The Game of Analytics

The world of analytics and business intelligence tools for Product Managers has long been looking for a king. One true king to rule them all. Giving equal rights to the elderly websites and the young mobile apps, providing easy control, dashboards and reports to the stakeholders and powerful working tools to the common folk. Available for the rich and the poor alike. Agile enough to respond in real-time and thoughtful enough to provide for a long-term research. You know, The Tool!

But as it usually goes with kings or the contenders to the throne, they are either too young, too old, too mad, married the wrong woman or get beheaded just when you started to like them.

While I ply my product management trade for the past decade in various domains, I pledged my allegiance to the highest bidder. Tried to fight alongside the veteran Lannisters of the industry, jumped ship and joined the young and insolent Daeneryses who thought they knew the right way, and participated in building custom tools who were supposed to better cater for the needs of their specific peoples.
Although each and every adventure had its own perks and fun times, it always ended with the Battle of Blackwater at best or the Red Wedding at worst.

What I learned eventually after a lot of blood and money spent, is that at least in the Westeros of Analytics there isn’t and can’t be one king. The world runs much better and effective when it is ruled in full synergy by a few powerful leaders, each responsible for her own people requirements.
I don’t possess the teleport powers of Varys or a dragon to roam around on, so it’d be absurd to claim that I tried to work with all available tools out there, but then again even G.R.R Martin can’t create as many meaningful characters for his series as the number of the analytics tools which exist and keep on coming. 
One day, maybe, the fight will be won and someone will manage to create the ultimate tool that will conquer all others. But for now, I thought I’d summarize the leaders that while working in unison helped me install peace and thrive in the turbulent universe of product analytics.


Missandei the Translator

Working with more than one tool possesses a big threat of rebellion from the R&D. The developers need to learn to speak a few different languages, which usually have nothing in common, obey different rules while moving from place to place and in general makes it hard to remain agile and scaled in the ubiquitous task of adding and removing event coverage. Chaos.

Enter Segment, a fantastic lingua franca for our universe. The Esperanto of APIs. The great free folks of Segment spend all of their time and efforts in the library, looking like Sam in the Citadel, to translate all the APIs of hundreds of existing tools into one common language. 
Once you install Segment into your system, you start speaking with your developers inside and the tools outside in the same language in a “write once — deploy everywhere” scheme. It works not only for analytics tools but also for marketing, CRM and many other verticals where the problem of abundance exists as well.
Custom adaptation may be required to exploit the advanced features of each tool, but in the Pareto, it really can talk to all of them out of the box.
Another huge advantage of Segment is the ability to test new tools within seconds and without any R&D involvement. You just connect your trial period tool to Segment and all of your live data start flowing in there immediately. Give it a spin, look around, and decide to stay or leave based on true data and real experience, and not based on marketing videos or sales pitches. And did I mention no R&D involved? How is that for blowing up your Great Sept?

The caveat, of course, is that once you start using Segment, you are pretty much tied up in terms of the list of tools you can use. They are doing a great effort in constantly introducing new integrations, but they can’t outpace the rate of birth of new ones. So if there’s a cool new tool you’d like to try which Segment doesn’t yet support, you’re back at square one.

The Three-Eyed Raven

Sitting in a tower and waiting for the little birds to bring you rumors of what’s going on in your kingdom is not enough. Not if you want to rule wisely and decide shrewdly. A true leader has to go out and see it with his eyes, hear it with her ears. But what if your people are in millions and scattered around the globe? Granted, our transportation methods are much better than in Westeros, but it’s still a daunting task to accomplish.

If you don’t have a magic tree to attach to in your office, you need FullStory. They are able to record all the sessions of your users and allow you a full playback as if you were sitting right next to them. Their tech is fully front-end based, so they do not require any events or pageviews to be sent, just the user profile data to be able to segment and analyze the behavior of cohorts or specific users. They also have the Searchies which allows you to create funnels based on UI flows and see the recordings of users who complete it our bounce at a specific stage you’re currently improving. 
The tool is also great for Support teams, as they don’t have to guess or rely on the user’s description of what happened, and for developers who gain access to the real console of the browsers and can gain important insights into bugs or issues within the product. No more of the “We can’t reproduce it on our machines, there’s no bug!” excuses.

