I love data. A great dashboard with useful KPIs is beautiful and useful. If you haven’t yet, take the time to define and track success metrics for your product. It forces clarity and reflection of your goals.
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 goals for your product. But first, have a clear vision of what matters. Don’t lose sight of that vision.
A big pitfall is when we use easily measurable things, such as time on site or content engagement, to determine product success. It is tempting to do that since (1) it correlates with business value and (2) you can argue that it correlates with user satisfaction and value. While this can sometimes be true and work well, it can backfire as your product evolves.
I will use my experience with Facebook as a way to dive deeper into this.
Quitting Facebook while at a high
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 were optimizing their system to bring me back to their app and use it for longer periods of time and much more often.
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. Scrolling through the news feed. Clicking on articles. Watching videos that would autoplay on my news feed.
I would then see a friend’s update about a life milestone that I wasn’t present for.
I wondered, had I spent less time on Facebook and more time on the phone with that friend, would I have been present for that life milestone? Or maybe, just maybe, I meant to become friends with that person but they are really an acquaintance.
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.
The metrics trap
While Facebook had a mission to connect people, over time they started to optimize for behaviors that were driving their business success.
Well-intentioned Product Managers probably liked my engagement metrics. More time on the app, more engagement with news feed items, etc. These metrics would say that I must be happy with the product. However, while making me spend more time on site would always be better for their advertising revenue, after a certain threshold it is clear that spending more time on the site would be neutral to negative for my well-being. Also, the ‘what’ I did on the product matters.
I was spending more time on the site with an implicit goal of creating deeper connection with friends, family, neighbors, people I cared about. Instead, I was wasting the 30 minutes I could have spent on the phone or on video chat with one of those friends scrolling through a news feed increasingly cluttered with articles and videos.
I justified this as a way to understand other people better based on what they were sharing (articles, videos, etc.) I thought that those social networks would help me better understand the world around me. I had over 1800 connections on Facebook. I thought this would help me hear the diverse set of thoughts, feelings and opinions they had.
But, 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 with the 2016 election cycle, it was clear that my time on those platforms was being wasted. Success, as measured by feeling connected with others, was further away. Instead, the platform offered distraction. A fake sense of connection to a reality that didn’t exist.
Where did things go wrong?
Success as measured by metrics such as time on site and interaction events on the site, distracted the product from its mission. Those things that drive the businesses’ success through more advertising revenue were making it harder for me as a user to actually fulfill my desire to connect. Yet, I’m certain that many designers, engineers and product managers were running tests on the platform to increase those business metrics without questioning the long-term impact it would have on my satisfaction with the product.
Another way to view it, they didn’t question whether more and more engagement and time on site could be turning into too much of a good thing.
In fact, I remember a video Facebook created recapping my past 1 year. 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 wasted on the platform.
Was I wrong to quit Facebook?
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. 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. Calling, on the phone, can still be a thing. It is amazing how much you can connect with someone by hearing their voice.
My friends didn’t forget about me. My social life didn’t get boring. In fact, now catching up with a friend is more special. We take the time to talk to each other about our lives without assuming the other person saw updates we generically posted for hundreds of people to see.
I hear less from many people. I probably haven’t heard from over 95% of my 1,800 Facebook friends. But, 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.
User vs. Business Goals
Whatever you do, remain focused on the user. Question your metrics and reassess what and how you measure them.
I may have emphasized in this post one product, but there are many other products guilty of this issue. Of optimizing for things that don’t add value to the user’s life or connect to the mission. Of forgetting to question whether the metric is still sufficient to determine whether users are happy. Watch users and see if behavior has changed to the point in which you need new measurements.
When thinking about your product, always remember to evaluate how it is that you’re adding value to your users. Be extremely careful when adding a new feature that will help you drive business objectives, but dilutes the value users get from their time spent on your product. Find ways to measure and focus on your users’ well-being.
Whatever you do, question your metrics and measurements. Don’t let them distract you from the reality of your user’s experience and the impact the product is having on them.
Be informed by data. Not driven by it.