Reviewing Data Display Websites and Programs: Football Outsiders

            This is my second entry in my series of reviews of websites (and a few programs) that are good or bad examples of how to display a large amount of data. This topic is of particular interest to me, as my job involves how to take large amounts of profiling data and present it to users in a useful, quick and attractive fashion.


            My newest entry in the series is on Football Outsiders (my last entry was on the Social Security Administration’s index of popular baby names). Football Outsiders seeks to provide three things; a better set of statistics to analyze the performance of football players, better football analysis then that provided by the bobble-heads on the major networks, and a forum for football fanatics to discuss the previous two items. While the site’s look-and-feel could use some work, they score major points for the way they combine data with analysis. Like in my previous review, I’ve broken up this review into different sections, covering the major areas important to a data display website.


Interesting Information (Data)


            At dozens of major sports sites the same stale old statistics are used to evaluate football players. Football Outsiders bucks the trend by providing new, modern statistics that better evaluate what players contribute the most to their teams. The statistics can be very complex so I won’t explain them here (check here if you want to know), but they use some very neat methods, such as adjusting offensive statistics based on the quality of the defense that the opposing team has. This highlights an important point for displaying data: If you are doing something original, it’s much easier to market. You can find Curtis Martin’s total yardage this year at any one of hundreds of websites, but you can only find his VOA (Value Over Average, i.e. how much better he was then the “Average” NFL running back) at Football Outsiders.


            Complex stats, like those used by Football Outsiders, can be very intimidating, so Football Outsiders provides a brief summary of the statistics before each article. They score major point for providing the summary in plain English, and by focusing on what the statistics “mean” rather then how they are calculated. While stat-heads have the option to dive deeper into the statistics, Football Outsiders remains resolutely focused on the slightly above-average Joe who is browsing the site for interesting football info. It’s important when dealing with complicated info that you don’t fall into the trap of catering to the ten percent super-user case instead of to the ninety percent normal user case. However, you do want to have access to depth of data, to keep that ten percent super-user happy. Pictured below is one of the in-depth stat pages that the site provides.



Accessing Information (Functionality)


            On the front page of the web-site is a Slashdot style list of the current articles and related discussion threads (It pains me to even put a hyperlink to Slashdot, considering the current level of discourse on that site). The site articles consist of some general football news stories and more official analysis articles. The official analysis articles have absolutely top-notch data design. First off, as mentioned above, they provide a brief English explanation of all the stats used in the article. Secondly, they place the data charts and graphs in the article, alongside the specific paragraphs that discuss that figure. So when they show the chart for the New England Patriots’ offence, they place it in the article next to the sections discussing the Patriots’ offence. When said like that, it seems so obvious, but so many other data sites (and academic papers) put the analysis and the figures on different pages. By separating analysis and figures you force the reader to context switch, breaking up their reading flow and making harder to follow any points that you are making. Shown here is one recent analysis article to appear on the site.



            In addition to the articles, Football Outsiders provides access to the raw stats via the menu bar that is always at the top of the page. By clicking on “Just the Stats” you can pull up data-only pages for both individual statistics (grouped by position) and for team stats (grouped by offence, defense and special teams). While the stat pages can seem very complex, after reading the info page and reading a few analysis articles it will seem second nature to create your own analyses by looking at them. Also, the top five teams in several different categories are listed on the front page. Personally, I would have preferred some individual leaders also being listed one the front page, but listing teams is good for tracking which team is performing best throughout the season (and useful for betting).


Look and Feel (Sex Appeal)


            For a commercial site, Football Outsiders is very well designed with a quality layout, a minimum of distracting graphics, an emphasis on the important features and fairly unobtrusive ads. The analysis and editorial articles are front and center on the main page, and the stats can be easily access from the top menus located on every page in the website. Football Outsiders also keeps its layout consistent across all of its pages. All of the most successful websites stay consistent like this. With all of the pop-ups and misleading links in the internet today you always want users to be aware that they are still on your website. Pictured below is the front page that users see when they initially open the site. Providing a professionally looking opening page will go a long way to convincing users that the data contained on the site is well researched and relevant.



            Football Outsiders does have ads, but they are placed out of the way on the sides of the pages, one would be hard pressed to complain of them degrading the users browsing experience. As much as I like the Football Outsiders layout, there are always changes that could be made. The main graphic at the top of the page is too tall, eating up a large portion of the initial page view. Also, the search bar and the links to official team websites look funny and misaligned, stuck off on the right side of the title graphic. Listed in the “Extra Points” section, are articles listing links from outside sites (often from ESPN or Sports Illustrated) that can be discussed on Football Outsiders. While the “Extra Points” links are good, it is not intuitive that the title of the article is also the link to the outside article (it is not underlined in typical hyperlink fashion) leading to confusion, as you can’t find the outside link that everyone is discussing.


Summary (The Lowdown)


            Football Outsiders is at the apex of ad-supported, sports related websites. It provides interesting new data along with smart analysis. The articles are thoughtful, and they group the data together with the analysis that uses the data. Football Outsiders also provides simple English explanations of their complex stats, allowing football buffs to get down to analysis and to only look at the deeper methodology behind the stats if they are interested. The layout of the site lets you jump to almost anything of interest from just about any page on the site, via menu bars. Finally, the consistent design of the site helps with branding the site and providing a quality browse experience for users.


            By the end of this week I’ll have the next section of my walkthroughs on using the new profiler in Visual Studio Team System 2005 posted.

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