Sunday, 3 August 2014

Information is money

When people ask me what am I doing, my immediate response is IT. Even though, the answer is not very specific, it is the easiest to understand and it still helps to describe what we are doing. In fact, it doesn't matter what programming languages we use, our responsibility is to build the information system, which deliver information to end-user. Therefore, we should value information more than anyone else. However, in reality, I feel there are so much wasted information in modern information system.

In this article, I would like to discuss the opportunity to collect user behaviour and measure user happiness when building information system. I also want to share my idea on how to improve user experience based on data collected.

How important is user's behaviour information

Let begin with a story that happened in my earlier career. We need to implement an online betting system for customer, which function similarly to a stock market. In this system, there is no traditional bookmakers like William Hill. Instead, each user can people offer and accept the bets from another. Because it is a mass market with big pool of users, the rate offered is quite accurate and the commission is pretty small. However, the betting system is not our focus today. What capture my intention most is not the  technical aspect of the project, even though it is quite challenging. In stead, I feel interested with the way the system silently but legally make huge amount of profit based on the information it collected.

The system captured the bet history of every user, through that, identify top winners and top losers of each month. Based on that information, the system automatically place the bet follow the winners and against the losers. Can you imagine that you are the only person in the world who know Warren Buffett's activities in real time? Then, it should be quite simple to simulate his performance, even without his knowledge? Needless to say, this hidden feature generated profit at level of hundred thousands dollars every single day.

In the open market, information is everything and we see why the law punish insider trading or any other attempt to gain advantage of information so strictly like that. However, there is no such kind of law for online gambling activity yet and this practice is still legal. That early experience gave me a deep impression on how important is information.

Later, I have interest in applying psychology when dealing with customer. In order to persuade one person or making sale happened, one guy need to observe and understand his client. Relate what I have learnt to the information system that I built before, I feel that it is not so nice to implement a system just only serve as information provider or selling tool. Actually, we do have chance to do much better if we really want.

Website authors know the importance of user experience and they did try their best to collect user information using online survey. However, personally, I feel this approach will never work. I have never answer any survey myself. Any time I saw a popup, it doesn't matter how polite is the words or how beautiful is the design, I will just click on close button.

We should not forget that no matter how important is the user feedback, it is not the user's benefit to answer our survey. In fact, no sale person approach client to ask them to do customer experience survey, unless there is incentive to do it.

Hence, the information is still need to be collected, but in a way that user does not notice it (remember how Google silently monitor anyone using their services?)

How should we use the information?

We should not waste effort collecting information if we even don't know what to do with it. However, this is not something new. Whenever I go to a professional selling site like Amazon, I find it is quite cool that they have managed to use every single piece of information they have to push sale. One time, I went there searching for helmet, next time I saw all the items for a rider like me. They remembers every single item that users have viewed or bought and regularly offer new things based on the data they collected.

Google and Facebook also do similar things. They will try to guess what you like or care about before delivering any ads to you. The million dollars question is can we do any better than this?

I vote yes. It does not means that I do not appreciate the talent and the profession of the product teams in Amazon, Google for Facebook. However, I feel that there is still a distance between these products and an experience sale person. Let imagine there is a real person that sharing desktop view with customer, seeing every mouse-click, movement and keys entered. Given this guy can pause user for a while, so that he can think, analyse and decide what user will see next, what will he do?

It is apparently that the information we collect from user screen cannot compare to the information from a face to face communication, but we have not used up this information yet. Most of the system automatically make the guess that any product that customer clicked on is what he like. A person can do better than that. If an user open the phone in 3 seconds and immediately move to other phones, he may accidentally click on the phone rather than by intention. Moreover, if he spend more time on a phone, keep coming back to it and even open the specification, we can be very sure that this is what he is looking for.

How should we collect the information?

As mentioned above, it will never work if we interrupt users to ask questions. The right mechanism for collecting information must be observation. For all the available solution in the market, I think what is missing in the ability to measure time stamp of events and connecting individual events to form an user journey. Without connecting the dot, there will be no line, without connecting events, there will be no user journey. Without the time stamp, it will be very hard to measure user satisfaction and concern.

Capturing user actions is not very challenging provided that we are the owner of website. Google Analytic can help to capture user actions but it is a bit hard to use in our case because of the limited information that it carry (HTTP GET request). We should understand that this is the only choice that Google Analytic team have because any other kind of requests will be blocked by cross-site scripting prevention.

The better way to carry this information is through HTTP POST request, which can carry the full event object, serialized in JSON format. This is perfectly eligible as the events is sent back to the same domain. To link up the events together, it is best to assign an unique but temporary id for user. We do not need to remember or identify user, therefore, this information may not need to be stored as a persisted cookie on browser. With the temporary id, two separated visits to website by the same user will be logged to 2 different journeys. While it is not optimal, it is still offer some benefits over normal kind of tracking.

If you can persist the cookie on browser or if user login, things will bet more interesting as we can link individual journeys to one.

After this, there come the biggest and most challenging part of the system where you need to figure out one mechanism to optimize customer experiences based on his journey. Unfortunately, this part is too specific for each system that our experience and methods may not be very useful for you at all. However, in general, we can measure user satisfaction and happiness based on the time users spend at each step. We also can figure out user interest by measuring the time spend for each product. From there, please build and optimize your own analysing tool. This is a very challenging but interesting task.

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