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Numbers are dangerous

If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there, does it make a sound? If a tweet is sent and nobody can see the number of likes was it still worthwhile?

When people launch new products, they often focus on vanity metrics: How many eyeballs do we have? How many followers do we have? What’s our Klout score? They desire to quantify every interaction.

Part of this is the human desire to seek rewards. The hit of dopamine given for our effort. The bigger the metrics the bigger the hit, and greater the urge to do it again. We soon however get into a cycle of complacency. 10 ‘likes’ is no longer enough, then 20, then 50.Your post was worthless if you didn’t get 100 ‘likes’.

I’m guilty of this myself. When I publish a new article I spend the next few hours desperately refreshing the stats page.1 like…5 likes…10 likes…I had 20 likes by this point on my last post…What a waste of my time…

I’m no longer happy with just the process of creating. I now focus my happiness on a number that the product designers probably added with little thought. I serve at the pleasure of the metrics.

Did anyone ever bother to stop and think how displaying these numbers would affect the way that people use a service? What would a world look like without vanity metrics? Would I still get the satisfaction if I didn’t know how many people liked it?

Imagine for a moment if Twitter didn’t plaster its UI with counts. No number of followers. No number of retweets. No like count. Nothing.

If you didn’t know 15k other people retweeted something in your feed — how would this affect your behavior? Do the number of retweets signify influence and your perception of the tweet’s trustworthiness? Would you still retweet it?

Is it more difficult to tweet and get started with Twitter when you see that you have 0 followers, 0 retweets, and 0 likes every time you tweet?

Would you post a different picture if you weren’t trying to get the most likes? Would you tell a different story? Would you still check-in at the airport?

What if you could see your numbers, but you couldn’t see anyone else’s numbers? You could see you have 100 followers but not that @tomhanks has almost 13 million. Would that change how you use the platform? Suddenly, from the outside at least, all voices are equal. The game of getting more followers and these other vanity metrics would stop.

Would you treat a DM from somebody with 5 followers the same as somebody with 50k?

While it’s tempting to add numbers and counts to quantify everything in our products, doing so can have adverse and unintended consequences. Instead of allowing for creative freedom, people censor themselves to better play the game.

A single number can change your whole outlook.

So before you add that count to your design, ask yourself: does it provide information which is directly actionable for my users? If the answer yes, add it in, but if not, leave it out and see, maybe people will use your product totally differently.

—jvd