Forget numbers; focus on people

Originally written on April 2, 2014

In my role as a developer, I'm often asked to provide analytics on current product offerings; daily, weekly, monthly, and even hourly reports that better show what kind of audience the company is attracting and maintaining. Which is all well and good—analytics can support a decision to pivot to another product offering, or drop support for an outdated and underrepresented subset of users. But I've noticed that some companies get so caught up in analytics, so enamoured with measuring success, that they forget why they're in business in the first place—to provide a service to people. If a company isn't careful, following trends in analytics—shooting for that lowest-possible bounce rate, higher conversion or tip-top search engine ranking—can lead to a very reactive business. One that struggles to maintain a cohesive voice in the face of unanticipated changes. One that chases trends instead of setting them.

This trend reminds me of the ever-increasing emphasis on high school standardized testing. Teacher roles have been reduced to preparing an entire student body for a test that will take two days instead of focusing on individual learning styles and out-of-the-box thinking. Because the numbers of a school district are what ultimately matter there, not individual children in a classroom. In that same way, businesses become laser focused on optimizing for a search engine instead of paying attention to the actual user's experience.

A better example that hits closer to the world of developers: popup newsletter subscription boxes. I'm sure you are familiar with them. Reminiscent of the popup ads of the early internet, they interfere with the website you intended to visit, forcing you to close the dialog or fill out a form to remove it from your field of vision. They're awful, and I have yet to meet a person that enjoys seeing them. Yet some studies show that these modal dialog boxes increase conversion rates. As a result, it's one of the first things marketers reach for to increase their audience, resulting in a more cluttered, less user-friendly web. But these dialogs don't focus on providing an actual service; they only pander to a marketing department's conversion rate.

My advice? Use the numbers, but don't let them define you. Focus on providing the best service you can. Focus on making people satisfied with your project. Conversion rates and analytics should reflect that focus, not drive it.