This article was made possible by the participation of DashThis, one of iProspect Canada's technology partner for reporting solutions.
In your opinion, what do most people think about when it comes to web analytics? Do they think it’s about changing a company’s culture and internal processes to base all of its decisions on data and claim to be “data-driven?”
No, not exactly! Instead they think of those good old performance reports, of course!
In fact, they are not even thinking about the reports per se. They are thinking more about beautiful graphics with nice, upward curves, indicating success.
The look, the design...the aesthetics is now what differentiates reports that are used from those that are relegated to oblivion. Unfortunately, even in web analytics, the packaging is (very often) more important than the content.
All web analytics specialists experience the same problem: if the report is not eye-catching, it simply will not be used. #frustration
I have worked for large, small and mid-sized companies, internally, on contract and as a consultant. I can say that this is a widespread problem and design is, indeed, a performance report’s #1 enemy.
Sometimes I wonder how we have gotten ourselves here. How is it that every web analytics specialists must, in addition to mastering a growing number of statistical analysis tools, also need to know how to use Photoshop? I kid you not.
To be honest, I have come to believe that it’s largely our fault. It’s us, the web analytics professionals, who have placed too much emphasis on this component. We are the ones who have forgotten the fundamental purpose of a performance report: enabling management to make better-informed decisions.
All you have to think about is what happens when you need to create a new report:
It’s usually when the report is presented that the customer/superior requests that the data be presented exactly as originally envisioned. He/she will normally give his/her two cents’ worth on the report’s appearance (titles, colours, character size, positioning of the metrics, etc.). #evenmorefrustration
If you’re lucky, the reports makes the rounds with a few key stakeholders. If karma is really not on your side, it may stay plunked on a desk, never to see the light of day ever again.
Sound familiar? We have all experienced it. Way. Too. Often.
But at least we got the colors right….right?
However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Taking the time to properly select the metrics will go a long way to relegating your reversal of fortune to the past. In other words, prioritize the content over the packaging and you will avoid many a headache.
To help management make decisions based on statistics you must at least ensure that your reports are being used.
If a performance report sinks into oblivion because we have neglected the content in favour of the packaging, it isn’t the end of the world—but it is a widespread problem that can greatly impact a business’ bottom line. In fact, it is one of the greatest challenges web analytics specialists must overcome in order to ensure the longevity of their expertise.
Before, the challenge was to obtain the desired data. Now, the challenge is more about knowing how to glean the most e important metrics from the sea of available statistics. Two specialists from McKinsey claimed in a Forbes article that, even in 2013, the annual worldwide growth of data available was at 40%. We can bet that this figure is even more significant now as 2016 as just begun.
The lack of interest in data is certainly not the problem either. Here is a table illustrating the craze of the terms “web analytics,” “digital analytics,” and “Big Data,” which have, one by one, been the poster child for statistical analysis in the digital age.
And it is quite clear that this interest shows no signs of slowing down, despite what critics may say. As part of a joint study by Econsultancy and Adobe, more than 2500 companies were asked what, according to them, represents the most exciting opportunity in the next five years. Fourteen percent of them pointed to Big Data. Only user experience (UX) and content marketing were more popular.
However, although many agree that Big Data is an opportunity to be seized in 2015 and that it will be even more so during the next few years, in reality, a fundamental problem exists. In fact, according to the same study, many companies complain that despite the fact they are almost all sitting on mountains of data, few claim being able to transform this data into useful information for decision-making.
This seems to be party explained when we learn that only 38% of respondents feel they have the necessary analysts to make sense of the data they accumulate.
In short, data is becoming available at breakneck speed. Everyone recognizes that the Big Data is key to a business’ future. But few are able to use it in order to generate real value because they lack specialists to translate the data into useful information on a daily basis.
And what is the most widely used way to translate data into information used on a daily basis? But of course, those valuable performance reports!
If we don’t focus on the value of information, which is (almost always) transmitted through statistical reports and continue prioritizing the packaging over the content, in five years’ time, “Big Data” will have only been a buzzword.
Now that we have all agreed that a report’s content is more important than its packaging, the next question is: what is good content? What kind of information must a report include in order for a company to take action that makes business sense?
Reports are often requested on an ad hoc basis in order to justify how a marketing budget was used. However, data should be consulted before taking action; however, simply analyzing data before acting is not enough either. You have to analyze the right data and have enough data in order to pinpoint trends.
In short, a good report is usually supported by a web analytics strategy.
