One billion dollars later…

Why is it easier to track how many steps I take every day than it is to know how much time I spend online?

There are lots of ways to measure success, and the measure that the tech industry is most fond of is dollars. By that metric, platforms that analyze and track social activity have done pretty well; more than a billion dollars has been invested into building or acquiring these tools.

But they haven’t been nearly as successful by a more meaningful measure: They are no fun to use, focusing entirely on the weird metrics of big businesses rather than the things that regular people care about.

We’ve seen over a billion dollars invested into analytics tools.
So how come nobody actually wants to use any of them?

It’s human nature to want to know how we’re doing. We can measure our successes and failures, using strict quantified data, qualitative ethnographic analyses, or anything in between. (Indeed, we built ThinkUp based on the idea that both are equally important.) And at a personal level, when it comes to health and fitness and reproduction and diet, it’s not just common but ordinary for people to use analytics apps every day.

As it turns out, the biggest conceptual difference between “quantified self” and “analytics platforms” is that the latter are generally pretty unpleasant to use. That’s been tolerable when the only people who needed analytics tools were getting paid to use them. But that won’t cut it soon, as millions of regular people are going to start to realize they want to know how they’re doing online, too.

While quantified self devices are so slick and stylish that they’ve long graduated into the world of fashion, the billion dollars that’s been invested into online analytics seems to have largely disappeared into building enterprise sales teams. That kinda makes sense, since the assumption is that only businesses care to know how they’re performing online.

But think about the people you hang out with. Except for the one insufferable friend you have who’s training for a marathon, do you know anyone who spends more time exercising or making babies than they do on social networks like Twitter and Facebook? And even that annoying runner is going to be busy telling everyone on Facebook about their upcoming race.

That means analytics tools have reached the point that content management tools did a decade ago with the birth of really powerful blogging software, or that smartphones did half a decade ago with the transition from the Blackberry era to the iPhone era. People are going to start wanting these capabilties, but won’t settle for the weird, confusing technology that their IT department buys.

What works for regular people, what we find delightful to use, is going to trump the complexity and expense of traditional enterprise tools. It’s that phenomenon that the MBA types call “consumerization”, but which is really just the maturity of a technology into a usable product.

What we don’t want

People are actually pretty thoughtful about how they spend their time. We wouldn’t hang out online so much unless we thought it was worthwhile. And at least subconsciously, most of us have some goals for all this time online.

It’s easy to say what our goals aren’t. It’s not to optimize our conversion funnels, or to track influencer actions, or to to measure acquisition flow abandonments.

Conversion Funnel Metrics — you know, for the kids!

Basically, all the shit that analytics apps track today has nothing to do with what actual humans care about. But for millions of us, there will be value in tracking our steps online in the same way a FitBit or FuelBand lets us track our steps offline, and for the same reasons. It might be enough to change our behavior just a little bit, or give us a sense of purpose to the way we spend our time.

So, what do we know about the evolution of a technology as it goes from being an enterprise platform to being redesigned for regular people? Let’s take lessons from content management and smartphones and apply it to what exists in online analytics today:

  • The user experience trumps everything. Interfaces have to be fast, simple, and attractive. Contrast the simplicity of a recent version of WordPress with the complexity of a traditional enterprise content management system. Today’s analytics services offer charts and graphs that are often just a prettier version of the inscrutable noise we’ve always seen in business tools. It’s not hard to imagine these will be trumped by platforms that tell richer stories. (See “All Dashboards Should Be Feeds”.)
  • Customization Requires a Community. Today, enterprise analytics tools assume that there’s somebody whose job it is to create one-off reports for particular data. Contrast this to the countless apps on a consumer smartphone, or the endless variety of plugins in modern blog-based publishing tools. No matter how peculiar your need is, chances are that somebody else wanted the same thing, and if there’s a thriving community around a consumer-grade tool, you can usually get the features you want with just a few clicks instead of by waiting for custom development.
  • Early Incarnations Look Like Trivial “Toys”. This is the classic, dismissive stance used to evaluate any shift to consumerized products when they are early in their development. Whether it’s iPhones not being ready for enterprise security in their earliest days, or blogging tools not being able to handle web-scale traffic, there’s a desire to pigeonhole more usable tools as being unsuited for “serious” users. This tends to fade away pretty quickly.

There are many, many more traits to consumer disruption of business tools, of course. But even by just looking at these few key points, it’s clear that we could see a rapid shift away from what’s on the market today, if analytics follows the same trends we see in other analogous markets.

A billion dollars isn’t cool.

So it seems like the path forward for the market of analytics tools is clear:

  • Existing analytics apps, the ones that have had a billion dollars sunk into them, will continue on, probably living on forever in the dark corner of big companies’ marketing departments.
  • A new set of analytics tools will rise, informed much more by our running apps and fitness trackers than by enterprise reporting tools.
  • When these new tools start to take off, they won’t be taken seriously, especially when many of their best features are cooked up by a community of independent developers.
  • After time, the fact that the new tools are more pleasant to use than the more powerful ones will start to be the most important consideration.
  • Eventually, most people will understand the idea that understanding our own behavior online is too useful to be limited only to companies. At that point, we’ll start to see the merger of “quantified self” with “analytics platforms” into something akin to “personal analytics”.

My bet on this, of course is on ThinkUp; we’ve built it specifically to take advantage of this shift. And I hope people who care about where analytics is headed will give it a try. But there will be other platforms that arise as this idea becomes the conventional wisdom, each with their own area of focus.

That blossoming of new experiences and new ways of understanding our own behavior is the part that’s most exciting about this shift. Because the potential for observing the ways we connect and share our information is far too interesting and useful to be the exclusive domain of giant enterprises.