Bermuda shorts: an analogy about data and context

Terrible terrible shorts.

This is a cautionary tale about interpreting people by data alone. I have sometimes told it to clients and they have found it helpful so I’m going to share it here too. It’s also about Bermuda shorts. I’m aware as I get older that some of you whippersnappers born in the 90s (is that legal?) may not be aware of the fashion tragedy that were these hideous neon clashing geometric print garments, so I’m going to make a huge sacrifice of dignity here:

Terrible terrible shorts.

Yup, this is yours truly. In my Bermuda shorts. And in the 80s they were everywhere.

Actually this is me on holiday, in a Caravan park, probably about 1988. Every photo in my album from that year, bar a Christmas day shot and a school play, has me in Bermuda shorts. So, clearly, despite their obvious hideousness I loved them. I mean, they probably had to peel them off me to get me in my costume for school. I bet I had them on underneath. Out of 18 photos of me in this year, only 2 were with no visible Bermuda-ing. Relly x Bermuda 4 EVA.

Except, here’s the thing. I bloody hated Bermuda shorts. Not in retrospect, I mean that I hated them at the time I wore them. I especially hated the pair above. I think my ‘arms pulled down in front of me’ stance was probably in some vain attempt to hide their hideousness. Even the dorky cardigan knitted by my mother seemed a better bet. So, if I hated them so much why am I wearing them so often in my photo album? This is a question of choices and context.

1) I was 8. And 8 year olds in the 80s didn’t choose their own clothes. They got what their mothers bought them, like it or not, and at this time if you wanted shorts you got Bermudas because that’s what there was to buy. And when my mother came to pack  the suitcase for our annual holiday I needed shorts.

2) All my pictures were shot on film. My parents were not photographers. They bought around 3 rolls of 24 exposures a year. One for Christmas, one for holiday and one for their kids’ achievements – plays, assemblies, choir trips etc. It should also be noted that my dad was exceptionally gifted at getting his thumb part way in front of the lens and never remembered to turn the flash on when it was dark. This meant that a disproportionate number of shots of me that made it into my book are taken outside, on a sunny day, on holiday. The conditions were optimal for my dad getting a picture of me and optimal for me to be wearing the aforementioned loathed clothing. The reason for taking various photos, ‘I should get some photos of my daughter to remember her when we were 8 and on holiday’ or ‘I should take some photos of my daughter while she is 8 and singing in a choir inside on a wet day’, were essentially that same but the context dictated whether my dad would be successful in getting a photo that you could put in my book.

Why do I bring this up? I have talked about my Bermuda short problem when clients are looking at analytics and data they have taken and are using that to try to work out what their users are doing the most/least/longest/fastest etc. It is easy to see the data form a beautiful line and get excited. I try and encourage people to look at their content and its related data and ask

What choices do your users have? Are they truly engaged or are they doing this because they have to – you have offered them no alternative? Have you packed their suitcase with ten pairs of horrible shorts?

What is the best context for success? How could you create content that works in other contexts? Is one context blurring your requisites for success by being naturally easier to work with? Can they take a picture on a wet indoors day as well as a sunny outdoors day?

Is the way you are capturing your data introducing bias? Is self-selection an issue (ie, with surveys)? Is one topic wildly more popular than another but measured on equal terms? Are you only taking photos three times but measuring a whole year’s outfits by it?

None of this is revolutionary thinking but I have found the Bermuda shorts analogy has helped people understand what I mean by different interpretations of the same data – data without context, and data with. To measure successful content, you need data and context. Otherwise, you are assuming that doing something a lot means that your user likes it.


Why I like International Women’s Day.

International Women's Day logo

International Women's Day logo


I’ve seen a range of grumbling on Twitter today from chaps who think International Women’s Day is inherently unfair and not doing anything for equality. So, I thought I’d post some interesting titbits.

1) There is an International Men’s Day on the 19th November. As there should be. Men have plenty of gender-based issues that should be given more public awareness – things like childcare inequality, value within a family unit and men’s health issues to name just a few.

