocate: many advocates are former or current patients or caregivers. Taking the time to get to know their stories and their motivations can help shape how, where and when you connect with your patients.
  • Pay attention: Lindstrom champions disconnecting and being present as the foundation for seeing and learning from the clues our audiences share with us. So, next time you ride the train, wait in the doctor’s office, visit family or anytime you disconnect from your desk, put down the phone and take a look around. You might be surprised at what you learn.

What’s the takeaway? As the asks for big data backed ideas continue to pour in, don’t forget to dig deep and consider the small insights that ensure our counsel helps make a real difference in patients’ lives.