If you have to visit a friend or family member behind bars, it won't necessarily be a pleasure, but it should be easier to arrange from now due to the application of digital analytics.

The Government Digital Service (GDS) has used its blog to flag up a new online service, developed with HM Prison Service, to book visits with those detained as guests of Her Majesty. It shows how data on people's online behaviour can be used in the development of a service, a practice which is not quite new but still unfamiliar to many organisations.

Digital analytics has been around for a few years, as online retailers, travel companies and digital publishers have harnessed data on website usage to steer them towards spending money. But it is becoming more complex as more activity moves to mobile devices – hence the emphasis on 'digital' rather than 'web' analytics – and other types of organisations look at the potential.

Jodi McDermott, director of the US-based Digital Analytics Association, likens it to what you need to fly a plane. "If you don't have a navigation system you don't really know where you're going," she says." Analytics helps you get the touchpoints across your business."

Factors differ for an e-commerce operation aiming to maximise direct sales and a publisher selling advertising; but she says that when a company looks at capturing its digital data it needs to start with its main business drivers and the key performance indicators.

"It's about understanding how they are attracting buyers to their website or application, how those users interact with the order funnel and how they convert to sales. For a company that does most of its transactional business online it will want to go about capturing that customer journey to optimise the experience the users have with its website or digital assets."

There are plenty of tools available to help companies collect the data. They range from basic services for web data such as Google Analytics, to specialised heat mapping tools – which show where activity is concentrated on web pages – such as Crazy Egg and Clicktale – up to high end enterprise and multi-platform analytics from companies such as Comscore and IBM. There are also AB testing tools to compare the user responses to different versions of a web page.

Mike Hollingbery, managing director of creative digital agency Bozboz, says these can supply information for keypoints in the funnel through which the organisation wants to guide its online customers. It requires a decision on what constitutes the core data, which depends on what the organisation wants to achieve.

"It's very important to understand the overarching business strategy," he says. "Is it an information service, or do you want someone to sign up to a recurring service they pay for, or is the objective to get an email address or credit card details?

"There are things you will need to do along the journey. For example, if you want them to sign up for an account it helps to get them to first place something in a shopping basket."

The starting point is usually the IP source of traffic to the site combined with two or three other factors, such as location and what type of device or browser has been used. This helps in beginning to segment the activity and understand customer behaviour.

It often works retrospectively, when an organisation already has a website or application in place and plans a redesign. Hollingbery says that for some industries there is market research available to inform the design, but it is more challenging in a new market and for a new site or application. He suggests that an iterative approach to building a site, going live with a view to changing it as the data comes in, can be the solution.

Digital analytics specialists are facing a challenge in the fact that it is now about more than website behaviour; which means their own customers are unsure where to concentrate their service development efforts.

"We see a big shift to multi-platform or multi-device," says Jodi McDermott. "It changes the metrics, how you have to interpret the data, and the consumptions patterns are different. For example, we see in research that you have high consumption on a local device in the morning, PC usage takes off during the day when people are in the office, and tablet usage increases in the evening.

"Also, user journeys go device to device. Is it hard to identify? Absolutely, and it's a huge issue."

It helps that many users have common log-ins to a service across their devices, but there is still much to learn about changes in consumer behaviour. This extends to how customers are using devices when they have several in each household, and they are being shared between members of a family. Then there are the familiar issues of how their behaviour relates to fraud, or the threat of it, and finding the balance in tracking users while respecting their privacy.

"That will be an ongoing discussion and we will see technologies evolve," McDermott says.

She cites retail, hotel and travel and publishing as the industries that have led the investment in digital analytics. "There's a definite correlation between the revenue stream they make in digital and the investment stream," she says, and believes the next in line could be financial services. Investment in disruptive technologies is going to create new opportunities for analytics as finance companies need to understand how their customers are using new services.

She also sees a strong case for charities to follow in their efforts to attract donors, and that the public sector should take it seriously as part of its service remit. Developing websites that make it easier for people to find information, and to fill in online forms for services, is now a central obligation.

It leads back to prison visits. The GDS blog describes how it used two significant analytics in the project. First, it recorded the number of slots requested in each booking, found the average was 1.4, and matched it against user research to redesign the layout of the on-screen slot picker. The slots were placed to the right of the screen, making it clearer for users and showing they could select up to three slots.

Secondly, it tracked the number of bookings taken by each prison in a pilot, then checked the results against how quickly they were replacing the non-digital processes. An analytics tools made the data available to the design team in near real time, helping them to monitor the pilot and understand what changes were needed.
The service has not yet been tested over the long term, but it does point towards government designing online services on evidence rather than intuition.

The trend is set to continue across public and private sectors, but it is becoming more challenging to harness data from the increasing variety of devices. Digital analytics is going to get more complex and organisations will have to move quickly to exploit it to their full advantage.