More than Numbers

Why do apps count things so much?

Friends, followers, photos, likes, favorites, retweets, pins, repins, reblogs, checkins, watched repos, followed users, badges, views, comments, notes, shares, visits, and more.

These counts are often given unusual prominence on a person's profile. Visit your favorite social sites and notice how often numbers are central to the experience.

We know the numbers matter to the people behind the apps. They're traditionally how success is measured. They don't, however, define my success as a user of the product.

Skimming the surface

The scoreboard approach to profiles provides UI elements that change often (since anything that doesn't change is assumed to cause people to lose interest) and perhaps make the product's value obvious.

It's also a way to avoid the hard work of determining what that value really is, beyond counting things in database tables. Answering that question is difficult and time-consuming. Some products and companies are never able to answer it, but we shouldn't give up and choose the path of least resistance.

Emphasizing numbers also demeans the people who use the app. Each person has value beyond the sum of their totals, yet the design suggests otherwise. When I see a scoreboard in a social or content-driven app, I hear the company whispering to me: Please increment these numbers regularly, thanks!

The wrong incentives

Finally, the scoreboard encourages unhealthy behavior. When you expose a metric, some will be highly motivated to increase it. The balance of the ecosystem is thrown off and eventually you're trying to figure out how to limit or de-incentivize that behavior.

Let's rethink what value means for our products and the people who use them, then design experiences that reflect and encourage that value.