Warning: Highly addictive! One can spend hours astonishingly watching users do stuff that was never planned to be done or fail at what was supposed to be the simplest action. Proceed with caution.

Brienne of Tarth

Google Analytics is definitely known to everyone and doesn’t require a lengthy description and introduction. Its free, its always there, we all hate stuff about it (when the hell will there be event funnels???) but it’s reliable and gets shit done every time. You should know its weaknesses — Jaime Lannister is the data sampling, he too has just one real hand — and you’re good to go.

Google are releasing new features now and then — shout out to the User Explorer tab, 5 years too late— but it’s not enough. How come, in 2016, an event still can have the same old quadruplet of properties which don’t mean too much? On the other hand, it is completely free and is perfect for low-budget, low-volume products.

Drogon the Dragon

The heavy hitting of the analytics world is the number crunching. This is what it’s all about. Spill a ton of data points into one place and get some useful insights from it. My dragon of choice is MixPanel.

I’ll immediately start with the (huge) caveat and why it is a dragon. Not everyone can afford it. If your product has good traction (yay to you!) and produces 50M+ data points — you will have to shell out a hefty amount per month to ride this dragon. It is usually a B2C problem, given that the majority of B2B products don’t reach millions of users, but it is a problem nevertheless. I heard of many companies who would’ve loved to have a dragon by their side, but don’t deem it cost effective.

If you can’t afford the dragon, please skip to the next chapter. 
For the ones who can or are curious, MixPanel is great with everything related to data mining. Each event can have endless properties. You can build funnels. You can build rule-based analyses. You can analyze real-time users. There are both user-centric and event-centric approaches. There are prediction algorithms to segment cohorts’ future behavior. There’s even place for custom hacking where you can write your own scripts and queries if you’re a sociopath and think UI is for little girls (hello, my Linux friends). There’s really not one thing you can’t achieve with MixPanel in terms of mining.

But, and this is a really big BUT, when it comes to representation of the results, it seems the MixPanel guys live on another planet where there are no upper management or boards who want the bigger picture, in a glance, at the weirdest hours of the day. MixPanel has no dashboards! That’s right. You can’t put two or more graphs on the same page and send the link to the CEO for him to obsessively F5 on. You can’t schedule reports to be sent in spreadsheets (you can only export it manually). There are no widgets where things become red when the shit hits the fan. Nada. Gurnisht.

It really beats me why the MixPanel guys work very hard to compete with Intercom, Optimizely, and other domains, instead of nailing the one thing they are the best at and provide us with a set of data representation and reporting features that are so obviously needed by everyone and would make their high cost even more palatable. But hey, some kings marry the wrong women, we know that already.

Season 7

Google recently completely overhauled Firebase to provide a bullet-proof analytics solution for the mobile apps. I didn’t try it yet, so the jury is still out, but according to their marketing materials, the potential is there. Stay tuned.

Summary

For whoever read so far, thanks for your patience. I hope it was worth it.
For those who jumped here right away, I can’t blame you — to read it you’d have to breach your attention span 10x and there’s this new invitation to play Candy Crush Saga you just couldn’t ignore. I know.

Segment, MixPanel, FullStory, and GA are the quartet of tools I put into my arsenal and they are trustworthy partners in the never-ending quest for product perfectionism and meeting our KPIs.

I’m sure there are many other combinations of products that other people find as good, if not better, than my collection and as a student of the game, I’ll be thrilled to learn about them.
So please share your feedback and your quiver of arrows. Sharing our experiences will help all of us become better at what we do and rule the seven kingdoms!

I can be reached by @edikmit on Twitter, on Facebook or below in the comments section.
Cheers.