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ANALYZE THIS!: My favorite blogs

Some online resources to help explain the rapidly evolving world of data, technology, analytics and software.

Vijay MehrotraBy Vijay Mehrotra

A friend of mine – let’s call her Dana – stopped by my home office the other night. Dana works in sales for a business-to-business (B2B) software company that hosts its solution in the cloud, which makes them a software-as-a-service (SaaS) vendor. When I asked her how things were going at work, I thought it was a reasonably innocuous question. Instead, we ended up staying up half the night discussing how challenging it was to sell an early stage product with a sophisticated analytic engine into a competitive market.

This conversation somehow got me thinking about several disparate essays that I had recently bumped into online. The first one that came to mind was “The New Breed of B2B Buyers,” a post from Chaotic Flow, Joel York’s blog about the world of SaaS software (chaotic-flow.com). York lays out his thesis at the very top of the post: “A new species of B2B buyer has arisen that is more connected, more impatient, more elusive, more impulsive and more informed than its pre-millennium ancestors.” Reading this post, I realized that some of the problems that Dana had described were a direct result of how today’s B2B customers make buying decisions – challenges that are amplified by the speed at which detailed information spreads digitally.

I am a big fan of Chaotic Flow. Originally trained as a physicist, York is a tech industry veteran of more than two decades, most recently founder and CEO of a marketing software company called Markodojo (www.markodojo.com). When I started teaching MBA students about customer success management in the SaaS world, several friends independently referred me to Chaotic Flow, and it has proven to be a very valuable resource for me and my students.

‘Stop Letting the Data Decide’

While I have never met Joel York, blogger Niels Hoven is a personal friend of mine – but I’m objective enough to confidently say that reading his online essays about product development and data analysis (available online at http://www.nielshoven.com/) have undoubtedly made a big impact on me independently of our personal connection. With a background that includes both technical development and executive roles, Hoven regularly blogs about software, product management, design, analytics and various combinations thereof.

What are your favorite blogs and other online resources related to technology, analytics and software? Source: ThinkStock

What are your favorite blogs and other online resources related to technology, analytics and software?
Source: ThinkStock

One of his recent posts was provocatively entitled “Stop Letting the Data Decide.” Drawing largely on his extensive experience with analytics in the world of software games, this essay convincingly argues that without a broader perspective or context, making data-driven design decisions can be a dangerous proposition. Hoven points out that “most design changes have complex effects on the overall user experience. As a result, treating metrics as end goals (rather than simply as indicators of good product direction) results in unintended consequences and a degraded user experience.” He cites several examples (not only from gaming but also from other software applications) of how focusing on metrics has led to very undesirable medium- and long-term outcomes, including one about SaaS customer onboarding that reminded me of some of Dana’s company’s challenges.

This essay concludes by strongly advocating for what Hoven calls “data-informed design.” In this context, the focus of data collection and analysis is to understand current and prospective users’ goals, wants and needs – and to continually develop a stronger and more accurate intuition that drives both overall product direction and individual decisions. A key insight is that even in today’s increasingly data-rich world, those responsible for designing solutions must inevitably take “leaps of faith” that depend on continuously developing their holistic understanding and exercising personal judgment (supported by data analysis, but not subordinated to it). The uncertainty, he argues, never completely goes away.

Another favorite of mine from Hoven’s blog is entitled “Bad Bucketing: How Analytics Companies are Getting Retention Wrong.” For web and mobile applications, customer retention is a key metric that is a “standard” output from many analytics packages. However, this essay points out that “calculating even basic metrics requires you to make numerous decisions.” Hoven then painstakingly explains why the decisions that are made can have a drastic effect on how retention is calculated. To make this more concrete, he also digs into how several leading analytics packages choose to make this calculation (hint: they all do it differently). For those of us who increasingly depend on packaged software applications to provide key inputs for our analyses, this post reflects a kind of healthy skepticism that we would do well to maintain.

Willing to Take on Any Topic

Finally, I would like to introduce John D. Cook, author of one of my favorite technical blogs (www.johndcook.com/blog/). A quick scan of this blog quickly reveals that Cook clearly loves mathematics, Bayesian statistics, scientific computation and making things work in the “real world.” But what makes his blog such a joy for me is his willingness to take on any topic that catches his attention and explore it with both curiosity and rigor. His choice of subjects is both broad and unpredictable (recent posts have addressed biased random number generation, rules for generalizing rock-paper-scissors to higher dimensions, an introduction to homotopy groups of spheres, and Latin prefixes for very large numbers).

Cook is not only eclectic in his tastes but also prolific in his output (he has produced more than 2,700 blog posts over the past 10 years – nearly one per day! – while also communicating through 18 different Twitter accounts). Visiting his blog not only forces me to exercise my increasingly flaccid technical muscles but also often brings a smile to my face.

Anyway, these are some online resources that I draw on to help me understand the rapidly evolving world of data, technology, analytics and software. I would love to hear about some of your favorites as well. Please email me your suggestions (vmehrotra@usfca.edu), and I will plan to share some of them next time.

Vijay Mehrotra (vmehrotra@usfca.edu) is a professor in the Department of Business Analytics and Information Systems at the University of San Francisco’s School of Management and a longtime member of INFORMS.

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