How You Define Success Is Hurting Your Users
The 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.
Typically, 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 more revenue. In the eyes of the business, the more page views the site can generate, the better.
This sort of definition of success will shade every part of the decision-making process and can push people to do things that run counter to what we would expect from a user-centered design process.
If a designer creates an article layout that shows all 10 of the Mexican vacation spots in one list on a single page, it would be easy for the reader, but it will only generate a single page view. If instead, the designer creates a layout where the user has to click “next” to see each item in the list, and each click results in a new page being loaded, then someone reading that article generates 10 page views (assuming they click to see all 10 items).
With this change, the designer has now multiplied the performance of their design. For the user the resulting experience is shit, but for the company’s definition of success, the experience is excellent.
Increasing page views (or even “increasing revenue”) focuses solely on the outcomes and needs of the business. This kind of goal is a signal from the company that they don’t care what solution a team comes up with, as long as it moves the numbers. But forcing someone to load 10 pages in order to see all the items in a list is just one way to meet this measure of success. Another way to do it is to write better, more interesting articles with layouts that are more user-friendly and readable so that more people are willing to read and share.
Users have to carry an increasingly heavy burden of the decisions made to meet business-centric metrics.
One of these two design options is easier than the other. (Hint: It’s not the one where you write better content.) And when jobs and performance bonuses are on the line, easier is, well, easier, even if it means less than optimal outcomes for customers. A business-centric definition of success leaves both options on the table. And the onus is frequently on the team to determine the implications of their solutions, the company or team leader having effectively absolved themselves from establishing any guardrails or ethical guidance.
Being intentional about the way you word your definition of success can completely change the thought process for your team. In the example of our article site, what if, instead of saying we need to increase page views (or increase revenue), the company said we need to improve article quality? This shift completely flips the conversation, and we move from a business-centric thought process to a user-centered thought process. Unlike increasing page views or revenue, increasing article quality delivers actual value to the user, while still driving the same business outcome. Better articles mean more reads and more shares, which means more page views, which means more revenue.
Many of the same solutions that could be applied to “increase page views” can still be applied to this new, user-centric definition. You might even still measure this in page views, but by changing the words you use, you have actively taken certain solutions off the table and set the parameters for what is acceptable. When the goal is to improve article quality, an unreadable layout with 10 clicks to get to the end of the article no longer makes the cut.
For about seven years, I was head of product and UX for a streaming video subscription service similar to Netflix. As a monthly subscription service, our key business metric was user retention as measured by Lifetime Value (LTV). The more subscribers we could keep month over month, the more revenue we would generate from each customer, increasing their LTV. As such, “improve customer retention” became a driving mantra within the company.
As a team, we tried and suggested lots of different things to meet this definition of success. But one recurring suggestion really stuck out to me. Over the course of seven years, on at least four separate occasions, someone suggested that we remove the cancel button from our website and force customers to call our customer service line in order to cancel. Now, I’m happy to report that I was able to fight that back each time, and we never actually did it. But it kept coming up. And honestly, no one really even wanted to do it, not even the people who were suggesting it. It’s an objectively shitty thing to do. So why did we have to continually waste valuable time debating it?
The issue was that our definition of success—improve customer retention—was business-centric. Again, like the page view example, there are lots of ways you can improve subscriber retention. For a streaming video service you could:
- Add new features
- Improve existing features
- Add new content
- Make it harder for someone to cancel
All of those options fit when the goal is to improve customer retention. The business-centric definition leaves it to the team to make the determination. The metric itself doesn’t do any of the heavy lifting to narrow the options or provide ethical guardrails.
What if, instead, we had talked about it as “we need to improve customer satisfaction”? Again, this drives toward the same end state. A more satisfied subscriber will stay longer. But it changes the list of available options. Now a team could:
- Add new features
- Improve existing features
- Add new content
Making it harder for someone to cancel no longer makes the cut because it does not match the definition of success.
Talking about metrics in a user-centered way sends a clear signal about who and what is most important in what you are doing as a company. You draw an ethical line in the sand signifying that some solutions are off the table no matter how easy or viable they are. This kind of shift can have a ripple effect throughout the entire culture of a company.
Users have to carry an increasingly heavy burden of the decisions made to meet business-centric metrics. The addictive nature of social media, the impact of algorithmically driven echo chambers, the overly aggressive harvesting of our data—these are all propagated and sustained due to business-centric thinking and business-centric definitions of success. Making sure you are solving the right problem is important in a design process, but understanding the impact of the way you define success is even more critical. They say you can’t win the game unless you know how the score is being kept. As a company or a team leader, you have an opportunity to define your scorekeeping in a way that nudges your team toward better outcomes for everyone.
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