There are two extremes in tracking how users view products.
At the other end is the idea that your business should ultimately be private, so companies don’t actively monitor product usage.
At the other extreme is an approach that controls all the actions you take on the product.
Between? It’s a gray area.
As a software company, I see the appeal of knowing which product features users actually use or which feature version is easier to understand. In addition to the fact that data can be misinterpreted, there is also the problem of how to collect usage data while respecting user privacy.
Basic inspection – mostly harmless?
Most companies want to know how many users their system or product has – for statistical or financial purposes, for example, when entering into contracts with partners.
For a server-side product such as a webmail service, calculating accounts (perhaps checking to see if they are active) is usually sufficient.
However, it is more difficult to count users of products that users download and install. You can simply calculate the downloads and hope it matches the number of installations. But this paints the wrong picture, as users can install software through third-party channels or enterprise software distribution, or – can never really use it again after installation.
For more real results, it may be necessary to count users by asking installations to notify the vendor when they are installed or in progress. This requires some form of authentication so that reinstallations are not counted as new users and to ensure that repeated use of the application does not increase the number of users. To identify an individual installation, an identifier must be retained in the user profile that distinguishes them from other users. This ID is then sent as part of the notification to the supplier.
All this allows the installation to be tied to the user. The supplier can see how often you use the product, change your IP address, travel to other countries, run the software daily or weekly.
This is all very useful for a vendor who wants to know how their software is used and where the users are from, but it immediately attacks your privacy and the privacy of all users who just want to use the software without sharing their personal business.
When you agree to send back installation statistics, do you fully understand the implications for privacy? Do you understand that just by letting yourself count, you are giving the company a chance to see other details as well? Because this invasion of privacy did not suit us, we developed the system counting users which maintains your privacy.
How feature tracking begins
It is usually in the interest of the company to know what development resources are being used for. Producing and maintaining new features takes time. Use recent feature? Should it be repositioned so that more users can find it? Does adding one feature cause less than others? Does one language version perform better than others?
The feature usage monitor simply sends a Ping – minimal message “feature used”. This can be anonymized or attached to a username. In either case, the server receiving the message can see that the user from that IP address was using that feature.
Progress is not always progress
Performance tracking can quickly become an approach to driving development. Now that developers can see if you’re using the feature, they may want to see exactly how you’re using it.
This can be done with laboratory-type tests, using target groups. However, it can be expensive and does not always describe how it is used in the real world. So some companies are moving to feature tracking.
It can get very detailed, timing how fast you can get through a particular section, checking what buttons you press, checking how you move the mouse, or whether you use a touch screen or keyboard for navigation.
As huge tracking and profiling information increases, it is collected in a user profile database. This is usually anonymized to a certain extent; it is not stored with the user account associated with it, but each profile is a digital representation of a real person. It may be possible to link a profile to that person depending on whether the system links it to a specific user account. If the information were disclosed, someone with access to other behavioral information may be able to associate the profile with the actual person.
This information collected is a valuable asset that can be sold to other companies or advertising agencies as “big data”. For some companies, it will become a significant source of revenue, while for others, user privacy will remain a priority.
The fact is, however, that corporate cultures can change over time. One day, even innocently collected feature usage data can suddenly be seen as an economic goldmine. Frames built to improve products are now becoming a disk of money that invades privacy, breaking the confidence of users who agreed to follow up to improve the products they use.
As a company grows, it may be more difficult to maintain a line between tracking an acceptable feature and tracking unacceptable user behavior. Perhaps staff who follow the original spirit will no longer work on the product. Newer staff may not understand the boundaries they cross. They may not feel that it is wrong to see how fast the user moves the mouse toward the button or whether it correlates with whether the user has selected the high contrast mode – there is a substantial leak of information that the user is likely to have a physical disability.
More companies should just say no
This is one reason Vivaldi downright refuses collect such statistics. It’s easy to prevent data collection from increasing privacy and ensure that data can never be leaked or compromised unless it is ever collected first. In our experience, it is also much easier to gain and maintain your trust.
Even in cases where server-side services collect as little information as possible for debugging, such as HTTP access logs, companies can and should delete this information as soon as it is no longer needed. This prevents it from becoming a repository of statistical data that is ripe for data mining if the corporate culture changes. Companies must also clearly document the purpose of this collection in their privacy policies so that you are informed and you can be assured that nothing will be retained for future use.
Data protection regulations and ethics
Perhaps tracking traits may not sound very threatening, but in many cases, the resulting behavioral profiles can reveal personality traits and possibly even illnesses.
Unless you have specifically enrolled in a behavioral profiling study, you may not understand how much information has been gathered about the use of the product.
The provisions may not go far enough to protect you from anonymous data collection. Because legal systems respond slowly to a constantly evolving privacy risk situation, most countries do not have adequate protection for user data. GDPR has only recently established itself in the EU, but other countries are still working on their counterparts.
While we assume that the vendor is always trustworthy, the storage of user information must be done in such a way that in the event of a compromised server, it will not fall into untrusted hands.
Listening to users
With all of this feature tracking, it can be too easy for companies to rely on statistics to drive development instead of doing the most important thing: listening to users. Users are the lifeblood of the industry. They are people, real people who want a product that doesn’t show up in the stats. You may have wanted to use the feature, but you couldn’t find it. Making it easier to find would be the right way to go, but instead – looking at the small usage statistics – the unused feature is pulled, which can hurt good will – and good word of mouth.
While direct user feedback can often be negative – people complain much faster than they offer praise for a positive experience – we believe it’s important to be involved, to listen to you and all of our users. In addition to potential product development channels, we see this as an important part of community building.
Vivaldi sees you as a person and not as a statistic. We want to interact with you on hospitality occasions Community, and does not attach to numbers. If more companies follow Vivaldi’s way of communicating and listening to users and not following them, privacy will be better respected and protected – and products and services will improve their overall user experience.
What is tracking your feature? Something you take for granted? Something you hate? Something you haven’t really thought much about? Have your say in the comments! 👇