5 Questions With Marko Hurst

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1. Who are you and what do you do?
I’m Marko Hurst and I lead the analytics practice, the Web Insights Group, at Roundarch, a UX & Technology consulting firm in NYC. My goal on any given  project is to align business goals (strategy) with execution and then ensure those goals are met or exceeded through various optimization techniques using web analytics &/or business intelligence platforms. In my “spare time” I also blog about analytics @ Marko Hurst.com, work/play with artificial intelligence,  and train in mixed martial arts  (MMA).

2. Can you explain analytics to us in a way that my diverse group of readers can understand?
Sure, I hope some potential clients read your blog then as too. The practice of Web Analytics, like many things in the technology world, are both Art & Science, just heavily weighted in Science. Traditionally, web analytics is thought of and often practiced by simply the tracking of user data across a website. These would include site metrics such as Pageviews, Bounce Rates, Unique Visitors, etc.  Some of the much cooler and more useful things I  can track are:  where users actually clicked on a screen, if a user scrolled down a page and how far, based upon specific user actions I can trigger different content or screen elements to change (Visitor Segmentation), and with some work and the right tools I can (mostly) follow a user’s path from start to finish on a website.

At the end of the day the purpose of whatever data you are looking at, or ignoring, is to provide you and your business with some type of action, actionable insights, that you can use to further and better you business. For instance: Does a 98% Bounce Rate on your website mean something is wrong? First of all, looking at a single metric, Bounce Rate, as a single metric with no context or by itself is where many people get into trouble. That being said, if that 98% is on your homepage or a campaign landing page, that is a strong indication that something is probably very wrong. Yet if that number is on a Confirmation/Thank You Page where it’s a natural exit point for a user to leave your website, then it’s a good thing. What I just described is called Analysis, which requires human intervention. As opposed to having the tool regurgitate the data back out that it just took in, that Reporting. Notice the subtle yet very distinct difference. One leads you to actions you can take to improve your business, the other is a mind-numbing activity that rarely if ever provides any value.

3.You’re also working on a book I hear, can you tell me more about that?
I’d love to. I’m co-authoring a book with Lou Rosenfeld, Site Search Analytics: Conversations With Your Customers, due out in 2009, which the talk on the street has it pre-selected to be on the New York Times best Seller list (just kidding). The book takes a look at one of the most often forgotten and useful pieces of information that is available to the UX and Analytics community – your customer’s search queries. Any organization that has a searchable web site or intranet is sitting on top of hugely valuable and usually under-exploited data: logs that capture what users are searching for, how often each query was searched, and how many results each query retrieved. Search queries are gold: they are real data that show us exactly what users are searching for in their own words. This book shows you how to use search analytics to carry on a conversation with your customers: listen to and understand their needs, and improve your content, navigation and search performance to meet those needs.

The book of course teaches UX professionals, especially those without mathematics degrees, various techniques and methods of how to analyze and synthesize large data sets to improve your design, information architecture, marketing, & even functionality. It also teaches a little about how search engines work and how to design &/or work around them to produce better search results.

The other part of the book, which Lou & I find the most important aspect is what actually brought us together to write this book in the first place. We see a gap in the UX world in that very few practitioners know how to use or can even understand large data sets, in addition UX is in large part if not solely in qualitative measures and methods. The exact opposite is true for web analytics. It is nearly entirely based on quantitative measures, and most analyst while they may understand qualitative data, generally scoff at it since it’s not statistically relevant. We see a future where these worlds collide and complement each other on many levels are we’re trying to bring these practices closer together.

4. Tell us a bit about the Netflix contest you’re working on?
Two years ago today NetFlix announced a contest that will run for four years. What they want to do is improve the accuracy of predictions about how much someone is going to love a movie based on their movie preferences via their recommendation engine. The prize itself has a yearly prize of $50,000 and a $1million prize to whoever can increase their current engine by 10% or more. Two years later with nearly 40,000 different registered teams the best algorithm is still a little under 10%.

I’ve always been kind of a math junkie, so a friend of mine who’s a developer got together of course to have a go at it. Together our team is “Muay Thai Mathematics”. For a two man team that doesn’t just spend all day working at this we were doing decent in the beginning, but once the results began to get consistently higher we’ve fallen off. The fun part is that most teams are pretty open about the methods they use and will help you with to some degree of disclosure. The other and the personally more fun part is working with and developing hybrid machine learning, artificial intelligence, algorithms.

5. I hear you are also a avid muay thai fighter. Can you tell us about that? Do you think your martial arts training compliments your line of work and vice versa?
I had taken martial arts as a kid, but when I saw my first Muay Thai  (Thai Boxing) fight and was instantly hooked, it became an obsession. Fighting got into my blood and there was nothing else I wanted to do and within a year I began competing in the amateur circuit until l I joined the US Marine Corps several years later. When I got out I took up Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). I don’t compete anymore, but wherever I move I always find a studio that trains professional fighters to go “play “ with and keep in great shape. For anyone whose has never done Muay Thai before, it is not for the light of heart. It is very brutal, it punishes your body, and is simply unforgiving once you step in the ring. For those who think you can do it I encourage you to try, but by comparison my three months of Marine Corps Boot Camp was physically easy, and Marine Boot Camp is no joke.

