4 Great TED Talks on the Power of Context in Data Analysis

People at conference writing in notepads

Data is everywhere. We’ve never had so much of it at our fingertips. We now have data on pretty much anything imaginable.

But Customer Experience (CX) professionals face a pivotal challenge from this abundance of data.

“How can you create a ‘complete view of the customer’ from the scattered puzzle pieces that these different data sets present?”

Today, having this “complete view” is the proverbial ‘golden nugget’ brands strive for. It’s what can help them get the step up on their competition in a marketplace where 81% of marketers now compete primarily on the basis of CX.

Even though we now have access to more data than ever before, just knowing what our customers do is not enough. Above all, this complete view hinges on having the context behind the numbers and understanding the needs, expectations, perceptions, and preferences that drive your customers’ behavior, for example.

TED Talks are always a great resource for inspirational insights and presenting common challenges from different angles. In recent years, multiple TED Talks have touched on the importance of context in helping us better understand the story behind our data.

In this post, I wanted to share four great TED Talks that provide fascinating anecdotes on the different roles that context can play in telling the story behind the data, and provide great food-for-thought for how to approach your data analysis efforts.

Context helps you to avoid missing the point

With so much data at our disposal, it is essential to remember that there are stories behind the numbers. And as we know, people are complex and, sometimes, unpredictable.

In the TED Talk below, Giorgia Lupi warns that data can sometimes fail if we do not include the right amount of context to represent reality. A reality that is “nuanced, complicated, and intricate.” Without this context, you risk “losing the point” of your data.


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Lupi shares two amazing stories of how context helped to craft stories out of massive data sets. One of these stories shows how Lupi helped create a meaningful connection between an Italian astronaut in orbit and people back on earth.

“We need to start designing ways to include empathy, imperfection, and human qualities in how we collect, process, analyze, and display [data].”

Context helps uncover missing insights from big data

Speaking of large quantities of data. Big data has been the focus of investment for many brands over the years, in search of those key insights that will help them stand out in the market. However, and as Tricia Wang alludes in this TED Talk, we can often become so fixated on numbers that we become blind to the big picture.


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Wang lectures the value of “thick data” to paint a picture of the people behind the numbers. Thick data can include their stories, their emotions, and their interactions. While brands can obtain this contextual data from a small sample of people, they can inject it into other, more massive datasets to get a more complete view of customers.

“Thick data grounds our business questions in human questions, and that’s why integrating big and thick data forms a more complete picture.”

Context helps place us in our audience’s shoes

Brands can often fall in the trap of what they think their customers would want. On the other hand, by understanding peoples’ needs in the context of their environment, brands increase their chances of delivering a product or service their customers will adopt.

In this TED Talk, Tania Douglas shares a few examples of how engineers successfully did just that. By interacting with and observing people with certain handicaps (such as hearing loss), engineers were able to design products that fit their intended users’ environments better, and were adopted successfully as a result.


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“[Understanding] context is not about a superficial interaction. It’s about deep engagement and an immersion in the realities and the complexities of our context.”

Context is key to effective data visualization

So much data, so little time to go through it all (and much less time to make sense of it). That’s where great data visualization, with graphics that inject context behind the numbers, helps immensely.

In his TED Talk, Tommy McCall walks us through graphics that have the power to tell entire stories. Among my personal favorites was how McCall helped the New York Times shorten their Market section from eight pages to only one and a half pages. Using the power of context, McCall used a simple graphic that allows readers to quickly and easily see how each stock has fluctuated over the past year.


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“Graphicacy enables us to harness our built-in GPU to process mountains of data and find the veins of gold hiding within.”

Context helps remove assumptions about customers and their experiences

In conclusion, whether you are marketer, a CX professional or a website manager, your day is most likely driven by data in some way. Though, if there is one thing these TED Talks show us, it is that assuming to know everything about your customers is risky.

However, injecting context in your data helps to alleviate this risk. From a Customer Experience point-of-view, this context helps provide clarity on customers’ behavior and understand the CX through their eyes.

Most importantly, context can help you improve your data analysis so you can better know how you can turn dissatisfied customers into happy ones, and customers into loyal brand advocates.


All TED Talks in this blog post are owned by TED, and have not been modified in any way. These videos are shown in accordance with the Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives (CC BY – NC – ND 4.0 International).

This article was originally published on iperceptions.com, and written by Philippe Aussant, Content Manager at Astute.