Wednesday, November 01, 2006

How to Hire a Web Analyst - Part 3: Backgrounds

In this third -and last- post in this series, I look at the work and education backgrounds that I have found lead to a successful web analyst. My previous two posts looked and key skills and mindsets, as well as personalities you're likely to come across in an analyst.

Work Experience

So, what have these people been doing if they're not already web analysts? As noted previously, any job that requires crating a simple, digestible story from disparate, complex sources of information or data is good preparation for a web analyst career. I have found that individuals with experience in crafting or analyzing online user experiences bring powerful insight to the role. At the end of the day, the core function of the web analyst is to synthesize reams of complex data into succinct ideas and clearly actionable guidance to the business. Analysts with a background in usercenteredd design or usability bring a keen understanding of the user experience issues that underlie the data, and as such are rich sources of insight into how the issues uncovered in the data can be fixed.

The good analysts I have come across have work experience in the following roles:

  • Marketing Analyst
  • Database Marketing
  • Direct Response Marketing
  • User Experience Designer / Architect
  • Information Architect
  • Usability Specialist
  • Web Producer
Lastly, look for people who you think would also be good marketeers. Not marketers, but marketeers -- candidates who truly empathize with the people in the market, and are interested in how to win their loyalty.


In my experience, it's not so much important what the education of the analyst is, but rather that they are educated. I'm a firm believer that a baccalaureate is required for an analyst, or almost any professional careePossessionsion of a degree illustrates a level of commitment and discipline that is required for success in any career. More than that, though, I've never come across a good writer without a bachelor's degree. College, it turns out, is good at developing core skills even when you end up working in areas seemingly unrelated to your studies. Of course, there are lots of baccalaureates who can't write, so don't equate the degree with writing skill.

That said, I have had particularly good experiences with analysts who have degrees in psychology or sociology. People who have studied people tend to have empathy for them, and as such make good web analysts. Other educational backgrounds I've come across in successful analysts include:
  • Business
  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Liberal Arts
  • Math / Statistics
Series Conclusion

You'll note a conspicuous absence of statistics as a skill set in what I've presented here. I personally believe that statistics is not required prior to becoming a web analyst. What is required is an ability to manipulate numbers and data to uncover the story and communicate it. But I believe it is more important that the analyst have an intuitive understanding of the people behind the data, because a single data set can tell many stories, not all of them valid. Uncovering the right story means having empathy, which allows you to fill in what the data can't tell you -- why people are behaving as they are. If you hire for the right mindset, any missing technical skills -- basic statistics, Excel, data mining, web analytics tools -- can be trained.

Of course it helps if the person doing the hiring is a skilled analyst who can mentor the up-and-comers. If the person doing the hiring is not a skilled analyst, consider sending the up-and-comers through the University of British Columbia's certificate program.

I hope this series has helped you think a little bit differently about how to hire a web analyst. If you've been looking for analysts, you know that they're hard to find. In the case of web analytics, it's a luxury when you can hire someone who has the experience you're looking for. In times like these, when the demand is high, and the supply short, you have to be willing to look at ways to groom smart people into the role.

If you've faced this challenge, let me know how you approached it, and what the outcomes have been. I'm eager to hear from you.


Anonymous said...

Nice series, though I am prone to agree as I am a liberal arts writer who is a good IA/user person. I find stats a trial but once I have excelled key points into submission (and more importantly onto a graph) then the world is my oyster. I can them kinda just look at it and go - what about this bit here then? I have no idea how this happens, but I think a have a non-mathematical abstraction ability. Strangely I see this as relating to the same part of my mind that 'gets' very difficult literature (LANGUAGE poetry anyone?) without much effort. However engineers and 'real' stats people make me nervous :-) Cheers Al.

Aaron Gray said...


I think you've hit on a key point here -- there is a non-mathematical ability to abstract, or to syntesize meaning from large data-sets that is critical to developing deep understanding and telling the right story from the data.

Interestingly, I started as a lit major, then transitioned to sociology and psychology. I discovered I didn't so much like reading lit as I liked analyzing complex ideas and writing about them.

Thanks for your comments - they are very enlightening.