I have a problem with web analytics.
The whole notion of a web visit as a rigid set of steps that users follow is incompatible with how we use the web today. Visitors browse around the site, taking their time, exploring and interacting. Occasionally, they complete some kind of action we want—inviting their friends, buying something, and so on.
For a couple of years, I’ve been thinking about web visits in terms of two fundamental building blocks: Places and tasks. If you look at your site as a series of places and tasks, you’ll think differently about how and what you should be watching.
Places: Where users hang out
A place is somewhere on the site that a user hangs out. On Reddit, this might be where they’re reading submissions. There are small actions they can take—opening linked stories in new tags, or voting things up and down. On Wikipedia, they might be reading a story. In Google Apps, perhaps they’re working on a spreadsheet.
When a user’s in a place, we care about their productivity. Are they able to vote up or down smoothly? Can they read the story quickly, and do images load? Are they successfully building a business projection in that spreadsheet? We also care about disengagement—a user who gets bored of reading articles and goes elsewhere, for example.
Tasks: When users have a mission
By contrast, a task is something the user sets out to accomplish. It’s several steps, and some of those steps don’t happen on the website itself. And a task puts the user in a different mode of operation. It’s the Reddit user creating an account for themselves, or submitting a new link. It’s the Wikipedia reader deciding to edit a page. Or it’s the Google Apps user sharing their spreadsheet with someone.
When a user’s trying to accomplish a task, we care about their accomplishment of the task. Did the invite result in a new enrolment? Did they complete the purchase? Was the edit of the article ultimately saved? Were they able to add the widget to their dashboard?
A new way to look at sites
Looking at websites as collections of places and tasks quickly underscores the limitations of page-centric, funnel-minded web analytics.
For one thing, you quickly realize that you need to instrument places and tasks very differently: Places need analysis of actions within the place (How many videos did he watch? How often did he pause them? Did he see the ad?) while tasks need analysis of progress (Did he send the mail? Did it bounce? Did the recipient act on it?)
What’s more, traditional page-centric instrumentation won’t work. Actions happen at the sub-page level, with components of a page; often, this involves a Rich Internet Application like Flash or Silverlight.
To further complicate matters, tasks often involve steps beyond the view of analytics, such as e-mail invitations, instant messages, RSS feeds, and third-party sites. Tracking the accomplishment of a task across multiple systems is a challenge, with all manner of tracking cookies, dynamic URLs, and embedded GIFs used to try and follow the task to completion.
Paving the way to places and tasks
There’s lots of good innovation going on in this realm. Steve Souders’ Episodes model creates a way for designers to instrument user actions cleanly even within a page, which is ideal for “places” analytics. Google recently unveiled the ability to send back events (like upvoting a story) within a page.
At the same time, Kissmetrics’ Product Planner, which showcases design workflows, is all about tasks. In some cases the tasks are linear—buy something—while in others, they’re part of a feedback loop such as inviting others that leads to viral adoption.
What can you do to get started?
Most web operators have a mental map of their site. Some even draw it on a wall. You can map out a site, consisting of places and tasks, in this way.
For each place, make a note of all the events you care about. Including timing events (“a video starts playing”) and user interactions (“user upvotes and the button’s color changes.”) Also identify the actions that initiate a task (such as “share this spreadsheet.”)
For each task, make a note of all the steps you want to track, including those that aren’t on your site. Identify the key metrics you should know (for a mail send, for example, this might be bounce rate, open rate, and click rate.)
Then the next time you’re presenting your web monitoring results, overlay them on the map. For each place or task, show the analytics (what the users did) and the user experience (whether they could do it.) If you have psychographic information (why they did it) such as surveys, or usability metrics (how did they do it), include that as well.
The end result is a much more accurate representation of the ebb and flow of your online business. It will probably reveal significant gaps in your web visibility strategy, too—but at least now you’ll know where your blind spots are.