Jan. 31, 2023 | Data

3 ways to avoid data paralysis

3 ways to avoid data paralysis

Digital product teams emphasize the collection and analysis of quantitative data—and yet too many of these teams are missing opportunities. Why? Because they bend the information to a false narrative. They miss because they aren’t set up to act on new information. They miss because they focus on overly broad or lagging metrics.

When we see the data come in, will we do anything differently?

That’s the question we should be asking our leaders, our teams, and ourselves.

Better still, “What will we do if the data does X?”

When preparing to ask and answer those questions, consider these three practices:

Hypothesize before you collect the data

We’ve all done it. We’ve noticed a change in our data and said, “I bet that’s a result of X.” But hypothesizing after results are known (or “HARKing,” coined by social psychologist Norbert Kerr) hurts our ability to improve our hypothesis-making skills. Our minds are wired to find patterns in data even when none exist, so we must avoid our natural bias by transparently stating our hypothesis before we test. We gain two critical insights by doing this:

  • Did our change lead to a positive outcome?
  • Are we good at predicting the effect of our changes?

With each tested hypothesis, we learn if the product got better and if the team’s skill increased.

Preplan actions

You don’t need a perfect plan of action before you release—just a clear direction to head once you’ve seen the results. Ask:

  • If we see success, how should we capitalize? Scale? Add more polish? Add new features in that same problem space?
  • If it’s a failure, do we revert or remove the feature? Do we continue to iterate?
  • If there is no visible effect, do we continue to refine the idea/feature? Do we need to do more research? Do we move our focus to other problem spaces?

With a high-level direction in mind, the team can spring into action the minute you’ve gathered enough data. By preplanning, you shorten the time from insight to action, which translates into positive outcomes such as increased speed to market.

If the answer is, “We’re not sure what we’d do,” there’s a strong likelihood that this isn’t a metric you need or are ready to focus on. It could be that the metric lags too much to be actionable or it could be that the metric doesn’t tell you enough to make decisions. In both cases you’ll need to try this next behavior.

Find the right measure, not the easy measure

There are many ways we can measure the effect of our digital products and services. There are popular metrics like Net Promoter Score (NPS), but what can you do if your NPS goes down? Gesture wildly at the user experience? It’s almost impossible to directly affect such a broad lagging metric. Instead, focus on:

  • Specific metrics that point you directly to issues or opportunities
  • Leading metrics that support lagging metrics because you need faster feedback loops in order to adjust before something becomes a mission-critical issue or you miss an opportunity

Broad lagging metrics can help us understand the landscape of our product, but if we want to change the way our customers use our digital products, we must zoom in to key moments that matter.

TL;DR (too long, didn’t read)    

Next time you release, make sure you hypothesize the outcome beforehand, state a high-level plan for what you’ll do based on the results (including when you’ll look at them together), and verify you have specific leading measures that can help you learn more about the behaviors demonstrated within your product. If you do that, you’ll be more likely to create positive impact for your business and your customers.

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Matthew Erickson

Matthew is a senior principal product manager in West Monroe’s product experience & engineering practice.

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