I love data. A great dashboard with useful KPIs is a thing of beauty. If you don’t have it already, take the time to define and track success metrics for your product. It can force clarity and deeper reflection of your goals.
But, don’t be data driven. Be data informed.
Use data to prove or disprove your hypotheses. Use data to calibrate your efforts and see whether you’re on the right path. Use data to define bold target goals for your product. But first, have a clear vision of what matters.
A clear vision of what you’re trying to do must always be first. Start with the people goals. What do you want users to experience? How will you add value to those users? What will matter about your work?
Then measure the right things to determine whether your work is having the right impact.
Often, the impact you want to have on people isn’t measurable, so you’ll have to use proxies. Don’t let that trap you. Don’t optimize for those proxy metrics.
I quit Facebook right after my engagement with the platform was at a peak. I quit it because my engagement with it was at its peak.
I quit Facebook a bit over a year ago. I also quit Instagram, Twitter, and other social media. Why? They weren’t designing their product in a way that met my goals. I joined those social networks to connect with people. To play a role in my friend’s lives. I had invested 10+ years on Facebook, connecting with friends and sharing photos. But, I found myself spending more time browsing. I would scroll through the news feed, click on articles, watch videos that would autoplay. I would see a friend have a life milestone that I wasn’t present for. If I had spent less time on Facebook and more time on the phone with them, I could have been there for that life milestone. Or maybe that nice person I meant to become friends with was always going to be an acquaintance and not a friend. Why was I distracted by their lives? I would come out of the app and wonder, is this helping me connect with friends or family? Am I happier?
The answer, 9 out of 10 times, was no. That’s a dismal rate of success.
Yet, I’m sure that a well-intentioned Product Manager would like my engagement metrics. “Wow, 30 minutes on the app each time he comes, engaging with lots of content, more than last month, this is fantastic.” Those proxies, time on site, engagement, etc. would say that I must be happy with the product. In reality, I was scrolling and engaging more in the hopes to fill a void that was increasing. I was seeking a deeper connection to friends, family, neighbors, people I cared about. Instead, was wasting the 30 minutes I could have spent on the phone or on video chat with one of those friends. Something that we’d both remember and would deepen our relationship in a way a “like” on a post wouldn’t.
Another problem. I thought those social networks would help me better understand the world around me. I would hear a diverse set of opinions. I had over 1500 connections on Facebook. I thought this would help me hear the diverse set of thoughts, feelings and opinions they had. But, with the 2016 election cycle I realized this was not true. I was hearing from the subset of friends whose opinions I was more likely to “like”. I was hearing less from those that I would more likely disagree with. Those that would challenge my thinking were invisible to me. I was being shown perspectives that reassured me that I lived in a world that didn’t exist.
When that realization daunted on me, it was clear that my time on those platforms was being wasted. Success, as measured by connection with others, was getting farther away. Instead, the platform offered distraction. A fake sense of connection to a reality that didn’t exist.
As measured by proxy metrics, such as time on site and interaction events on the site, I was crushing it. In fact, I remember a cute video that recapped my past 1 year on Facebook. It said that I had liked thousands of things over the past year. I did the math, I had “liked” on Facebook, on average, a few dozen things per day. That’s an outstanding number. Yet I felt emptier the more time I ‘spent’ on the platform.
I requested my Facebook account to be deleted on April 8, 2017. I first did a ‘trial’ by deactivating the account. At first, I found myself mindlessly opening the Facebook app or navigating to facebook.com on my computer. I would do the same with Instagram, Twitter, etc. It was ingrained in my brain. After a few days that habit started to die down and my mind started to open up. When I felt the need to connect, I would now send a friend a text and an invite to coffee or dinner. I called people a few times. Remember when you used to call friends? It is amazing how much you can connect with someone by hearing their voice. By sharing a few minutes with each other, even if on the phone.
The fears I had when first deactivating my account haven’t materialized. My friends didn’t forget about me. My social life didn’t get boring. Instead, meeting friends is even more interesting. We get to actually catch up. They get to tell me what they’ve been up to, without wondering if I already know it from their social media page.
I do hear less about other people. I probably haven’t heard from over 95% of my 1,800 Facebook friends. I’m happy to report that neither my life nor theirs is any worse off. I reclaimed the energy I spent “liking” those people’s posts or wondering when I would next catch up with them. I use that reclaimed energy to further my true connecting with people.
I may have emphasized in this post one product, but there are many other products guilty of this. Of optimizing for things that don’t make users better off.
When thinking about your product, start with evaluating what is it that you want your users to accomplish. How their lives will be better, truly better, by using your product. Make sure that you focus on your users’ well-being. Measure those things that will show you whether you are going in the right direction. Realize when your measurements are imperfect. Complement your measurements with a deep understanding of your user and a vision for what your product should be. Don’t let measurements distract you from the reality of your user’s experience. The impact the product is having on them.
Be informed by data. Not blindly driven by it.