Reassembling data to see new and surprising patterns

Pattern Un-Recognition

How the design process lets us reassemble data when our brains crave patterns but our markets want us to break them

Despite the exponential leaps and surprising learnings each year in neuroscience, what remains certain is that one of the brain’s primary functions is to find patterns and make connections. Patterns help us simplify and quickly make sense of the constant barrage of data that is coming at our brains through our five senses. Being able to condense and filter information into patterns, and recognize those patterns, keeps us sane and safe. But with increasing pressure for companies and brands to rapidly innovate and adapt to emerging technology and changing customer expectations, relying on old patterns is anything but safe. So, how do you begin to do something differently when your brain is hardwired to fall back on the same patterns?

Patterns can help or hinder
Gestalt theory seeks to explain the perceptual processes that allow us to make patterns visually. These habits of mind have been a huge boon for graphic designers. For example, the IBM logo designed by Paul Rand in 1972 is comprised of 37 disconnected blue shapes; 35 quadrilaterals, 1 triangle and 1 irregular 13 sided shape. But when we look at the logo, our minds effortlessly make sense of these shapes. Using the proximity and similarity of the shapes, along with our past experiences, the brain groups the disconnected markings into familiar letters, allowing us to see exactly what the designer intended.

However, as design is increasingly a strategic driver in business, we find that we often have to help our clients work with un-curated data that needs to be grouped from many different perspectives because there are no ‘right’ groups. Like with the IBM logo, the first attempt to make meaningful groupings out of the data often relies on past experience. This is true both in the outlines that we believe are meaningful, like the Roman alphabet, and in the types of similarity or proximity that we can easily observe and believe are salient. In strategic efforts to understand areas of opportunity or market segments, this often takes the shape in easily identifiable demographics. These groupings are familiar because they have created meaning in the past. But for companies who want to innovate, they need a way to see new patterns and new groups that convey new meaning.

Patterns create “grooves” in our memories, making new paths difficult to chart. The patterns that protected us from harm and made sense of the world can often become evolutionary biases or personal or institutional habits of thought. Sometimes to see a new pattern, you need to disassemble the pieces, which is something anyone can learn to do. The design process allows us to suspend judgment long enough to consider, if not commit to, new formations that break the status quo. Below are three methods that frog uses to disassemble familiar groups and find new patterns that can lead to insights for opportunity and innovation.


1. Re-arrange: Understanding the underlying emotion

One method that we employ to see beyond expected patterns is an affinity diagram. Rather than organizing information around pre-existing categories, creating an affinity diagram allows common experiences and themes to bubble up out of the qualitative data collected from in-depth interviews. For those new to it, this can be a surprising and slow process but what emerges are groupings based on similarity and proximity of experience that no one on the team could have predicted.

For instance, in conducting research with breast cancer patients, we were surprised to discover which aspects of the process people found most difficult. Rather than the initial diagnosis, hair loss, surgery, the uncertainty of waiting for results, or the physical effects of treatment, participants cited the moment they had to tell their children as the most difficult. Understanding this, our client was able to provide better support resources around a largely ignored part of the patient’s experience.

Fears, motivations and misconceptions surface when asking the right questions, which can also help make sense of market data that seemed to point to irrational or inconsistent user behavior. We have new insight, not just into the what, but also the why. When companies understand the fears or changing motivations or incomplete mental models that dictate the actions of their customers or users, they can provide real value. Disassembling the familiar categories we use to understand customers, creates the opportunity to re-arrange the data and discover new and surprising groups.

2. Re-frame: Segments vs. Archetypes

Once we understand the underlying emotion, we can generate customer profiles. Typical methods of customer segmentation may include demographic information such as age, gender, marital status, income, geography, education level, etc. As segmentation has evolved, types such as “the soccer mom,” “DINK” (double income no kids), “sandwich generation,” and “millennials” have emerged. However, when getting to know human beings, more often than not these types may not be very helpful in understanding peoples’ deep motivations, needs, desires, hopes, fears and aspirations.

Demographic segmentation assumes that behaviors are static and that individuals with similar external characteristics have the same internal beliefs and motivation. But as we are learning, types such as “millennial” are too generic to be useful in true customer-centric design. Instead, customer archetypes describe customer motivation and action, understanding that in different circumstances the same person may embody different archetypes. To create these archetypes we have to remove our biases around familiar groups and try different ways of looking at the data until we discover the factors that actually bind customers into meaningful groups based on behavior and motivation.

By reframing customer data to align on behaviors, we can create more meaningful experiences and more lasting, durable customer relationships. For example, we have uncovered unexpected buyer archetypes such as “the spotter” who is hunting for deals and “the socializer” who gets input from others on their purchases. These archetypes transcend typical market segments and are much more useful to companies when creating campaigns.

Pattern Un-Recognition
3. Re-focus: The wisdom is in the system

One of the ways the brain makes sense of the constant barrage of data is to filter out things we think we already understand. For example, we may not notice the drive to work anymore because our brain has a model for that, which gives us space to think about other things. Organizations sometimes stop really seeing their employees because they think they already know what is there, or think their model for that group is complete. In the same way that clients may not see the groupings or motivations that matter for customers, they also sometimes miss the same for their employees.

A key source of truth in our discovery process is the employees of our client companies. Whether we are speaking with executives, line managers or individual contributors, the surprising truth is that even when we ask the most basic of questions (e.g., what would make our products better? What would make our company better?) everyone has a unique point of view that they are willing to share. This is why so often, the wisdom is in the system. While many organizations conduct employee sentiment surveys to understand engagement or employee experience, what they often fail to do is harness the collective wisdom in the organization to uncover new market opportunities.

Sometimes you are so close to the patterns that you cannot see them, and it takes discipline to pause and step back to refocus on the answer, which may be right in front of you.


In order to move beyond the brain’s familiar defaults, consider bringing diverse perspectives into your teams to re-arrange, re-frame and re-focus to see new patterns. Put in place methods that force you to suspend your judgment and engage in new ways of seeing the world.

Even some of the most experienced and ingenious designers and strategists can sometimes find that they are too close to their own data to see new patterns. The key is to recognize this and find a way to get additional perspective; many choose to partner with a strategic design firm. Consider broadening your view of the world and perhaps even turning it upside-down in the process.

Linda Quarles
Executive Director, Org Design
Linda Quarles
Linda Quarles
Executive Director, Org Design

Linda provides a broad range of consultative services to build capability and improve organizational performance with clients globally. After more than two decades leading organization transformations from within, Linda brings empathy for leaders driving culture change, innovation and growth in organizations from startups to Fortune 500.

Samara Watkiss
Associate Design Director, sustainable Futures
Samara Watkiss
Samara Watkiss
Associate Design Director, sustainable Futures

Samara is an Associate Design Director with a background in user research, interaction and service designer and a facility to work cross-culturally (whether that be in another country or embedded in a client team). Samara brings strategic and creative problem solving together to achieve business goals, and improve experiences for users and employees.

Prior to joining the Sustainable Futures group, Samara was the Sustainability Lead for the Austin Studio. She has expertise in the energy sector, circular economy, digital sustainability and climate story-telling. She is passionate about creating products and services that, in the words of William McDonough, allow us to “love all the children of all the species for all time.”

Illustrations by Abe PoultridgeAbe Poultridge
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