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How to Design Better Metrics. 9 best practices from leading companies… | by Torsten Walbaum | Jun, 2024

You typically cannot directly measure the exact thing you care about.

Let’s say my goal was to measure the quality of my newsletter posts; how do I do that? “Quality” is subjective and there is no generally-accepted formula for assessing it. As a result, I have to choose the best (or least bad) proxy for my goal that I am actually able to measure. In this example, I could use open rate, likes etc. as proxies for quality.

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This is closely related to what people often called the “relevance” of the metric: Does it create value for the business if you improve the metric? If not, then why measure it?

For example, let’s say you work at Uber and want to understand if your supply side is healthy. You might think that the number of drivers on the platform, or the time they spend online on the app, is a good measure.

These metrics are not terrible, but they don’t really tell you if your supply side is actually healthy (i.e. sufficient to fulfill demand). It could be that demand is outpacing driver growth, or that most of the demand growth is during the mornings, but supply is growing mostly in the afternoons.

A better metric would be one that combines supply and demand; e.g. the number of times riders open the app and there is no driver available.

People love fancy metrics; after all, complex analytics is what you pay the data team for, right? But complicated metrics are dangerous for a few reasons:

🤔 They are difficult to understand. If you don’t understand exactly how a metric is calculated, you don’t know how to interpret its movements or how to influence it.🧑‍🔬 They force a centralization of analytics. Often, Data Science is the only team that can calculate complex metrics. This takes away the ability of other teams to do decentralized analytics.⚠️ They are prone to errors. Complex metrics often require inputs from multiple teams; I lost count of the number of times I found errors because one of the many upstream inputs was broken. To make things worse, since only a handful of people in the company can calculate these metrics, there is very little peer review and errors often go unnoticed for long periods of time.🔮 They often involve projections. Many complex metrics rely on projections (e.g. projecting out cohort performance based on past data). These projections are often inaccurate and change over time as new data comes in, causing confusion.

Take LTV:CAC for example:

Apart from the fact that it’s not the best metric for the job it’s supposed to do, it’s also dangerous because it’s complicated to calculate. The numerator, CAC, requires you to aggregate various costs across Marketing and Sales on a cohort basis, while the denominator, LTV, is a projection of various factors including retention, upsell etc..

These kinds of metrics are the ones where you realize after two years that there was an issue in the methodology and you looked at “wrong” data the whole time.

If you want to manage the business to a metric on an ongoing basis, it needs to be responsive. If a metric is lagging, i.e. it takes weeks or months for changes to impact the metric, then you will not have a feedback loop that allows you to make continuous improvements.

You might be tempted to address this problem by forecasting the impact of changes rather than waiting for them to show up in the metrics, but that’s often ill-advised (see principle #2 above).

Of course, lagging metrics like revenue are important to keep track of (esp. for Finance or leadership), but most teams should be spending most of their time looking at leading indicators.

One you choose a metric and hold people accountable to improving that metric, they will find the most efficient ways to do so. Often, that leads to unintended outcomes. Here’s an example:

Facebook wants to show relevant content to users to increase the time they spend on the siteSince “relevance” is hard to measure, they use engagement metrics as a proxy (likes, comments etc.)Publishers and creators realize how the algorithm works and find psychologically manipulative ways to increase engagement ➡ Click Bait and Rage Bait are born

“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

— Goodhart’s Law

In the example above, Facebook might be fine with the deterioration in quality as long as users continue spending time on the platform. But in many cases, if metrics are gamed at scale, it can cause serious damage.

Let’s say you are offering a referral bonus where users get rewarded for referred signups. What will most likely happen? People will attempt to create dozens of fake accounts to claim the bonus. A better referral metric would require a minimum transaction amount on the platform (e.g. $25) to get the bonus.

So one way to prevent manipulation is by designing the metric to restrict the unwanted behavior that you anticipate. Another approach is to pair metrics. This approach was introduced by Andy Grove in his book “High Output Management”:

“So because indicators direct one’s activities, you should guard against overreacting. This you can do by pairing indicators, so that together both effect and counter-effect are measured.”

— Andy Grove, “High Output Management”

What does that look like in practice? If you only incentivize your customer support agents on “time to first response” because you want customers to get immediate help, they will simply respond with a generic message to every new ticket. But if you couple it with a target for ticket resolution time (or customer satisfaction), you are ensuring that agents actually focus on solving customers’ problems faster.

