December 22, 2020

The Ethics of Analytics

Google might be the go-to, but there is a better options for tracking visitors.

Privacy is a right.


As someone who has always valued a life that could be described as private by today's idea of the term - I don't post selfies and only use one social media service to stay in touch with friends - I value that the companies that I work with and purchase products from understand this idea. Privacy is not something that should casually be clicked away in a popup window.

When I first began work as a UX designer, this was a conundrum that I knew I would have to do battle with. The majority of my ability to do this job well is based around analytical data. This data is, most often, collected through the use of cookies that run in the background. The user, in other words, is not voluntarily handing this information over in the form of an interview or survey.

It could be argued that the lack of discretion on the user's end is to blame; after all, they clicked that popup window away without a second thought. We've all done it, there's little harm in it, and it ultimately allows people like me to make the internet a more user-friendly place. This is the argument taken up by many UX designers and, truly, I understand where they are coming from. It's a valid argument.

But that isn't good enough for me. In a time as ripe with social change as 2020, for me to standby and argue that abusing the privacy of others is okay because of a negative-approval - they didn't say no - feels almost sickly wrong. Add to this the fact that the majority of data is useless clutter, and you begin to arrive at a place where something needs to change.

Going forward with my design practice, I have made the decision to strictly collect data using pure voluntary sources such as interviews and surveys. When it comes to tracking data on websites, I have found a middle ground that I think works for me. This middle ground arrived in the form of Fathom.

Fathom's headline copy is a perfect example of clarity, so I will let them speak for themselves here:

Fathom is a simple, light-weight, privacy-first alternative to Google Analytics. So, stop scrolling through pages of reports and collecting gobs of personal data about your visitors, both of which you probably don’t need. Our website stats show up on a single, blazingly fast dashboard so you can make business decisions quickly.

For someone in my shoes, Fathom provides the perfect level of respect - it allows me to do my job successfully, without putting my conscience at risk. For the majority of my clients, Fathom and a heat map will be more than enough data to make design improves that help them grow their businesses. The simple fact is that Google Analytics provides more than we need, at the cost of the privacy of our visitors. It's excessive, and useless.

Even Fast Company felt the need to comment on the issue, saying that Google has developed a "reputation as an opaque, data-hungry goliath." The privacy argument isn't going anywhere. It's up to you if you choose to be ahead of the tide or against it.

I have nothing against marketing. Nor do I have a particular gripe with big-tech.

However, I do believe that there is a point at which explicit consent is required, and we passed that point long ago. Offering users of websites and digital products a checkbox filled with corporate talk that they don't understand is no different than a shady lawyer handing you a contract and saying "sign this."

Cookies are the contract and that lawyer is big tech.

As a designer who values the ideal of privacy as the norm, it's my job to help my clients understand why this idea is not only forward thinking and morally appropriate - it's good for business.

You can read more about Fathom here.