How You Define Success Is Hurting Your Users

Your measure of success should focus on users, not the business

Jesse Weaver
Modus
Published in
7 min readDec 9, 2019

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Photo: Frank Busch via Unsplash

TThe process of user-centered design focuses a lot of attention on finding the right problem. There are many tools and processes that can be used to suss out user needs and motivations and boil it all down into clearly defined problems to be solved. But with all these tools at our disposal, how can we still end up with less than optimal and often negative outcomes for the people we are supposed to be helping?

The issue is that our obsession with solving the correct problem frequently takes our focus away from an even more important aspect of the project. While we can’t move forward without a defined problem, the way we define success for a project actually carries more weight in the final outcome than problem statements or initial insights from user research.

Raise your hand if this has happened to you: You see an interesting headline, maybe something like, “The 10 Best Vacation Spots in Mexico.” You click the link with the hope of reading through a concise list of locations to help you get some inspiration for your next trip. But that’s not what you get. Instead, you get a page so crowded with ads it’s hard to tell where the article starts and the ads end. On top of that, you don’t even get a list of places. Instead, you get one of the list items (usually the bottom of the list) and you have to click “next” to cycle through the remaining nine items. Each time you click, the page reloads and you have to wade through a new set of ads to see the next item in the list.

This all-too-common experience is not driven by a designer who identified the wrong problem or didn’t have enough insights; it’s driven by a business-centric definition of success.

TTypically, sites that post articles like “The 10 best vacation spots in [insert exotic location]” survive on advertising money. Each time a page on that site loads, it shows a set of ads. This is called an “impression.” The more impressions a site can generate, the more revenue it collects from the ads. For this kind of business, a key metric is often page views (i.e., how many times the individual pages on a site are loaded in a given timeframe). Every new page view means more ad impressions, which means…

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