👋 I’m Nathan

Your metrics might be lying to you – an example from Wunderlist

We all love to see “increased engagement” from customers using the products we create, but it’s not always as clear as it might seem if the increase is positive or negative. It’s sometimes dangerous to have the singular goal to “increase usage of this feature” instead of “help customers get more done.” And even then, when our goal is 100% focused on helping the customer be a better human, we can sometimes misread the metrics we are collecting.

At Wunderlist, the notifications about recent activity feature was akin to the limit theorem: we iterated and iterated, but it always seemed like we couldn’t get to our ideal place to help customers see and understand what’s been happening in their lists. I believe we did our best, but there is one time where we thought we had improved things and it ended up we had done the opposite.

We instrumented the apps to let us know when someone clicked on the notification bell and we saw that hardly anyone was clicking on it. So we went to work: how could we help people know there is useful information in the notifications popover.

We added a red dot to indicate “hey, there’s some new stuff here.” Clicking to show the notification popover would remove the red dot (until later when there is new activity).

And our metrics for clicks on the notification bell went way up! Success.

Luckily, we dug a bit deeper into the stats and we noticed a strange occurrence: often there were two clicks from the same device in rapid succession, both clicks in less than two seconds. We assumed we had made a mistake in our apps and they were reporting the click twice. But we couldn’t reproduce this ourselves and it wasn’t reported twice every time, just often.

We realized our customers were clicking once to show the popover, then immediately again to hide it.

It turned out customers really just wanted to remove the red dot. Our metrics were lying: positive engagement with notifications wasn’t going up as we had thought. Instead, we were annoying people.

Like I typed above: we never got the notifications feature to the point we wanted and that’s OK. Some features are infinite projects, require continual investment and adjustments, and are made incrementally better over time.