The Atlantic recently published an article questioning whether or not “quantifying the self” is a positive trend. The author pointed to a new study by Jordan Etkin, a professor at Duke University, about how our latest obsession with self-tracking may actually cause us to disengage from the experience of what we’re doing because we are so focused on counting the number of steps we’re taking. According to Etkin’s study, participants who tracked their activity did walk more, but reported that it was less enjoyable that those who did not track it. The same held true with other activities, like reading.  Quantifying the number of pages caused the participants to read more, but instead of enjoying the reading they did, it felt like work.

Robinson Meyer explored Etkin’s study and discovered that for the millions of us who are now using Fitbits to measure our steps and progress, we’re just not getting as much satisfaction. The article points out that “the shift from meaning to information—from the qualitative to the quantitative—is one of the most troubling trends of the era of big data. Reducing daily experience to a series of boxes checked and numerical goals met colonizes consumers’ leisure time with the same disciplined logic of their working days.”

The trend toward quantifying the self is no different than the effort to quantify the masses. It strips us of our names, stories and families.  We have more numbers – billions and trillions of bytes of data – but less meaning. Big data may enable us to know more about where to advertise and more precisely what to sell, but we end up not knowing or caring about people, their feelings, their needs, and how to help make their lives better. Big data is missing the insight and the customer’s experience.

Quality time enriches the experience big data can’t provide.  

Just as Fitbit forces us to focus on the number of steps instead of how we’re getting them (I prefer walking on the beach to a treadmill), big data reduces us to eyeballs and butts in seats. As John Naisbitt explains, it’s not just about high tech but about high touch – about seeking the meaning in all of the data, engaging with people so that we understand our customers’ needs, deliver a better experience, and meet the needs of real, live people with whom we can have a relationship.

Based on how successful my clients are from the experience of interacting with their customers it’s a connection we don’t want to lose.

If your customers have been reduced to numbers and graphs, you’re missing powerful insight. Don’t dismiss your data, but gain a deeper understanding by spending quality time with your customers.