As far as how it influences my life and work I like to describe it like this…

Western thinking is to do things in a line, i.e. very methodical, linear, and logical, we can thank the Greek philosophers for that. Asian thinking on the other hand, is to do things in a circle, i.e. understand the whole picture, see all the parts, know how they all work together in balance, and they can thank Confucius. I recognize and use both every day, it is the ability to not just think strategically & tactically, but still move seamlessly between them . My fighting style is very technical; I love to fight guys who are bigger than me, (mostly because it embarrasses them), but it’s because big guys tend to over rely on their strength I can pick apart his weaknesses and capitalize on his mistakes. The same can be said for my work, whatever the challenge, however complex the issue is, there is always a way to solve it, always a way to make it better than it was, and you should always be improving – Kaizen. I’m not Superman, so I don’t always win and I don’t always fix every client issue, but I always learn from every experience and that is something that I bring to my practice, my work, and my life every day.

For more Marko you can follow him on Twitter and his blog

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Personal MBA Challenge

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I’ve recently come across this wonderful gem of a website called Personal MBA – Do It Yourself Business Education: Mastering Business Without B-School. The theory of this website is that you don’t need a B-School ejamacation to learn the lessons and principles of strategery and leadershippery. The site is dedicated to teaching you the invaluable lessons of B-School. One of the major cornerstones of the website is the Recommended Reading List – a list of 77 books that are meant to teach you what they teach you in B-School. As you know, I’m Asian (read cheap) so the idea of spending my hard earned money on B-School rubs me the wrong way in so many ways – one of which is that it takes time away from my personal endeavors. Perhaps I’m wrong on this – I don’t doubt it since I’m not the one commanding a high 6 figure salary. Short of selling my kidney and taking out another mortgage though, I just don’t see how I would do MBA school, so this website appeals to me a lot.

So what’s covered in the reading list? Topics range from Productivity, Psychology, Communication, Production, Marketing, Sales & Negotiation, Management & Leadership, Strategy & Innovation, Finance & Analysis, and more. So my personal challenge is to try to read all of these books save the supplemental. The cool thing is I’ve kind of gotten a head start already. I’ve already read:

  • Made To Stick – by Chip and Dan Heath
  • Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini
  • The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss
  • Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston
  • Citizen Marketers by Ben McConnell & Jackie Huba

I have no real deadline as I want to read other books as well as I hear about them, but I’ll definitely be interspersing some of these in between.

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Shelfari – Your Book Collection Online

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Shelfari.com, in their own words, is a social media site focused on books. It is an online community of readers who come together to share their passion for books. To that goal, they give you various tools with which to share your love of books such as ratings, reviews, tags, friends, groups, suggestions, etc.

Shelfari was launched in 2006 by Taste Makers Inc. In 2007, Amazon.com reportedly invested $1 million in it which explains the heavy Amazon influence on the site.

This is all good and all, but I’ve tried participating in the community and making friends – by first approaching people who had similar reading interests. This seems like a no brainer, but nobody seems to want to be my friend. Perhaps I need a new profile pic? I don’t really participate in groups and other social features so most of the “social media” stuff is lost on me. What I do use Shelfari for is their visual bookshelf. When you add books to your collection, they are added to your virtual bookshelf which looks quite wonderful.

Pek's Shelfari Book Collection

The whole site is very interactive and visually pleasing. The bookshelf visualization apes a piece of Mac software called Delicious Library which lets you catalog your books, dvds, and cds. The interface of the website is very AJAXy. For example, when you add a book, you are presented with a drop down that lets you easily add the book to your wishlist, your reading list, or your collection, all in one click. They also have a widget that lets you put your Shelfari books in your blog. Here’s what that looks like:

If you do any reading and want to share your collection and reading habits online, you should check this out.

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Weekly Favorite Links

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This week’s favorite links will have an emphasis on my favorite subject matter – Rich Internet Applications or RIAs.

  • Zoomi is a virtual Amazon bookstore. All the books are organized into categories and are shelved. What’s cool about this is that it’s an AJAX application. I probably would have used Flex. If you look closely, they’ve added a subtle hint of realism by adding a shadow that the bookshelf casts on the books. Sweet.
  • Snackr is a desktop RSS ticker that runs on the Adobe AIR platform. It’s pretty slick. You can “throw” it on any edge and it will stick to that edge, resizing itself.
  • Destroy Flickr is a really cool alternative to browsing Flickr. This one is also an Adobe AIR app.
  • 72photos is a new photo hosting site. It’s got a very clean slick Web 2.0 design. I’m not sure what this has over something like Flickr, but the site is pretty cool.

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