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April 26, 2006

SiteCatalyst vs. WebAbacus interfaces

As part of our research to find ways to improve the WebAbacus interface, we've been taking a look at some of our competitors' latest offerings. Today, my colleague Sebastien took us through Omniture SiteCatalyst 12. Here's a (fairly unstructured) summary of his findings. I'll probably write this up as a proper document in due course.

General interface layout
The SiteCatalyst (SC) interface is quite nicely laid out, with the usual reports down the left side and other stuff across the top. Each report features a toolbar across the top (much the way WebAbacus does), which provides quick access to things like report download and A/B testing. Because of the amount of stuff in the SC interface, though, things are a little confusing on first glance - and there's a lot of stuff crow-barred into the reports menu on the left which perhaps could have been treated differently.

Home Page
SC has quite a nice home page for when you first log in, with big chunky links to the main report areas, and best practice & support information from Omniture. WebAbacus just drops you into your default report.

Report Views
I don't know whether it's a universal function (I don't think it is), but certain reports can be viewed a number of different ways - 'ranked' (a simple table of values ranked by some metric or metrics on the RHS), 'improved' (a rather odd term referring to period-on-period analysis, i.e. a comparison of one period with another) or 'trended' (the top n values from the report compared day by day over a period of time, such as a month). The WA approach to this is currently to offer the option to generate separate reports for each of these. Functionally there's no difference (i.e. you can still get the data from WA), but the SC approach is much more accessible.

Data Drill
Not sure if this is the official Omniture term for this, but you can click on any entry in a report and see summary data for that entry. For example, you can click on a search term and see summary info about the visits that were generated by that search term. WebAbacus has this functionality in its filtering, with the difference that, in WA, the filter is persistent, whereas it isn't with SC. As it turns out, this tends to cause more problems than it solves for users of WA.

There's also a little context menu alongside each entry in an Omniture report which allows you to segment what you're seeing by other metrics. This  is something we're planning to do with WebAbacus. At the moment with WA, the segmentation process is a bit back-to-front; if you want to break product interest down by country, say, you first have to go to a country report and filter on the country you're interested in, then go back to the product interest report. Users find this rather counter-intuitive. It's better to do it the way most of our competitors (including SC) do, which is to allow the segmentation to be selected within the report, and the results to affect that report, and that report only (as opposed to the persistent filtering model we have now).

The SC functionality does this, but misses a trick which we can employ with WebAbacus. With SC if you segment, by something (e.g. country) you get the entry you asked for as the top-level of a new 'category' (in WA parlance) report, with the segmentation data underneath as sub-category information. What we should be able to achieve with WA is the ability to dynamically build a full Category report in the interface with users defining the first, second, third and subsequent category fields there and then. It's likely that in introducing this we would drop the idea of filtering altogether (or at least background it to a significant extent).

Creating metrics
SC supports the process of creating a 'metric' (a definition of a single measure of something, such as conversion rate) as an independent entity that can be used in other places, such as reports and dashboards. We will do this in WebAbacus - it's a strong and useful idea. I'm confident, though, that we can bring WebAbacus's traditional strengths of flexibility to bear in this situation, and support the creation of any kind of metric using the underlying data (Omniture just allows you to total things and then perform arithmetic operations, which is somewhat limiting).

Report builder
SC has quite a nice report builder with a wizard-like quality to it (or at least a progressive display) . But in truth the report builder isn't terribly powerful - it really just allows the user to build a specific 'view' (in our terminology) of an existing report. Indeed, inside the report builder you're asked to select the report you want to use, which seems like a counterintuitive recycling of terminology to me. There are some nice features, such as being able to send the report you've built via e-mail (without having to save it permanently) or adding the report (as a 'reportlet') to a dashboard.

At the moment, building and customising reports in WebAbacus, whilst powerful and flexible, is much harder than it should be. In WebAbacus 6 we'll be separating the presentation logic from reports and making them available as 'views' which users can create (and save) and use to view the data from a specific report. But we'll also be exposing the configuration of the reports (which will themselves be simplified - more on this at another time) so that users can create and employ new metrics at the report level.

Path analysis
SC has strong path analysis, in the form of three key reports: A pathways report, a 'fallout' (funnel) report, and an in-and-out report (I should be able to provide the names of these reports, but I don't have them to hand unfortunately). Together these do provide a powerful suite of reporting about the paths users have taken, and there are some very nice configuration options to allow users to focus on the paths that are of interest. We felt that there was a bit of a missed opportunity in not making the path definitions more reusable, but Omniture may feel that its users will only create one or two paths, so surfancing another entity (a 'path' entity, effectively) would probably only serve to confuse. But this is likely to feature in the approach we take with WebAbacus 6, although the issue of complexity is one we'll be paying a lot of attention to.

Nice descriptive buttons
This seems really trivial, but is an important aspect of a well-designed user interface. In SC, many of the 'Go' buttons are marked with things like 'Save this new report' - which just provides that bit extra information about what will happen when you click the button. Something we can learn from.

