Agile Strategy for Data Collection and Analytics

If you are like most people doing business online, it seems like there is always a long list of digital to-dos that are somewhere between “that will happen in Q4” and “that should have happened by Q4 last year.” Aside from the constant stream of daily hiccups that arise due to the asynchronous nature of our medium, if you are like most others managing a website, you face broader development challenges of slow servers, uncooperative CMS’s, or lame mobile experiences impacting your online success.

This is not failure that you have to accept! Let me introduce you to a little thing that has been bouncing around in the software/web development community that will make your online business operations feel less like swimming in peanut butter. It’s called Agile Development and it’s sexy. It’s fast and sexy like a cheetah wearing high heels.

We can apply these principles of Agile Development to data collection, analytics, and optimization to provide two exceptional benefits: rapid access to data and insight, and safeguards against constantly changing web properties.

For data collection, analytics, and optimization:

  • An Agile approach provides action before traditional methods provides insight
  • An Agile approach safeguards against the constant variability of the web medium

“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!” — Ben Franklin

Learning from Feature Driven Development

The Agile Development concept covers an array of development methodologies and practices, but I would like drill into one especially coherent and efficient method of Agile called Feature Driven Development.

Feature-Driven Development essentially works like this: an overall project is planned as a whole then it is separated into discrete pieces and each of these pieces is designed and developed as a component and added to the whole. This way, instead of having many semi-functional components, the project’s most valuable components are complete and fully functioning.

Phased Implementation (Not Iteration)

Because you might have already heard something about Agile Development, it is important, at this time to dispel the notion that Agile development is defined by iterations upon products. In a sense that is true but mostly it is the complete opposite of the Agile approach. The only iterations that happen are the planning, implementation, and completion of a new feature. This is not the same as adding layers upon existing features (more on this with the Definition of Done). The difference here is planning and the ability to see the project and business objectives as a whole.

Step 1: Develop an Overall Model

You must plan! Planning in an organization can be hard to motivate and difficult to initiate, but these planning steps will actually provide you with better, more actionable data sooner than not.

Understand the system. This is digital. There are a lot of moving parts. It is very important to really know how your digital presence affects your physical business and your overall business strategy and vice versa. Additionally, there are likely many components within your business that are (or could be) affected by the data that can be collected. This leads to my next suggestions.

Ask questions and seek multiple perspective. This is time to confront your assumptions about your business, your pain-points, and your data needs. It is important to really know the processes and decisions that are taking place and how they are (or are not) or could be affected by data. Communicating with those who interact with and make decisions on the data at any level will be extremely insightful.

Be strategic. Look at the big picture of the future, define your goal and work backwards. Agility does not come by luck but rather by being aware of and prepared for all foreseeable possibilities. Consider how things will change and what parts of your digital presence are shifting. How will redesigns, platform changes, and code freezes affect your strategy? This is generally the best way to face an analytics problem so this step applies very well to analytics. Agile was created to solve the problems of being short-sighted and reactive.

Step 2: Define the Parts of Your Plan

This is where the fun starts. There are multiple ways an analytics strategy can be divided and further subdivided into parts. When considering how to divide the project into parts, the goal should be to get to define parts at their most discrete, independent or atomic level. This will be helpful in prioritizing the parts into steps. Ultimately,  these parts can be regrouped based on similarity and development implementation process.

By Web Property and Section

An organization’s web presence is often not limited to a single site or app. There may be different properties or sections of web properties with different intents. Inevitably, some of these properties or sections will have a bigger impact on your organization’s goals and thus would be prioritized differently.

By Data Scope (User, Page/Screen, Event)

Each web properties has layers of data that can be gathered from it. Data about the user in the app or website’s database, information about the content of the page, and information about how the user interacts with the app or website can all be thought of discretely. These differ in terms of intelligence and the actual development work that is required to collect the data.

By Data Use

Another way to divide up the data-collection needs is by end use. For instance, you may be an ecommerce store that has different people or teams who are merchandising, planning and creating content, managing email, social campaigns, or paid media campaigns and/or optimizing the application and user experience. The data needs for each initiative will often overlap with other initiatives but sometimes data needs will be very different from others. These different data needs can be thought of as different parts of your strategy.

By Data Depth

Think 80/20 rule in terms of granularity. Some data is instantly useful. For instance, you may not be tracking clicks on your main call-to-actions or “Buy” buttons. These clicks are likely key micro-conversions and having this interaction insight can literally change your strategy overnight. Another layer of depth would be knowing what product was added to the cart as part of that event. A further layer would be configuring Google Analytics’ Enhanced Ecommerce to understand how users interact with products from the product page to the checkout. Each of these examples provide varying depths of data but also require varying amounts of development time.

Other features like Google Adwords Dynamic Remarketing and Google Analytics Content Groupings can be thought of similarly as they need more information to associate with the user or page.

Step 3: Prioritize

This is the most important step. This is where the unique value of the Agile approach really shines. This can drastically lower the cost and shorten the time to data-driven action. All the planning and foresight that took place before can be leveraged to make the right decisions for the most success.

Consider Goals

Duh. The whole reason you are gathering data is to be data-driven. The parts of your plan that most directly affect your top-line goals should be at the top of the list. Think about every time you have said or heard “If we only knew abc we could achieve xyz.” Now depending on the value of xyz, prioritize data collection.

Consider Time

This is what Agile is all about! With goal impact in mind communicate with relevant parties and your development team or partners to understand how long it will take to implement the code to start gathering data. Sometimes the value of data will scale to the development time, other times it may be as simple as using a Google Tag Manager click listener on calls-to-actions to send events to Google Analytics within a few minutes. Overall, its good to have some data to orient your decisions right away so go for the quick wins first and work with that as code is being implemented to get the real data gold.

Consider Cost

Unfortunately, bottom lines still exist and often development resource cost will have to be justified in implementing code to gather data. Some data collection might be cost prohibitive but it is possible that by gathering data that is easier to gather, such as standard Ecommerce implementation will give you the rationalization to get more in depth data down the road. Overall, get the valuable data that comes cheap, squeeze the life out of it until you need more depth.

Step 4: Implementation Cycle (Plan, Implement, QA)

Now, for the moment we’ve all been waiting for, let the collection begin! This is the step that most people think of when they think of Agile development; sprinting to complete a feature and then releasing it.  For Agile analytics, this works the same way. Now that there is a list of analytics “features” or streams of data that have been prioritized each step should be planned, implemented and tested successively.

Plan

This is a more detailed plan than the overall model. This plan defines how the data will be collected. For example, this is when Google Analytics Event or Custom Dimension naming conventions would be defined and documented. Be explicit. This will really improve the efficiency of the process.

Implement

Buy your development partner beer and pizza and pass your documentation on to them. Keep them happy and maintain a good relationship. There will be more implementations in the future. Hopefully, your documentation is clear but be open and responsive to questions; this is all about speed and accuracy.

Quality Assurance

This should happen in your development environment so that when the code is implemented on the site, the data that is reported is clear and accurate. Be thorough as this implementation should stay this way well into the future. If changes are to be made, be discreet, just as in implementation.

These three steps can happen simultaneously. For example, planning can happen on a future part as implementation and QA is happening on the present part.

Start Optimizing!

Agile is not simple but it’s also not magic. Speeding up the time to data-driven action is made possible by the planning that happens up front. Being proactive is not only a practice of Agile but also general best practice in analytics. It is the planning that makes agile efficiency possible. It may seem difficult, but putting in the effort to plan will put you in a position to act proactively agilely into the future.  Happy optimizing!

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