Real time: you probably don't need it, but you're going to have it anyway

A big buzz in web analytics for the last while has been real-time. It's one of those really cool features that everyone gets all tingly about it. But you don't need it. Seriously, you don't.

Real-time is popular because managers have a Napoleon complex. We all see ourselves as generals sitting on top of the hill, directing our minions into battle. "Send reinforcements down the left flank." War happens in real-time and important decisions need to be made based on real-time outcomes. Marketing and business don't work this way.

The geeks among us all want to feel like we're in the control room of a nuclear power plant, or the War Room from Doctor Strangelove. Those real-time graphs tickle something deep in our consciousness, make us feel like we're alive with fresh data, completely up-to-date. But it's an illusion.

If you're making decisions based on real-time data, you're probably doing it wrong and spending a lot of time spinning your wheels. You really shouldn't be wasting time implementing the kinds of changes you'd make on real-time results. It's just a waste of time. Spend time doing quality analysis of a decent length of time's data, then make a decision.

That's not to say there's absolutely no valid use cases for this stuff. I'm sure in a digital newsroom it's be great to see the results of a breaking story in real-time, tweaking headlines and allocating resources to popular stories. Tools like Chartbeat pretty much have that market nailed.

Google Analytics has a pretty half-arsed attempt at real-time. It's pretty crappy though. No conversions makes it a complete non-starter for any ecommerce business, and the design is completely wrong for the standard use case, sticking it up on a big screen hanging on the wall.

So there's plenty of reasons not to use real-time. You'll probably will end up using it anyway. The pull of a real-time dashboard is just too great. Your boss's Napoleon complex will be stroked by a Big Board dashboard. It'll raise your team's profile. There'll be people standing in front of it, mesmerized, watching the data come in. Particularly when there's a big launch.

The challenge for us analysts is to ensure we do the minimum possible, and keep the real-time data as unactionable as possible. Reducing to a bare minimum the number of "why'd that go down in the last hour" questions we waste time answering.