That's it for the moment. Of course there's much more to both tools than this brief comparison of their interfaces implies. But we have a pretty good feeling that WebAbacus has good functional parity 'under the hood' - i.e. in its primary data processing capability - and is an extremely flexible tool. But we know the interface could use some improvement. In future posts I'll provide a comparison of WebAbacus and other well-known tools; HBX is the one most likely to feature next.

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April 18, 2006

Software as a Service Myths

Interesting article in Business Week entitled 8 Myths about Software as a Service (SaaS). It's certainly the case that the bulk of the web analytics industry delivers its software as a service - we certainly do - and I think this trend is set to continue, with security and data privacy issues being addressed along the way.

Thanks to Slashdot for the link.

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April 16, 2006

ActiveX miseries

It's just come to my attention (on account of installing the latest security patches for Windows from Microsoft) that a small but profound change has been made to the way Internet Explorer handles ActiveX plugins (such as Flash, PDF, Quicktime and Java).

Owing to a patent dispute with a no-name company called Eolas, who licensed a patent for embedded applications from the University of California in 1994, Microsoft has changed IE so that, by default, users are asked to click on any ActiveX control to activate it before they can interact with it (see Volkswagen's Phaeton site for an example of this in action - at least until they change it). The issue was brought to my attention by my wife, who runs an online boutique that has a Flash element on its home page.

There's much comment on the web about the Redmond Goliath being brought low by a small, doughty (not to mention litigious) David, plus a lot of grumbling about Microsoft bundling the patch with its April round of Windows security updates, but relatively little about how to get around the issue.

It turns out that doing this is pretty easy - rather than referencing the plug-in directly in the HTML, as in the example below:

<EMBED src="hp_anim.swf" menu="false" quality=high bgcolor=#FFFFFF  WIDTH="532" HEIGHT="355" NAME="hp_anim" ALIGN="" TYPE="application/x-shockwave-flash" PLUGINSPAGE="http://www.macromedia.com/go/getflashplayer">
</EMBED>

you just have to move the HTML into a separate file and write it out using JavaScript document.write commands:

<script language="JavaScript" type="text/javascript" src="flash.js"></script>

and, in flash.js:

document.write('<EMBED src="hp_anim.swf" menu="false" quality=high bgcolor=#FFFFFF  WIDTH="532" HEIGHT="355" NAME="hp_anim" ALIGN="" TYPE="application/x-shockwave-flash" PLUGINSPAGE="http://www.macromedia.com/go/getflashplayer">');
document.write('</EMBED>');

Pretty simple, really, and for me, that's what rankles. If something is so easy to get round, why is it necessary to make everybody implement the workaround? Why not just agree licencing for the patent and let everybody get on with their work?

If you want to read more about the techniques to get round this latest piece of litigious nonsense, there's a good article on the Microsoft website about it.

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April 14, 2006

Bio Motion labs

Found this cool experiment on the Bio Motion Lab website, which demonstrates our ability to interpret a collection of moving dots as a human (or, indeed, animal) in motion.

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April 13, 2006

BoxOver

Nice little JS library to do nice-looking tooltips for websites.

(via SwissMiss)

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April 11, 2006

More change...

Only a week after the event, but I learn today that Omniture is preparing to IPO and that Coremetrics has bought IBM SurfAid Analytics. The Omniture IPO I could see coming, but the Coremetrics/IBM announcement is more of a curveball. However, given Coremetrics' focus on the e-commerce sector and IBM's strength in the field (with WebSphere Commerce), it's not such a surprise. I suppose it's not so unusual for IBM to be selling off bits of itself to other companies (cf. Lenovo), but it all seems a bit entrepreneurial for Big Blue.

As for Omniture's IPO, of course it's a natural next step for them (particularly given the amount of VC funding they now have - those folks surely want some kind of exit) - but I'm unsure where Omniture goes from here. I guess they'll use the IPO money to finance a bunch of acquisitions to broaden their appeal out from pure web analytics.

My favourite prediction for the industry is that, in a few years, there'll be no such thing as an independent 'web analytics industry' - I believe that vendors will be absorbed by (or absorb) vendors and service providers in related fields such as media planning, data mining, infrastructure management and so on. So whilst Omniture is shaping up to be a real leviathan in the industry (though still smaller than WebTrends), it still remains to be seen if it can achieve sufficient critical mass through acquisition or perhaps a merger to deliver value to its shareholders.

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April 10, 2006

PersonalWeb

Following a $40m funding round, Claria, previously known as Gator and notorious peddlers of adware, have launched a new product called PersonalWeb, which is an automatic personalised desktop (the user has to install a plug-in), which monitors your browsing habits and creates a desktop which contains links to your favourite stuff. It'll be a competitor to the toolbars and personalised desktops of Google, MSN, Yahoo! and the like.

Looks like Claria is planning to use the intelligence to insert 'subtle' ads into the personalised desktop environment. I wouldn't be surprised if they were also planning to make money off aggregating the information about browsing habits of all their users and selling it on to third parties. Old habits die hard, after all.

