Media Art, User Experience Design, and Interface Development

Of tracking and creative development

Posted on 2011-03-28

A graph with a spike

As creative developers, we need to be familiar with the concept of tracking. For those of you who are not familiar with the idea, tracking is a way of recording the user’s interaction with a website, an installation, a game, or any other interactive piece. For example, you’ll notice that I sometimes refer searches people did to end up on my site or what is the most popular post. I can get all that information via tracking.

The purpose

The data obtained from tracking can be used for different purposes. In theory, the strategist should meet with the information architect in the beginning of a project to share the learnings obtained from previous projects. Afterwards, the information architect adapts or corrects wireframes accordingly.

Let’s think of a share button on a microsite. If an agency implements a share button, but said button is not used at all in any of it’s sites, the strategist could then decide that the share button is either useless, then ask for it’s removal. Also, it could mean that it is not either visible enough or in a proper location, that would then be a job for the information architect to rethink where that button should be placed in the site.

Tracking useless data: achievements?

That does mean however that when creating a tracking plan, a strategist might have to be careful to track every of the user’s actions, useless data might serve no purpose. But in other contexts, such as games, tracking all sorts of useless things might serve a purpose: achievements.

Many people who are familiar with games know that there are tons of things tracked in there, and since their creation. Asteroid’s rocks, Pac-Man pellets and fruits, Donkey Kong’s barrels, Super Mario’s coins. All those things were tracked in order to present a high score. Pretty basic, and a bit boring by today’s standards.

Bubble Bobble, an old arcade game, had a lot of undisclosed tracking that affected how power-ups and points were attributed to the player.

Bubble Bobble screenshot
Bubble Bobble screenshot

Probably the most mysterious is the formula that determines when special items appear. Most players believe it to be random, but actually they’re all directly determined by the player’s actions. The game maintains counts of a large array of trivia, like bubbles popped, times jumped, water bubbles burst, and times wrapped around the screen. When a counter exceeds a threshold value, a flag is set scheduling the item to be generated in an upcoming level.

Gamasutra – Game Design Essentials: 20 Mysterious Games

More recently, online gaming has allowed tracking results to be used as bragging rights in between gamers. Services like XBOX Live, Playstation Network and the recent Apple GameCenter all allow their players to track seemingly useless data and post it on a more developed online high score board.

A recent game went from indie to fame, Super Meat Boy. That game tracks the attempts of the player to succeed at passing the current level, and at the end of the level, presents a funny replay of all the attempts at the same time.

Tracking tools

There are multiple ways to track user interactions. As I have not worked in gaming, I can only mention those about websites, but the idea is mostly the same.

Google offers an easy to use free service, Google Analytics. Enterprises oftentimes go with professional companies that offer tracking services, such as CoreMetrics. Even Bitly, the URL shortener service, offers some tracking.

Those who ever worked with banners—ugh, I hate these things—know of something called the ClickTag. If you don’t know what it really is or never cared to look it up, let me spell it out for you: it’s a tracking tag. Yup! Those ad servers hosting the banners track the amount of clicks on those banners. I mean, it’s important to the advertiser to know if the banner is successful. And just so you know, a banner click rate (views vs. clicks) is oftentimes less than 1%… Sometimes, they go as far as using heat maps to know what attracts the user to hover over or click on said banner.

Try tracking tools as much as you can, it is an important skillset to have.

Why should you care?

Well, you may not have to, it all depends on what you want to do. But like in anything, it’s good to know how it works and how it affects you and your work.

If you aim to know programming in all its nook and crannies, if you like to optimize the hell out of your code and do not care about the rest of the project lifecycle, tracking will just be an annoying request from your project manager to add some lines of code in your project.

However, if you care about how the project got to what it is, if you care about the user interface and experience, you need to work with a strategist and an information architect before the project is started, and also afterwards once the project is complete to see what are the lessons learned. It is a great way to move forward in the world of development.

Further reading

There are obviously a lot of people writing about SEO, strategy and interaction design. Here are a couple blogs that I find relevant:

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