Complete Beginner’s Guide to Analytics

March 29th, 2016
Published on
March 29th, 2016

There’s no one magic way to create an experience that will be universally and automatically loved. That’s not the goal—rather, we seek to create experiences that will intuitively work for and delight a specific target audience. Similarly, there’s no one method for measuring the success of our creations. That’s where analytics comes in.

If you can’t measure it, how will you know if it was successful?

This is the question that drives UX practitioners to collect and analyze data. Online and off, we gather data that tells us things like how many people clicked, where they navigated to, when they exited, and what they searched for. We use this analysis to gauge the effectiveness of our designs. In other words, when we see what actions people take, we see how well our designs communicated with them.

In this beginner’s guide, we’ll look at the methodologies that came together to create analytics, the daily tasks and deliverables that are part of working in analytics for UX. We will also enumerate some of the tools, conferences, and books that will help newbies get started.

What Are Analytics?

The internet has changed drastically since it’s inception, and so has user behavior. Users have shifted from typing remembered URLs into the address bar to relying on search engines to find a site for them. A user will open and skim multiple tabs, rather than devoting full attention to one page. All of this complicates the metrics of a site or application: to measure success, an analyst cannot simply measure hits on the web server. They must measure human behavior.

When gathering information, researchers employ both qualitative and quantitative methods. Qualitative data is gathered through user research: observing people to understand why they do certain things. Quantitative data is garnered through analytics: identifying what actions users take when they come to a page, and how many users take those actions.

This quantitative data allows us to measure baselines, use those baselines to inform design decisions, and then measure the success or failure of the design. While there are myriad things that we could measure, we use data in only a few ways: to describe, to diagnose, to prescribe, and to predict.

  • Descriptive analytics are similar to the counters of old. Descriptive analytics show baselines, such as how many people visit a page, click on a button, or watch a video.
  • Diagnostic analytics might use the same metrics as descriptive analytics, but with a different purpose. Diagnostic analytics help us understand what happened, and why. For example, if an online retailer is losing money, they might measure the clickthru rates of the links and exit rates of pages along the customer journey, to see where they are losing people.
  • Prescriptive analytics refers to data that informs someone of what they should do next. For example, when Google Maps collects data about traffic at rush hour, they are able to prescribe a better route for drivers. For those of us who are measuring the effectiveness of design rather than traffic, prescriptive data still identifies patterns, and can thus inform our future design decisions.
  • Predictive analytics are the final category. Predictive analytics tell us what is likely to happen in a scenario. For example, if we A/B test a new site header against our current site, that test will tell us which header is more likely to convince people to stay on the site. If the new header is more popular, we can predict that our traffic will grow if we implement the new header.

All four types of analytics use metrics, often based around Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). A KPI is a measurable action or signal that is correlated to business success. For example, retweets on Twitter don’t directly increase how much users like or know an organization. However, a marketing team may correlate their retweets to brand recognition, in which case they may use the retweets as one KPI. Ideally, an organization should have multiple KPIs for one business objective, which increase the reliability of the data.


Common Methodologies

Although analytics may seem convoluted to many designers, the basic methodologies behind the field are simple and straightforward. Essentially, the field of analytics is based on research, measurement, and analysis.


While web-based analytics is a fairly new area, research has been around for hundreds of years. Researchers exist across every field from science to marketing to anthropology, and the techniques they use directly influence the way analysts do work, and the things analysts decide to track. The work of researchers, particularly when combined with analytics, is closely analogous to the scientific method:

Researchers begin by prioritizing their goals or questions, in order to focus their attention. Once they know the goal of their project, they create a hypothesis, and test that hypothesis. Data analysts can then measure the results of the research and tests. Based on these tests, researchers and analysts may both begin to recognize outliers, or results that aren’t indicative of the greater whole, as well as patterns in the results. They then come to conclusions, and even predict future outcomes based on the patterns they identify.


When it comes down to it, most metrics help us understand how an organization or brand is growing. Marketers, entrepreneurs, and business consultants all create their own methods of measuring success. They measure numbers of users, speed of sites, amount of time spent on a page, and offline details such as the amount of money made, the number of sign ups for a new product or mailing list, or the number of purchases.

The danger for organizations who aren’t familiar with analytics is that they only measure, without prior research or future analysis. For example, a team might measure the number of people who visit the site. However, without research into how many people visited in previous days, weeks, or months, and analysis into how the two measurements compare, the measurement is a meaningless number. This is why we often refer to data tracking rather than measurement. Data tracking is ongoing measurement supported with research, with an intent of analysis.


Analysis is the process of breaking down information into smaller pieces, and examining what that information means. It’s used in mathematics, philosophy, chemistry, psychiatry, and even computer science. Without analysis, all of the information gathered in research might be measured, but it has no meaning. Analysis of information allows us to make connections. For example, you might research how people access a website, and measure the number of people who come from search engines. Analysis is then used to provide context and answer essential questions: how many people visited similar sites? How many visited your site today, compared to yesterday or last week or last year? How many came to your site from Google, vs. from Twitter?

