How Data and Creativity Work Together

Image Courtesy of Limelight Imaging

Image Courtesy of Limelight Imaging


Data is king. In the age of big data, one of our most important roles is being a data guru. It’s undeniably essential to use data and analyze it to build better products. Without king data, we have no insight into how people use our products, no baseline guiding our development process.

That said, data does not give us the full picture, because it reflects the outcomes of human behavior, but not the human drive behind those behaviors. In other words, all the data in the world can’t tell us the “whys”.

After all, we are complex, complicated beings, each with our own emotions, knowledge bases, worldviews, and experiences. The nuances of human motivation are far more intricate than any metric. If we want to create experiences that touch people, data alone might not suffice.

Data vs. intuition

Too often we’re told that data and metrics don’t mix with intuition and creativity, but this is limited, binary thinking. These approaches may seem like polar opposites, but each has its strengths, and if we favour one approach to the exclusion of the other, we’ll lose something valuable in the process.

If data is king, then his parliament must be human creativity. We must adhere to data’s baseline, but we also need to be able to follow our gut, improvise, and draw inspiration from other areas of our lives as we build our products.

ONE, two, three, four

Let me illustrate how data and creativity work together by taking a look at funk music. In funk, the underlying structure is always the emphasis on the first beat in the “one, two, three, four” beat format. This accented first beat in the 4/4 signature, called The One, is the most distinguishable element of funk — it’s what makes it groovy. During the last three beats, funk masters can “bring the funk” by improvising elaborate riffs or adding in vocal phrases, as long as they all hit on The One together.

Funk can accommodate elements from a wide array of musical genres: funk rock, jazz funk, psychedelic funk, electro funk, funk mental — there’s a vast amount of space for experimentation. The result is a music that’s bold, vibrant, energetic, expansive, and imbued with an irrepressible ingenuity, yet highly structured at the same time.

For the audience, funk feels intuitive — the emphasis on The One makes funk immediately appealing and utterly entrancing in a way that no other music can quite replicate. The groove of The One is so energizing that listeners often can’t help but get on up and dance dance dance to the music.

In our work we can look at data as our One — the first and most pronounced beat — that serves as a solid basis for us to intuitively improvise on. Because our One holds us in check, this effectively means that data has an absolute mass greater than a mere twenty-five percent of the equation. Yet, in the space of the remaining three beats, we’re left with a fertile ground where our creativity and improvisation can flourish.

When our gut tells us that something is off, we can return to our One for more information before stretching the rubber band of improvisation even further. When a hunch tells us that we’re onto something, we’re free to experiment with as much creativity as we can muster, as long as our work relates back to our One.

Compared to a purely data-driven approach, creating intentional space for creativity in our work might seem like flying by the seat of our pants, but that’s not really the case. With our One to guide us, creativity simply enriches our path to creating the impact we want, and makes it more interesting, experimental and innovative.

Yes, we’re winging it to a certain degree, but combining the power of data and creativity might shake the stones out of our head and allow unique, outstanding ideas to enter our work process on the fly.

Identifying human cravings

For example, when my team and I were in the process of integrating a commenting feature into a media site. The data told us that people were barely using the feature, but it was up to my team to interpret that data and determine what exactly was amiss.

That’s when we discovered an interesting correlation hiding in the data: users who posted a comment but didn’t receive replies were less likely to post again in the near future. On the other hand, users who got replies to their comments were more likely to start new threads fairly quickly. I had found my One.

In the space of the remaining three beats, I turned to my intuition for further insights and found a possible root of our engagement issue — our commenting area didn’t feel like a community, it felt a group of people who had no relationship to one another. We then quickly formed a simple solution. To make our commenting feature more inviting and inclusive, we added a new component to the user interface just below the text-input field that said, “Contribute to the community: reply to JohnDoe123.”

No metric could ever have isolated a lack of collective feeling, nor could it have identified the human instinct that makes communities so fundamentally attractive to us. Yet by appealing in the simplest way to the emotions of our users, our commenting engagement soared — now users weren’t just chatting, they were supporting each other. Giving over beats two, three, and four to creativity made us hit on the next One that much more strongly.

When we adopt data as our One and hit on that first beat, we’re tapping into the almost endless amount of information that data has to offer, but at the same time it’s also an opportunity to leave a wide berth for creativity, a space where serendipity and intuition can take root. Where our creativity leads us, and what we’ll discover in the process, is something we can’t predict, but isn’t that the fun(k) of it?


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