I know. The term “strategy” is scary, but proceeding in a structured manner is actually very simple. Here is an easy way to make sense of it all, as proposed by Stéphane Hamel in what he calls “The Web Analytics Maturity Model” (one of the great classics on web analytics):
The performance report is useful between steps 3 and 4. This is when we communicate the results of our analyses and our recommendations to management. You understand that reports are very important, but it’s the strategy that connects the statistical analysis to performance optimization.
It’s simple: without strategy, reports and analyses may not lead anywhere.
Because creating a report will help a company to optimize its performance, you must begin by defining the business objectives. Ensure that you define SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-specific). If not, Neil Patel suggests using the DUMB model to help you define concrete goals. It might seem obvious, but believe me, it’s not as easy as you would think.
Next, you must identify how the website (or what you want to analyze) embodies the company’s objectives. Is the website’s objective to increase sales, generate leads or to inform?
Last, but not least, when the website’s objectives are identified, you must identify the best possible way to measure whether or not you have achieved them. These are called key performance indicators (KPIs). This is the data that must absolutely be included in a report. Nothing more!
If you would like to learn more about KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) Avinash Kaushik explains them very well.
Collecting data when creating a report doesn’t take very long. Rather, it’s translating this data into useful information for decision-making that takes time. Don’t forget that a report must indicate how the data impacts the company and what the recommended actions are. That’s what is valuable.
It is for this reason that DashThis provides the ability to add notes to each widget (or metric) of a report in addition to including general comments at the bottom of it. That is also one of many reasons iProspect uses our reporting tool for some of its clients.
Without context, data means nothing! For example, is a 4% conversion rate good? It depends on the company’s conversion rate goal and past performance.
To help your report’s readers analyze the results, you should always provide points of reference. How? By comparing the data! You can compare results to a prior period, an average, the competition, or even your market’s established quality standards. You can also compare data between your different user segments. For example, what medium has the best conversion rate? Organic traffic or direct traffic?
You probably know your business data very well from analyzing it, but this surely isn’t the case for your readers. Be sure to help them by providing them with some context.
It is usually a good idea to adapt metrics included in the report according to its readers. Obviously, the data provided will always be related to the company’s objectives in one way or another, but the perspective will change. For example, not all departments in the same company have the same roles and responsibilities. It is therefore normal that this should be reflected within a report. It’s also true for the different levels within the same department: usually the more senior-level the reader is, the less operational the metrics need to be.
There is often a tendency to cry “Eureka!” when two or three KPIs seem to point in the same direction as our hypothesis. On the contrary, we spend far too much time analyzing phenomena that seems abnormal to us, even if it don’t represent a significant trend.
As Mike Deck explains in his article about online behaviour, we spend too much time on insignificant statistics.
I will not get into the concept of “statistical significance”, but you don’t need to have a doctorate in statistics to understand that prior to relying upon KPIs to take serious action, it is absolutely essential to have accumulated enough data.
Even if the content is the most important, it does not prevent design from truly enhancing a report. It can capture attention and lend credibility as well as making it easier to read.
Before speaking of aesthetics, it should be mentioned that no matter how much effort you invest in the report’s appearance, if it’s too busy, it will not be simple to read—or understand. I mention this because reports often feature too much information. We confuse “reports” with “analyses” even if they have very distinct purposes. As explained on Adobe’s blog, a report is a summary of information used to evaluate a company’s performance against one or more objectives. An analysis is an exploration of your data in order to extract useful information to understand and optimize the company’s performance. A report is therefore concise! Remember the KISS principle? It is not a long list of data used in the analysis leading to the final recommendations.
Now, how can you design your report to optimize its readability?
By adding section headings
By creating subgroups of metrics related to the same goal
By adding icons that are easy to understand
By using colors to emphasize certain elements or help with data analysis (green=positive, red=negative)
Ideally, a report creation tool must enable you to make these adjustments. Even though DashThis already provides these features, the look is so important for some customers (including iProspect) that they ask us to design reports that are 100% personalized. But they don’t neglect the content whatsoever.
Finally, thinking of everything and creating the perfect report is not even enough. It must evolve with the business over time. After all, do I really need to tell you that your customers or superiors’ goals will change over time? ;)
You may have noticed that creating a good performance report is not that easy. And even if you are successful, there is no guarantee that your recommendations will be implemented.
But hey, by rebalancing the importance of your report’s appearance and its content, you and your company will already be taking a giant step to better decision making. At the same time, you will give the future of web analytics a good boost.
I am interested in hearing from you. Have you ever had the feeling design was overestimated in the reporting process?
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of iProspect.