I can’t make sense of website analytics at all. When I go to my personal blog, I want to just blog, not pore over dials and meters like a Con Ed repairman. Which made me curious about Ghost, a new open-source platform expressly designed as, as the creators put it, “just a blogging platform.” It’s pretty darn gorgeous. And right there in the middle of their pitch is their so-called “revolutionary” analytics dashboard, which also looks great: it’s flat (in 2013, you gotta be flat, yo), it’s got great typography, it’s got Feltron-esque infographics.
But is it even necessary?
I admit that I’m not a great bellwether for judging what analytics UIs should or shouldn’t offer. But Ghost’s dashboard did remind me of something I read earlier this year by Anil Dash, who is qualified to hold court on the do’s and don’ts of analytics. His opinion? A “revolutionary” dashboard and a ho-hum dashboard are equally useless–because dashboards are a crappy way of displaying analytics to begin with. Instead, he argues, dashboards should be feeds.
What that means is that instead of looking at a big board of numbers and graphs, mentally parsing and integrating them vis-a-vis performance metrics, and then making decisions about what to do about it, it’s faster and simpler to get analytics information as succinct Twitter-style “status updates” in a reverse-chronological river–i.e., a feed. Instead of visualizing analytics data, he suggests it should be verbalized: the software just tells you what’s happening in context, instead of asking you to discern what’s happening (and the context) by interpreting numbers and graphs.
To put it another way: A dashboard shows you a weather map; a feed says, “It’s going to rain in 5 minutes.”
I don’t know whether Dash’s anti-dashboard argument is realistic for managing the content-related activities of large organizations, but it seems pretty convincing for someone using a system like Ghost. Why? Because dashboards assume that you want to interface with them, manage them, interpret them–when really what you’re using the software for is something else completely: “blogging.” After all, what are analytics for, really? Not just monitoring them for the sake of monitoring them–but for extracting insight to act upon, when necessary. “I know [dashboards] demo well and look great in investor pitch decks or screencast videos,” Dash writes, “but they don’t actually help me make decisions, or get better at what I’m doing.”
I’m not saying Ghost’s creators are morons for putting a dashboard into their platform. It’s a de rigueur feature. I’m just wondering what they might have done instead that would actually be as “revolutionary” as they claim. The founder says himself in his demo video that blogging software hasn’t changed much in the past decade. He’s right! Dash’s analytics-as-feeds idea is just one way of rethinking what analytics do for us, and how, and (most importantly) why. I’m sure there are others. Ghost is open-source, so maybe someone will fork it to experiment further with (or without) the dashboard soon.