Usability Critique of Google Analytics

At Elementive, we rely on Google Analytics more than any other tool (with the possible exception of Skype and Excel). So, not surprisingly, as Google has been making changes to the interface of the Google Analytics, we’ve noticed. Based on our own internal observations and the feedback we’ve gotten from clients, the new design features don’t seem to be working all that well. I thought it would be interesting to briefly critique the new Google Analytics design and offer some suggestions for how to make it better.

Issue #1: Broken Mental Models Without a Dashboard

Previously, when logging in to Google Analytics you were taken to a dashboard where you would see all of the properties you had access to. Now when you login to Google Analytics, you are automatically taken to the Audience Overview report of the property you had last accessed.

Google Analytics dashboard screen

Google Analytics dashboard screen

I understand why they made this change and it actually could be beneficial for some people who use Google Analytics. If you only have one property that you are logging in to review data for, why should you have to go through the extra steps of seeing the dashboard and selecting the only property you have access to? So, this change can improve simplicity and efficiency for some users of Google Analytics.

However, while it might save people who only need to view one property a few steps, this creates complications for people like us at Elementive where we have access to dozens of properties. Now, we have an added step of having to go from the Audience Overview report back up to the domain search box to find the correct domain. To be fair, you can still access the dashboard by clicking on the logo in the upper left corner. But that still adds an extra step.

Google Analytics domain search box

Google Analytics domain search box.

The other problem is that this design causes a behavioral shift. After years of using Google Analytics with the dashboard in place, Google Analytics has trained users to think “Oh, I’m looking at a report, I must have already selected a domain from the dashboard.” So, when you see that you are already in a report, it is easy to forget to select a different domain. That’s not the habit you have formed. This is worsened by the fact that the name of the property you are looking at is up in the far left corner separated visually from the rest of the report. So, you don’t really look up there and so don’t have an easy way of seeing where you are at.

This means it is quite simple to start digging into numbers only to later realize you pulled the numbers for the wrong Google Analytics property. This design change of loading a default property breaks the mental models that Google Analytics had previously established, which leads to a bad experience for advanced users of the platform. (Of course, advanced users of Google Analytics will eventually learn new behaviors and mental models within this new design…probably just in time for a future change to the system).

My recommended solution would be to offer users a choice. Would you like to be redirected to a specific property? For people using Google Analytics who only have one website, this is a great choice to make. But for users working with multiple websites, they could opt out and continue to see the dashboard. Alternatively, Google Analytics could simply auto-detect if people have more than one property. If they do, they could redirect to just that one property and skip the dashboard.

Issues #2: Shortcut That Aren’t Quite As Short

One of the more helpful features in Google Analytics is the ability to create shortcuts to advanced reports. Previously, Google Analytics listed your shortcuts in the sidebar menu (you can see this in the following vide). This was incredibly helpful because you could then keep all of your shortcuts open in the sidebar to quickly click between them. Now, you have to go to the Shortcuts page which lists all of your shortcuts in a table.

Here again, I understand what Google was attempting to change. By listing all of the shortcuts in the sidebar, the sidebar could become unruly. One of our clients has almost 60 shortcuts to specific reports and with all of those listed in the sidebar on Google Analytics’ old design, it could definitely appear to look visually unpleasing and rather cluttered. One of the big changes they’ve made to the new Google Analytics design is to alter the design of the navigation (see issue #3) and this change for shortcuts certainly fits within that new design style.

As well, shortcuts with longer names would cut off in the old design’s sidebar. This means you couldn’t see the full name. You can even see an example of that happening in the tip’s video above around the 58-second mark. Listing the shortcuts in a table contained on a full-size page gives you the ability to see the entire shortcut name. This also is in line with keeping the sidebar design cleaner.

Aesthetics aside, though, I’m a bit stumped on why they made this change. Not showing the shortcuts directly in the sidebar now makes accessing shortcut links far more complicated. Before if you wanted to move between two different shortcuts, they were all there in the sidebar and available to click on from any page of Google Analytics. Very often, we’d bounce from one shortcut to the next—which was easy to do when all the shortcuts were listed right there in the sidebar.

Now, to click from one shortcut to another, you have to go back to the Shortcuts page first and then find the link to another shortcut. Going back to the page adds an extra step to the process, slowing you down. Sure, shortcuts still save you the time of having to rebuild an advanced report. But the shortcut isn’t quite as effective as it was.

