This article was published on May 21, 2014

Beyond analytics: Understanding humans while scaling your business

Beyond analytics: Understanding humans while scaling your business
Jonatan Littke
Story by

Jonatan Littke

Jonatan Littke is the CEO and co-founder of Lookback.

When WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook, there were eight million WhatsApp users for every employee. Eight million.

Traditionally in business, when you scale up your company, you grow your number of employees along with your number of customers. If Target opens up a new store, it will hire more people to interact with new customers, listening to their needs and desires.

This is not the case anymore. With digital businesses, the norm – not the exception – is to grow as large as possible with as few employees as possible.

Analytics doesn’t answer the why

To make sense of all these customers, we pack them together in analytics software to try to understand them.This lets us see where people tap in our apps, how often they return to our website, how many purchases they make before calling customer service and so on.

But this does not substitute true understanding. You cannot understand a human being, their desires, intentions and context via automated behavior measurement alone.

As you grow, your customer base will likely be increasingly diverse and increasingly different from yourself. Looking at metrics alone won’t cut it for long, because it doesn’t answer the biggest question: why?

Understanding humans


From the moment someone stumbles upon your company – regardless if that’s through an advertisement, a written review or word of mouth, they are forming an opinion of you, and their experience with you.

Your choice of words in slogans, your design, your offering, your choice of colors… all of these are part of shaping the experience and interaction with your company. An experience does not start when someone visits your site and clicks the “purchase” button.

In many cases, people will already have made up their mind if they want to buy something from you before they even visit your site. The people who aren’t visiting your website are way beyond the reach of your oh-so-big-data tools, because they won’t even show up in them.

So to be effective at improving your business, you must start with understanding humans. That’s the core of it: you need to deeply and passionately try to understand what drives people and what makes them want to do business with you. And you need to do this first.

Now, if you are already starting out with an understanding of the people you’re about to serve, that’s great. But you’ll need to be proactive about your listening. People change, your company changes and technology changes — rapidly.

This means you will need to be in a constant state of active listening.

As long as you’re listening, you can course-correct. If you stay attentive, there’s a chance for you to excel. But what happens to most companies as they grow big is that they stop listening and end up with frustrated users. Or, perhaps more common in this scenario, they have too few employees to take the time to listen

But you should always have time to understand your customers. Because if you don’t — someone else will.

Experience research

The whole field called UX research is blooming because companies are beginning to understand that it’s the experience as a whole, not only features or pretty pixels, that determines the success of a product. Building great experiences relies on understanding humans first, then shaping the product around them.

“Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. […] Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.” — Steve Jobs.

Start out with as little ritual as possible. Meet a few people who know about your company and talk to them until you understand what they feel, what they like and what drives them. Don’t limit yourself to questions about your product, but seek to understand the individual and their motives first, and then get into the product.


While there are formal interviewing methods such as The Five Whys or Tinbergen’s 4 questions, I tend to rely on the advice of Nate Bolt, Facebook’s former design research manager: “It’s simple really. Just use as many whys as you need.”

Once you’ve done this, start observing people as they interact with your site, app, store or whatever it may be that you’re collecting information about. Ask them to perform certain tasks you’ve prepared, or, if you’re doing this remotely, see if you can observe their regular interaction pattern without formal instructions.

Any time you’re collecting this information, be sure to:

  • Ask people to continuously tell you what their experience is and how they feel
  • Listen carefully for any predispositions and what they believe is going to happen next to understand their mental models
  • Don’t interrupt too often or give away answers too early
  • Combine testing with people who’ve never used your product before and people who have
  • Test new features and your entire experience to put things in the right context

Your work doesn’t begin until you’ve understood

Understanding humans this way is insightful, memorable and easily shared with your whole team if you’ve recorded the interaction. There’s great tech to help you in this; everything from recording real-life user interviews or remote testing for mobile or websites. You can run online surveys and listen via many different channels.

And once you’ve begun to understand, that’s when the real work begins. Jeff Gothelf, author of Lean UX, puts it perfectly; “The user research is really the easy part. Figuring out what to do once you understand your users, that’s the hard part”.

So start understanding humans on a regular basis. Talk to people, watch them interact with what you’ve built and, most importantly, never stop listening.

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