However, Claria claim to be getting out of the adware business. They almost IPO'd on the back of their previous business model - reporting $117m in revenues for 2004 - but they've annnounced (on their current homepage) that by June 30th 2006, they'll be out of the business altogether. That's some U-turn.

There's an interesting Businessweek article about the launch.

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April 09, 2006

Search engines vs the sub-ed

Very interesting article from the New York Times about how newspaper websites are having to tone down their article titles to pander to the needs of search engines, which deliver up to 30% of their traffic, and which are somewhat more literal-minded than their human readers.

Does this mark the demise of the sub-editor's craft? Apparently not - the trick is to use duplicate article titles for the same article, usually at the top of different sections. So the search engine spiders see the boring, searchable article title, and human readers see the more imaginative one.

Thanks to Prostoalex via Slashdot for this one.

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April 05, 2006

The tragedy of the artisan

Had an interesting conversation with one of my team today - our lead software developer, Matt, with whom I've worked for the last six years, and who's become a good friend during that time.

For reasons that will become apparent in due course, we were discussing Matt's career and how he could expand his responsibilities from 'just' being a very talented coder to taking on a team leadership role. I don't think it's betraying any confidences to share Matt's concern that he might be trading in a job that he loves for one which he enjoys less - all in the service of 'progression', and, of course, money.

The conversation reminded me how difficult it is for talented 'artisans' in organisations to move their careers forward without having to abandon the stuff they love doing. Of course, there are some people who become good at something they love - be it coding, gardening, interior design, teaching, whatever - and essentially just do that for their entire careers. But with the pressures of the modern world, in particular the need to earn more money, this can be a thankless route to take. I particularly identified with Matt's dilemma because it's the same one I've faced in my career.

In his book The E-myth Revisited, Michael Gerber relates how many artisans, sick of working for someone else, decide to become entrepreneurs and start their own businesses, only to discover that the day-to-day reality of running a business is about accounts, dealing with customers and suppliers, buying toilet roll, and all sorts of other stuff that the artisan hates doing. Plus they're still at the heart of the business, so they have to do that stuff too. No surprise that many artisans who become entrepreneurs burn out within a year from over-work - they have to run the business and be the business too.

The only way out of the trap is for the artisan-entrepreneur to realise that they need to hire (and empower) others to do the very stuff they like the most, so that they can get on with running the business.

This may seem a bit tangential, but it highlights the problem that artisans face - plough the same furrow your entire life, perhaps building a bit more reputation over time and being able to charge a bit more for your time, or give up big chunks of the stuff you enjoy to progress. This idea is closely related to the concept of 'leverage' introduced (at least to me) by Robert Kiyosaki's book, Rich Dad, Poor Dad. I must say I find Kiyosaki's whole "money is everything" approach to life a little relentless, and he doesn't exactly have a stainless reputation, but the idea of leverage is a useful one.

Kiyosaki argues that to become rich you need to leverage your own capabilities. If you're the one doing the actual work (coding, baking, whatever), there's a very finite limit to how much you can charge, because you can only put so many hours in. Over time you might pick up a great reputation for the work you do, and this might raise your hourly rate (an extreme example being Premiership footballers), but ultimately you are paid in proportion to the time you put in.

If, however, you can leverage other people to work on your behalf, or leverage your ideas to earn money on your behalf, you can earn a lot more. So if you start your own business, or create something that can be replicated for which you can charge a royalty (e.g. a book), you can get to the situation of earning money whilst you quite literally do nothing.

I think that, to an extent, you can apply some of the same principles inside a company. If you take on a managerial role, you can think of that as leveraging your skills and creativity - but you have to be prepared to let others do the actual work whilst you derive pleasure from seeing your vision executed. And for most artisan-types, it's a gamble - particularly at first, the managerial role will be difficult and probably much less rewarding than doing the work themselves.

So what advice did I give to Matt? As with so many tests of my own managerial skills, I took the tried and tested tack of talking about myself, in the hope that Matt would see the parallels and be able to draw his own conclusions. It could hardly be said that I've got this management thing down pat myself.

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April 03, 2006

How's your brand memory?

Bild01_1 Interesting study by "art-technology-philosophy group of basket weaving enthusiasts and theory do-it-yourselfers" (their words) monochrom into brand recall - they asked 25 people to draw various well-known brand logos from memory. The results are interesting, particularly for brands (such as BP, Adidas, Philips & Eskimo/Algida/Walls) who have changed their logos of late. How well would you do?

If you want to do the test yourself, here are the brands (don't click through the link above until you've tried the test):

  • Adidas
  • Lacoste
  • Apple
  • Maggi
  • BP
  • Peugeot
  • Coca Cola
  • Philips
  • Eskimo (Walls in the UK, Algida elsewhere in Europe)
  • Toyota
  • Iglo
  • Raiffeisen

Thanks to swissmiss for this.

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