An interesting note: “analysis” comes from the ancient Greek work ἀναλύω, which means “I unravel.” One of the earliest known uses of the word “analytics” is in the title of Aristotle’s writing, Prior Analytics, a work about deductive reasoning and the scientific method. Since we, as human beings, are naturally interested in breaking down information and understanding it logically, there is an obvious reason we find analytics so immensely valuable.

Daily Tasks and Deliverables

Data analysis is a part of many professions, from marketers to UX practitioners to data analysts. In this section, we will review some of the analytics-related tasks a UX practitioner may undertake, and the associated deliverables.

Setting Key Performance Indicators

Any time that a new initiative is launched, the analytics expert will need to identify and set up the relevant key performance indicators. These are closely related to the experience goals of a project, which is why it’s so valuable for UX practitioners to collaborate with the data analyst and understand analytics and metrics. The KPIs, as we explained above, are the measurable actions that correlate to organization or project objectives. For example, is the organization’s goal is to become a global company, one KPI might be more website views from around the world, or a certain number of sales coming from foreign countries. Ideally, each project objective should have a KPI associated with it, which will allow the team to measure the success of the project.

Optimizing Content

While we’ve been focusing mostly on the measurement side of analytics, we haven’t touched on how this impacts user experience. Analytics tell us what content or site areas need improvements—and that means that often our analytics experts are the ones who can best optimize our work. This can include understanding how Google’s search algorithms work, how to handle and improve metadata, what keywords are most likely to reach our target audience, and many more handy tricks of the trade. Before a page goes live or a campaign launches, the analytics team (or person) will want to review everything, and optimize the content so that it is most likely to succeed.

Setting up Analytics Tools

Once the KPIs have been determined, we need to add code to the relevant pages in order to track site engagement, conversions, and other metrics. Google Analytics is one of the most popular analytics tools, in large part because Google has made it very easy to add tracking code to almost any site. Sometime, development teams take on the task of analytics tracking, but more often the analytics expert will provide the dev team with the relevant code snippets required.

Monitor and Measure

Maintenance is a huge part of working with analytics. Depending on the project, an analytics expert may create reports on a daily, weekly, monthly, or bi-annual basis. For example, a social media campaign may require daily updates. However, a new product launch could take 6 months to bear fruit. Regardless of the time period, it’s in the monitoring, measuring, and reporting that an analytics expert digs into the analysis. It’s not enough to report on the KPIs; working with analytics means interpreting what the KPIs show, and creating recommendations for the UX team that reflect those interpretations.

People to Follow

Analytics in UX can be very intimidating, but these people make it more approachable. Their writing, talks, and podcasts help us all to improve our ability to analyze and use data on the web.

Annie Cushing
Annie Cushing has written, edited, marketed, optimized, pimped, and measured content. She provides practical strategies to help people use tools to analyze social media success and competitive intelligence through her blog, Annielytics, as well as her more data-oriented posts on Search Engine Land and her YouTube channel.
Avinash Kaushik
Avinash Kaushik is the co-Founder of Market Motive Inc and the Analytics Evangelist for Google. Through his blog, Occam’s Razor, and his best selling books, Web Analytics 2.0, and Web Analytics: An Hour A Day (100% of the proceeds from both books are donated to The Smile Train, Doctors Without Borders and Ekal Vidyalaya), Avinash has become recognized as an authoritative voice on how marketers, executive teams, and industry leaders can leverage data to fundamentally reinvent their digital existence.
Gary Angel
Widely considered one of the leading digital measurement experts in the world, Gary Angel currently heads the Digital Analytics Center of Excellence for Ernest & Young (EY). Gary blogs regularly, has published numerous whitepapers on advanced digital analytics practice and is a frequent speaker at industry events. He is also the author of Measuring the Digital World.
Joost de Valk
Joost de Valk is an SEO consultant and web developer. His analytics work focuses on the development side. As such, he is responsible for the Google Analytics plugin for WordPress, and runs Yoast, a company focused on SEO performance of WordPress blogs.
Luke Hay
Luke Hay is a UX Consultant and Google Analytics Trainer. He has over 15 years industry experience in all forms of website management. Luke holds a Google Analytics individual qualification, and have five years’ experience in user research and testing for a variety of different clients. He combines his qualitative and quantitative research to get a rounded picture of user experience. Luke offers user experience services and tailored Google Analytics training for individuals or groups available on his site, where he also occasionally updates a blog on measurement and metrics.
Pamela Pavliscak
Pamela collects stories about how people engage with technology. Her work is part ethnography, part data science, part behavioral psychology. She is the founder of Change Sciences, a design research firm for Fortune 500s, startups, and other smart companies that measures, among other things, emotion! She also writes on Medium, and frequently speaks at conferences about how to create better experiences using data of all shapes and sizes.

