Data = Knowledge

Heads Up!

This article is several years old now, and much has happened in Umbraco land since then, so please keep that in mind while reading it.

Once upon a time I worked as a webmaster in a large Danish company. One day my boss came up to me, telling me that he'd heard about something new, something brilliant, something called a mobile website. And he wanted one of that! Preferably yesterday of course.

I told him that we most certainly should get one of those mobile versions of our website but there were several things to discuss, before developing one. For example we should look at our business strategy to see what was relevant on a mobile this site, analyze our traffic to prioritize the content and set up business goals to measure its success and define what was more suitable: a responsive design, a mobile website or perhaps an app?

"No, no, no" he said. "There's no time and money for that kind of thinking. Just give me a website that looks great on a mobile".

Everybody has an opinion about web projects

In the design and developing process my colleagues and I talked a lot about the project and its functionality. We had meetings with a bunch of relevant people. Everybody had their own opinion about the project.

The designers had some interesting points: "Hey, what about taking this color from your logo and use it in your menu?" But we never discussed usability: How readable the font would be on a mobile page or how big the buttons should be to be user friendly. But hey! It looked great on paper.

And when we talked to the developers, they had some great technical ideas for the mobile site. "Hey, let's use the GPS in the phone and show people the nearest shop!" But no one asked us what the most important function was on the site.

When we ran a version to our boss he said: "Hey, what about one of those automatic sliders on the front page? Then we can show of all of our great marketing products to our customers."

The board of the company told us that we definitely needed to display all our news on the mobile site so we could show the sorroundings what a serious company we were. People love reading news on the run, everybody knows that! But the fact was that only few people cared about our news or our marketing products.

Guess who we never asked?

Since the process should be both fast and cheap, there wasn't any time or money to ask the people, who were actually going to use the mobile site. What they wanted? And there wasn't any time or money to do split test of basic functionality.

So we ended up making a mobile website, based on gut, convictions and best practices. The result was an attempt to please anybody but the actual users.

How do you think that went?

We ended up making a mobile site that didn't please anybody. The conversion rates were not impressive and it didn't perform as expected. So what to do about that? There's only one thing you can do and that's damage control: We tried to optimize the low-hanging fruits to avoid losing too much business.
This meant spending even more time and money than we would have spent on testing before developing. That's never a good business strategy.

The curse of knowledge

You probably think that you're smarter than us and don't make the same mistakes as we did. I definitely hope so!

But very few companies start out by figuring out what the goal of their project is. They never outline the business case to see if it's a profitable project or even define their most vital online Key Performance Indicators.

Recently I've seen a company with a rather well-known web shop changing platform. They launched a month ago, just before Christmas. Christmas being their biggest season of course.

From one day to another their conversion rates dropped and their bounce rates went sky high. Why? They replaced an old, probably outdated version with a new one. How could that new shop not perform better?

The answer is simple - We all suffer from "the curse of knowledge". You simply know way too much about your own business to look at it from an outside perspective. The web shop owner knew it so well that he forgot to communicate basic information on the shop. That's why he forgot to put an "add to basket" button on the product list for example. Or to put prices and product names on the related product sliders. It was no longer clear what the customer should do on the shop, so they simply went somewhere else to buy their Christmas gifts.

The data driven process

What could this web shop owner have done differently? What could I have done? Well, first of all we both should have looked at our web statistic before defining any content or implementing any functionality.

Analyze your data

Any new web project should take its starting point in a web analysis tool such as Google Analytics. This is how we make relevant decisions when building a new web platform. Have a look at the content with most page views; shouldn't this be prioritized? Look at your bounce rate - does it show any critical navigations issues? Which traffic sources deliver the most valuable traffic - How can we get more of that? What about pages that are critical to your business - how do they perform? How about your goals - are they clearly defined? And are they performing well with good conversion rates, or do you have any issues with your conversion funnel?

Analyze your data and make solid conclusions from this. It helps you to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of your solution and you know what parts to improve.

Know the business goals

Now it's time to take a closer look at your business. What's the purpose with your existence on the web? A shop should of course generate sales but maybe in your case it's important to achieve some of these goals instead?

  • Convert customer leads
  • Have people sign up to a newsletter
  • Order some material
  • Fill out a contact form
  • Communicate important information
  • Etc.

You need to define your business goals to be able to clearly communicate them on your website or web shop. Each page should only have one, and only one, Call-To-Action. This means you have to prioritize your goals after relevance and match them up with your content.

Make sure you set up goal tracking to measure your Return On Investment (ROI). Here you'll find the arguments you can use, when your boss or client asks why they should invest more money to build a new contact form for instance. This is where you can benefit from impact measurement when presenting results. It's all about the bottom line.

Involve the actual users

So now that you have prioritized your content, you have defined your business goals and know how to communicate them and measure the effect it's time to design a commercial web solutions based on knowledge you have gained by analyzing your data. But it's vital not to lose sight of this knowledge when outlining design and functionality.

Most sites are built from a technical perspective - not a business one. In most cases we make solutions based on what is technically possible, and not based on the knowledge we gain from our highly valuable data. This calls for a new way of thinking. That's why we should find out if our website navigation is easy enough by involving and asking the user questions like

  • What do you think about the navigation on the site?
  • What do you think about the search function? Is it clearly visible? Does it work as you would expect?
  • Is the checkout process intuitive enough?
  • Is there anything that makes you unsecure during checkout on our shop?
  • Do you miss vital information that keeps you from buying products on our shop?
  • etc.

Testing usability and functionality is vital to challenge our old way of doing things. We should involve our users early in the process before implementing the solution. Maybe even earlier by testing the old platform and include this knowledge in the proces of creating the new solution. Then we create for the end user - not anybody else.

Does it sound like hard work? Does it seem impossible, when your boss or client yells at you to finish the project and stop spending more money? It is hard work.

It's much easier to build or optimize solutions within our comfort zone. But ask yourself, if you or your client can afford not to work data driven when developing new solutions. Even though this means extending the project scope to include

  • User testing
  • A/B split testing
  • Impact measurement
  • Analyzing user data/behavior


And building platforms based on that knowledge we gain from doing these things. Investing in a data driven process where focus is on the end user means saving money in the end. And that's the business of business.

Marianne Holmgaard

Marianne is on Twitter as