2) International means just that. While you may see your female co-worker doing exactly the same job as you and wonder what the fuss is about, Plan UK highlights the inequality for girls the world over, with their campaign Because I Am A Girl. Forced marriage, no access to education, childbirth while still a child and female genital mutilation is a reality for millions of young girls. Feel free to sponsor a kid to help them out of that situation. Plan will help you select an area of the world and the gender and age of your sponsor child if you like. This isn’t to say bad things don’t happen to boys, of course they do. But girls are traditionally less-valued than boys and are more likely to die before they reach their fifth birthday in many communities. They are often seen as a commodity to be traded, rather than people. And helping girls in this situation is actually the key to helping boys too. By educating young girls, they are more likely to remain healthy, will marry at a later age and for every year they are in education they are likely to increase their earning capabilities to pull themselves and their families (including their sons) out of poverty. Those sons will come to respect women, and will break the chain for their own wives and daughters. According to Plan UK, 75 million girls worldwide are missing out on this opportunity.

3) Of course, it isn’t all roses in the garden back home either. This Sunday, Celibate men will use their pulpit to decree gynecological health care cover for women to be a sin. This reinforces the message that sex is only for within marriage, and marriage is only for making babies, and that none of this ever requires any sort of medical assistance. (For those of you still wondering if there is a gender neutral campaign to support, you could do worse than to examine the Catholic Church’s stance on the abuse of children within its care. Systematic and Industrial Scale are two phrases that spring to mind. But women wanting to opt out of babies. That’s the worst.) Access to advice on reproductive issues, abortion and contraception is increasingly under fire for reasons of religious dogma and cost-cutting.

4) Contraception issues leads me in a round about way to the thorny issue of child care. Did you know, in the UK a chauffeured car is a business expense but child care is not (outside of the fundamentally flawed voucher scheme)? I can tell you from experience this makes running any kind of business hideously expensive. Most of my money goes on childcare. Without access to contraception, I’d have several more children by now (assuming my fertility holds up) and I’d be at home, unable to work because the cost of childcare would be too great – and frankly, I’d be too knackered. Sex is the glue that holds relationships together (sorry if that’s, er, too visceral an image). Those relationships are often what support a happy family life. If a family choose to have lots of kids and one, or other, parents wants to stay at home that is *fabulous* – but that’s a choice. Not because of a dictat from men who have forgotten about women.

5) The recent round of cuts in the UK impacts on women disproportionately, often because women are more likely to work part-time, contract or on lower-wage jobs around childcare, so much so the Fawcett Society launched a legal contest in the High Court. (If you don’t have children, ask yourself – do you know what to do with a 5 year old for six weeks in the summer if you’re needed at the office everyday? Nurseries are for up to 5. Summer schools are usually for only a week or two and not all kids are suited to them. People live further away from families now to be close to their jobs. The only option is to drop out of the career circuit and take a job with some flexibility – McDonalds is meant to be excellent for its flexible working policies. Yup, I wrinkled my nose too but those kids aren’t going to disappear.) I’m lucky to have work that means I can be flexible. And by flexible, I mean I can piss off a certain number of clients by saying ‘sorry, I’m not available for six weeks’ and hope they come back to me in the future, oh and also out of pocket for a month and a half.

6) And let’s just go back to your female co-worker, doing the same role as you chaps, there is an excellent chance she is on up to 20% less than you. There is some hope: in the UK, women in their 20’s are earning around 3.6% more than their male counterparts but if you account for money lost to maternity leave (women are likely to be the primary caregivers) or to being someone’s carer (ditto), she will likely earn significantly less across the course of her working life. Not least because a spot in the boardroom is still pretty unlikely for her, so much so the EU is planning to intervene to much ire from the business community. Interestingly, this was introduced in Norway and found to make for better business, as found by Agnes Bolsø’s independent research.

These are not exclusively women’s issues but they are all issues that impact on women, often disproportionately. Even if we only have one day a year in which the media, social networks, and you and I discuss them the impact of that is not to be undervalued. That’s why I like International Women’s Day.