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Data + Design + Emotion = 16

Listening to the human stories behind analytics and numbers opens up new possibilities for client work.
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The Emotion Archive categorizes worldwide responses on a variety of topics into 16 different emotions. It has opened up unexpectedly powerful ways of working with clients.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began earlier this year, McKinsey did exactly what any alum would expect: it gathered experts from across the Firm to create knowledge and response tools, and to conduct surveys and analyze data – much of which is featured on the COVID Response Center, launched earlier this year with a collection of tools, interactive visuals, interviews with leaders and practical resources to help organizations and communities respond to and recover from the crisis.

But what happened next might be less expected: we realized data only tells part of the story. While useful for seeing the big picture, it can reduce human experiences to numbers and analytics.

McKinsey Design recognized there was an opportunity to bring something else to the forefront: the perspective of lived experience of the pandemic by sharing individual stories and collective insights from across the globe, showing how COVID-19 was affecting and changing people’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.

From this idea was born The New Possible, a global ethnographic research project that tells a series of human stories and perspectives on how COVID-19 is challenging and changing our lives and livelihoods.

Reevaluating what matters

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Dr. Zaana Howard

Dr. Zaana Howard, an Expert Associate Partner in McKinsey Design, co-led the research for The New Possible. She explains, “What we really wanted to capture was this idea of possibility, not just a new normal, when the normal we had wasn’t working for so many. There is a paradigm shift happening in the world, and why wouldn't we try and start that from a point of positivity? That’s where the title “The New Possible” came from.”

The ethnographic research also drew on behavioral science and psychology to understand the emergent insights. Zaana explains: “When people go through trauma – and the pandemic is a form of trauma for most people, whether they recognize it or not – there are three ways that they come out of it. Generally, only a proportion will normalize the experience, with others either developing PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSG, which is post-traumatic stress growth. We really wanted to show the spectrum of experience, including the possibility of growth that can come through the trauma and grief that we're feeling.”

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Jason Forrest

Jason Forrest, a data visualization expert in McKinsey Design, adds, “It’s really about reevaluating what matters in our lives. When this massive global disruption happened, we had many people evaluate their finances, their health, their family, where their time was being committed to every day. Some of them invested in their spiritual health, certainly their mental and physical health, and this is a kind of global reevaluation of what matters to each of us.”

Video
Jeff Salazar, a Partner with McKinsey Design, talks about The New Possible in this 2-minute video

16 emotions: A qualitative lens

Jason says that the nature of the COVID Response Center – Firm knowledge with a different technology and mission – inspired him to experiment with data storytelling. “Data storytelling can go hand-in-hand with another concept called data humanism, which is effectively that all the data that we collect represents people in some way,” he explains.

One of the ways of capturing this was the Emotion Archive, an interactive featured on the Firm’s COVID Response Center that allows viewers to explore the thoughts and reactions of people around the world as they coped with the changes the pandemic had brought to their lives.

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The Emotion Archive comprises 800 comments from people about health, family, finances, work, and more.

Participants in the New Possible research submitted digital diary entries of videos, photos and text to an online platform every day for a week, with the team interacting with participants throughout and conducting follow-up one-on-one interviews, to dive deeper into some of their experiences. The Design team conducted 155 hours of research in the field, with approximately 50 hours of video footage and 800 comments from 122 people in 22 cities across eight countries (Australia, China, Germany, India, Italy, Singapore, United Kingdom, and the United States).

Topics covered everything from goals and values to money, lifestyle, mental and physical health, and relationships, and the archive categorizes the responses into 16 different emotions. “We really wanted to understand that holistic view of who they were as people,” says Zaana, “and not just what their current experience of COVID-19 was, but how they were evolving from it. How were they changing? What were their new attitudes?”

“It's deeply emotional stuff,” Jason says. “It's one person talking about not being able to go to the funeral of a loved one. It's people struggling with how to work at home, how to tend to their children, how to make space from their children.”

Zanna adds that the work brings a “more human, grounded aspect” to the work that McKinsey did – and continues to do – on the pandemic. “It's not just analytical, but it is human, and it is emotional, and it is impactful at the individual level.”

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Each comment in the Emotion Archive comes from one of the people who took part in the research. A series of short videos takes a deeper look into their lives.

“There is so much more connecting us than there is different between us”

One surprise came in the universality of responses.

At the height of the research, the team had up to 20 designers working on the project around the world, with a local team member representing each of the eight countries to help understand cultural nuances. They also worked cross-collaboratively to synthesize information and make sure they were understanding the full depth and breadth of the insights they were learning.

Zaana says that in the end there were so few nuances between the responses that the final product was a global piece of work rather than one that focused on eight separate countries. “I actually found a lot of inspiration and a lot of heart in knowing that we're all effectively one people,” she says. “The biggest lesson that I took away from that is that when it gets to human experience and what it means to be human, there is so much more connecting us than there is different between us.”

“The commonality between these people across such wildly different cultures was so engaging,” Jason adds. “It's amazing how similar the global response was from the common challenge that we all face.”

New ways of working with clients

While humanizing the data may seem like it could be purely a feel-good effort, it has opened up unexpectedly powerful ways of working with clients. Insights into people’s shifting attitudes, beliefs and values worldwide provide the basis to talk with clients about the possible impact on their businesses, such as how they will need to adjust their growth strategies and how to realign and recalibrate their businesses.

“It's created such a tidal wave of interest that it's difficult for me to really understand what it means,” Jason says. “I hear from people externally – ones I’ve never had contact with before – that it's helped them reconsider their early days of the pandemic. And we've heard from Senior Partners across the Firm who are interested in how we can leverage these new capabilities for clients. We’re actually finding new ways of working. This is the impact you always hope to have, and it's not common that it actually does.”

He continues: "What's fascinating is that it's validated the value proposition of data humanism, because it deepens the service that we provide our clients. I have never seen one person look at the Emotion Archive and say, ‘Meh, you've got some colors.’ Everybody's really struck by it, because we all have had to live through the pandemic – so we all have a relationship with the subject matter."

Zaana talks about a specific example of how this work was used. “One of our Public Sector Partners in Australia showed the Emotion Archive to a group of very senior Public Sector leaders. They used the Emotion Archive as a basis to talk about their own experiences – discussing the 16 emotions represented in it, and what resonated with them with each emotion. It has gone the extra step of not just showing the human side of the Firm, but in supporting us to facilitate deeper emotional conversations with our clients as well.”

She adds, “I’d like to see people thinking, well, if this is how the world is changing, then how do I apply this not only to myself, but to my team? What does this mean for my business? What does this mean in all aspects of our lives moving forward? We can use it as an imagination point for what the New Possible could be.”

Jason says, “Most importantly, I hope that it helps reinforce that people matter. Our emotional and mental wellbeing matter, in many ways, so much more than the bottom line. That kind of sense of awakening of what really matters to each of us should also be something that we consider in our business lives, as well. We should really focus on what matters.”

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