Tools of the Trade

Many different tools enable Web analysts to do their jobs. Here’s a selection of some of the most popular:

Google Analytics

Google Analytics is the self–described enterprise-class web analytics solution. What does this mean to you? Google Analytics gives you insight into your website’s traffic and marketing effectiveness through user session metrics, including bounce rate, keyword frequency, etc. It’s free, easy to set up and customize, and it works for both small and large businesses.
Learn more about Google Analytics

Moz Pro, from Moz

Moz had its start as an SEO consulting company, and it’s since grown into an organization with a selection of four tools for optimizing content and collecting and analyzing data. Moz Pro, their key search marketing tool, breaks down data using an “all-in-one set of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) research and analytics tools.” The product has a variety of pricing options, ranging from $79/month to $599/month.
Learn more about Moz Pro


ClickTale captures and records every mouse move, click, scroll, and keystroke that a visitor makes inside a webpage, and then sends this information back to the ClickTale servers. This allows ClickTale’s users to replay the session, watching how their visitors interacted with the screen.

The system is fairly sophisticated, and includes optimization opportunities and qualitative as well as quantitative data tracking. Subscriptions start at $9 for individuals and $99 for businesses, and are priced based on number of recordings.
Learn more about ClickTale


KISSmetrics is a tool that helps UX practitioners identify, understand, and improve their business metrics. The KISSmetrics software code can be pasted into any website, allowing data analysts to track user actions such as how many people access a page and where they come from, how many people leave a page, and what demographics site users have in common. It’s a more expensive program; the starter license is $200/month, basic is $700/month, and pro is $2000/month, but the value is undeniable.
Learn more about KISSmetrics

Crazy Egg

Crazy Egg’s pride and joy is their heatmapping abilities. “Show me my heatmap,” is their main call to action. Through heatmap tracking, Crazy Egg shows the number of people who click on various calls-to-action, when people scroll, and where they hover. Crazy Egg also has very low prices, starting at $9/month, and capping out at $99/month.
Learn more about Crazy Egg

Associations and Conferences

Analytics conferences bring together people from many different fields. Here are a few that explore diverse areas of data, research, analysis, and the web.

All Things Data

While not specifically UX-focused, All Things Data is a great opportunity to learn how to gather and use analytics. All Things Data’s mission is to make better business decisions through data analysis. The speakers are professionals from well-known companies, and they provide attendees with actionable information to fuel company growth.

More information available at:

Data Science Conference

This conference is for business analytics professionals working in data science, big data, data mining, machine learning, artificial intelligence, or predictive modeling. There are no vendors, sponsors, or recruiters allowed, so it’s a particularly great event for networking and discussing work without any fear of being interrupted!

More information available at:

IoT Data Analytics & Visualizations

This event is dedicated to data visualization and analytics, specifically for the Internet of Things. It’s free for CIO’s and CDO’s, though everyone is welcome. The conference includes a lot of case studies from companies who use data visualization and analytics to improve ROI and improve value from the IoT.

More information available at:

Global Big Data Conferences

The Global Big Data Conference team hosts a number of different analytics-focused conferences. All conferences discuss different aspects of data management and uses of data analytics. They recognize the competitive advantage available for business that use data analytics to improve their market position, audience targeting, and make other business decisions.

More information available at:

Web Analytics Books

These books are a great place to get started in web analytics. In addition, there’s a lot to be learned from blogs by groups and people like Google Analytics, Occam’s Razor (Avinash Kaushik), and Moz.

Web Analytics 2.0
Web Analytics 2.0
Avinash Kaushik
Written by web analytics thought leader Avinash Kaushik, Web Analytics 2.0:The Art of Online Accountability and Science of Customer Centricity provides specific recommendations for creating an actionable strategy, applying analytical techniques correctly, solving challenges such as measuring social media and multichannel campaigns, achieving optimal success by leveraging experimentation, and employing tactics for truly listening to customers.
Advanced Web Metrics with Google Analytics
Advanced Web Metrics with Google Analytics
Brian Clifton
This book teaches readers how to use Google Analytics’ many features to best advantage. The details and advice in Advanced Web Metrics with Google Analytics is designed to help readers implement new methods and concepts, track social and mobile visitors, use multi-channel funnel reporting features, understand which filters to use, and much more.
Lean Analytics
Lean Analytics
Alistair Croll and Benjamin Yoskovitz
Designed for startup founders and entrepreneurs as well as “intrapreneurs” trying to provoke change from within, this book shows readers how to validate ideas, find the right customers, decide what to build, monetize, and spread the word. Lean Analytics includes more than thirty case studies and insights from over a hundred business experts.
Ask, Measure, Learn
Ask, Measure, Learn
Lutz Finger and Soumitra Dutta
This non-technical guide shows readers how to extract significant business value from big data with Ask-Measure-Learn, a system that helps us ask the right questions, measure the right data, and then learn from the results. Authors Lutz Finger and Soumitra Dutta originally devised this system to help governments and NGOs sift through volumes of data. However, the system can apply to social media analytics for marketing, sales, public relations, and customer management.
The Human Face of Big Data
The Human Face of Big Data
Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt
This book of photographs and essays captures the ways in which big data and analytics impact business, academia, government, healthcare, and everyday life. Unlike the other books listed, this is inspirational rather than directly educational. Compiled by Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt, co-founders of Against All Odds Productions, The Human Face of Big Data literally adds a sense of humanity to the process of data collection.