This is also worsened because the other change made was Shortcuts was moved under “Customization” as a secondary menu item instead of as a primary menu item. So, not only do you have to click to the Shortcut page, but you have to click Customization first before you can click to the Shortcut page. This is yet another step added to the process, reducing the overall efficiency of Google Analytics.

Shortcuts was a primary navigation item in Google Analytics’ old menu style.

Shortcuts was a primary navigation item in Google Analytics’ old menu style.

Now, shortcuts is a secondary item in the new Google Analytics’ menu.

Now, shortcuts is a secondary item in the new Google Analytics’ menu.

 

While I appreciate the attempt to declutter and simplify the navigation with the removal of the shortcut links, I think this change needs to be fully rolled back to what it had been. The advantages of keeping the shortcut links in the navigation far outweighed the design. To me, this is the classic debate between how things look and how things work. Do you value style over behavior? There are times when you should value how things look, such as in an advertisement or as part of onboarding. In this case, it seems to me that a prettier look makes it work less effectively since Shortcuts are about speeding up the process of using Google Analytics.

Issue #3: More Inefficiencies & Greater Focus From the Navigation

Previously, you could expand multiple navigation menu items in Google Analytics. In the new design, expanding one menu item collapses the other one that was just open.

In the new Google Analytics menu design, you can only have one menu item expanded at a time.

In the new Google Analytics menu design, you can only have one menu item expanded at a time.

In the old Google Analytics menu, you could have multiple menu items expanded. In this case, All Traffic and Site Content are expanded.

In the old Google Analytics menu, you could have multiple menu items expanded. In this case, All Traffic and Site Content are expanded.

 

This fits with the overall theme of nicer aesthetics in the navigation that are generally less overwhelming and confusing. But, more than aesthetics, by collapsing menus, people can stay more focused on the task at hand and better remember where they are at in Google Analytics. If you are looking at one group of reports, like say the All Traffic reports, Google Analytics’ new menu will only show you reports in that group and collapses everything else from view. This helps prevent users from getting distracted by another expanded group of links in the navigation menu.

Back to that debate of how things look versus how things work, I think this design change could actually be said to make things work better for users because it does make things simpler. It is worth noting that in screenshots we’d take of the old Google Analytics design or in videos we’d record of the old menu, we’d make sure we collapsed any menu item groups we weren’t discussing specifically for the reason of keeping it from view and reducing the distraction. If you have many different menu groups open at once, it becomes hard to remember which of those things you are working with.

But…sometimes you need many different things open at once. You want to move from one report to the next and having different navigation menus expanded to let you more quickly bounce around to different reports. Now that things collapse on you, you have an extra step. In the animated GIF above, you can see that if I wanted to move between a report under Site Content and a report under Site Speed, I’d have to click to expand that group of links first in order to do so. This extra step reduces efficiency, especially for advanced users.

It is hard to say what to do here because you have to choose between advanced users and novice users. Advanced users are comfortable with the complexity and better able to avoid confusion or distraction that comes from having many different menu groups expanded at one time. Novice users are more likely to be confused or distracted if the navigation is packed full of lots of expanded groups. Who do you choose to support—novices or advanced users?

This isn’t an easy question and one that surfaces in usability considerations repeatedly (it is even something I discussed in my book—hint, hint, buy it now!). But, to paraphrase what I said in my book, and what I’ve advised clients, is that it depends on answering a multitude of questions, like: who is more likely to use your product? who do you want your product to cater to? who are you more afraid of offending?

The new navigation menu from Google Analytics seems to indicate that they are more afraid of offending novice users and they are more interested in simplifying their product for novice users. This makes sense—they want people to use their tool. But, this decision comes at the expense of offending advanced users who now have a more inefficient navigation.

If technically possible, and if it were me, I’d see if there was a way to alter the settings for collapsing the menu so that the user has the ability to choose what they prefer. The default can be to collapse all but one menu group to best support novices, while giving advanced users a more efficient alternative.

Other Issues Abound

I’ve just called out three of the issues that are causing bigger strife at Elementive as we use Google Analytics’ new design. If you are struggling with Google Analytics design, send me an email to let me know your thoughts. If you are just struggling to figure out how to use Google Analytics, consider hiring Elementive to help you setup and configure Google Analytics for your website—we also provide training to make sure you get the most out of the tool (even when Google Analytics makes changes to the design).