Many popular metrics you’ll find in Tech companies are tied to a threshold.

For example:

# of users with at least 5 connections# of videos > 1,000 views

This makes sense; often, taking an action in itself is not a very valuable signal and you need to set a threshold to make the metric meaningful. Somebody watching the majority of a video is very different from somebody just clicking on it.

BUT: The threshold should not be arbitrary.

Don’t choose “1,000 views” because it’s a nice, round number; the threshold should be grounded in data. Do videos with 1,000 views get higher click-through rates afterwards? Or result in more follow-on content produced? Higher creator retention?

For example, Twitch measures how many users watch a stream for at least five minutes. While data apparently played into this choice, it’s not entirely clear why they ultimately chose five.

At Uber, we tried to let the data tell us where the threshold should be. For example, we found that restaurants that had a lot of other restaurants nearby were more reliable on UberEats, as it was easier to keep couriers around. We set the threshold for what we considered low-density restaurants based on the “elbow” we saw in the graph:

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This approach worked in many areas of the business; e.g. we also found that once riders or drivers reach a certain number of initial trips on the platform, they were much more likely to retain.

You are not always going to find a “magic” threshold like this, but you should try to identify one before settling for an arbitrary value.

Absolute numbers without context are rarely helpful. You’ll often see press announcements like:

“1B rows of data processed for our customers”, or“$100M in earnings paid out to creators on our platform”

These numbers tell you nothing. For them to be meaningful, they’d have to be put into context. How much did each creator on the platform earn on average? In what timeframe? In other words, turning the absolute number into a ratio adds context.

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Of course, in the examples above, some of this is intentional; companies don’t want the public to know the details. But this problem is not just limited to press releases and blog posts.

Looking at your Sales pipeline in absolute terms might tell you whether it’s growing over time; but to make it truly meaningful, you’ll have to connect it to the size of the Sales team or the quota they carry. This gives you Pipeline Coverage, the ratio of Pipeline to Quota, a much more meaningful metric.

Creating these types of ratios also makes comparisons more insightful and fair; e.g. comparing revenue per department will make large departments look better, but comparing revenue per employee gives an actual view of productivity.

If you want to see movement on a metric, you need to have a person that is responsible for improving it.

Even if multiple teams’ work contributes to moving the metric, you still need a single “owner” that is on the hook for hitting the target (otherwise you’ll end up with a lot of finger-pointing).

There are three potential problem scenarios here:

No owner. With nobody obsessing about improving it, the metric will just continue on its current trajectory.Multiple owners. Unclear ownership causes friction and lack of accountability. For example, there were times at UberEats where it was unclear whether certain metrics were owned by local City teams or Central Operations teams. For a short period of time, we spent more time meeting on this topic than actually executing.Lack of control. Assigning an owner that is (or feels) powerless to move the metric is another recipe for failure. This could be because the owner doesn’t have direct levers to control the metric, no budget to do so, or a lack of support from other teams

A metric is only actionable if you can interpret its movements. To get a clean read, you need to eliminate as many sources of “noise” as possible.

For example: Let’s say you’re a small B2B SaaS startup and you look at web traffic as a leading indicator for the top of your funnel. If you simply look at the “raw” number of visits, you’ll have noise from your own employees, friends and family as well as existing customers visiting the website and you might see little correlation between web traffic and down-funnel metrics.

Excluding these traffic sources from your reporting, if possible, will give you a better idea of what’s actually going on with your prospect funnel.

For certain metrics, it’s important that they can be compared across companies. For example, if you’re in B2B SaaS, your CFO will want to compare your Net Revenue Retention (NRR), CAC Paybacks or Magic Number to competitors (and your investors will want to do the same).

If you calculate these metrics in a way that’s not market standard, you won’t be able to get any insights through benchmarking and cause a whole lot of confusion. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t make up metrics; in fact, I have made up a few myself over the course of my career (and might write a separate post on how to do that).

But the definitions for most financial and efficiency metrics are better left untouched.

All of the above being said, I want to make one thing clear: There is no perfect metric for any use case. Every metric will have downsides and you need to pick the “least bad” one.

Hopefully, the principles above will help you do that.

For more hands-on analytics advice, consider following me here on Medium, on LinkedIn or on Substack.


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