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Steps organizations can take to quantify qualitative experiences

The big data revolution has been a blessing for countless industries. Millions of businesses all over the world have either refined or overhauled traditional processes now that they have the capabilities to gather and analyze objective data on everything from manufacturing and distribution to consumer habits in their own homes.

Thanks to advanced AI and data visualizations, it’s easier than ever to form meaningful conclusions and make predictions from suitably-sized data sets. But there are still some hurdles preventing us from fully understanding the world with data—and one of them is tied to the nature of data.

Namely, data is inherently quantitative. When it comes to objective concepts like a person’s height, or the number of dollars they spent on vehicle repairs, or how many times they go shopping in a week, it’s easy to come up with a firm number and work with it.

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But what about the myriad concepts that aren’t as easy to quantify? Subjective experience tend to produce qualitative data, if they produce data at all, which makes it notoriously hard to form the same caliber and number of conclusions from those data.
So what steps can we take, as engineers, data analysts, and technology officers, to better quantify otherwise qualitative experiences?

Easy Steps to Take

You’ll be glad to know there are some easy steps you can take as a data analyst to improve your qualitative or subjective data:

  • Choose the right questions to ask. Sometimes, you can rephrase a question or ask participants something in a different way to transform a qualitative inquiry into a quantitative one. For example, instead of trying to monitor how people feel when riding a roller coaster, you could use secondary indicators to determine how they’re feeling; cameras could tell you how many times someone smiles on your ride, and smiles are associated with joy or happiness.
  • Apply a numerical scale. You can also apply a numerical scale to almost anything when asking for human feedback. You could ask participants to, on a scale from 1 to 10, state how they’re feeling, describe the quality of an experience, or rate other features that might otherwise be hard to quantify (like whether the receptionist was warm or cold, or whether the pillow was comfortable or uncomfortable). The limitation here is that self-reported answers on these scales will always be subject to biases; the advantage of quantitative data, which can be objectively measured without bias, is gone.
  • Make sense of qualitative data. You can also simply accept that qualitative data is qualitative, and gather it the best you can. Conducting surveys and asking for feedback in the span of a few sentences, rather than a self-reported number, can help here.

Advanced Sensors: The Next Level of Measurement

Of course, these steps can only take you so far in the conversion of qualitative experiences to quantitative data. To go further, we’ll need to use specific devices and sensors to gather numerical data on experiences that would otherwise go practically unmeasurable.

Take SynTouch’s sensor and product haptic technologies, for example; its BioTac device uses a rigid core, surrounded by an elastic “skin”-type substance to mimic the structure of the human fingertip. It’s capable of sensing things like force, vibration, temperature, and more to help machines measure and learn from the human tactile experience.

Very soon, sensors like these will help scientists, researchers, and inventors understand what it “feels like” to touch something or interact with something in a subjective way. It’s a gateway to better product haptics, allowing us to more accurately predict product “feel” and other qualitative properties.

With advancements in processing and understanding data, there can also be advancements in transmitting those data to the human mind.

For example, the Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer, or VEST, uses a system of 32 tiny vibrating motors placed around the torso to transmit data via vibrations to a user wearing the vest in real-time. These vibrations could represent sound waves to deaf people who might otherwise miss important audio cues in their environment. Over time, as humans get used to feeling these vibrations, they could use them to represent even more abstract concepts as a kind of sixth sense.

Looking to the Future

In any case, further technological advancements like these have the power to completely change how we think about, measure, process, and replicate experiences. In its simplest form, it can help us better understand consumer feedback and develop better products. In its most advanced form, we can reproduce sensory experiences that people may otherwise be missing, or even create entirely new subjective experiences.

In the meantime, before these devices and sensors become mainstream, you can make better use of qualitative data in your organization by including more subjective surveys, capitalizing on numerical scales, and asking different questions “around” the core problem. Sufficient thoroughness and creativity can compensate for qualitative data’s weaknesses.

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