Brian Bailey Preface to the Revised Edition

More Than Numbers

Why do apps and sites like to count things so much?

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

These counts are often given unusual prominence within the UI, particularly as a scoreboard on a person’s profile (you can browse examples on Pttrns). Visit some of your favorite social sites and apps and note how often the numbers are the focus of the experience, equal to and sometimes surpassing our names.

We know the numbers matter to the people behind the apps. Those numbers in many ways define the success of the product. They don’t, however, define my success as a user of the product.

Skimming the surface

The scoreboard approach to profiles is the easiest way to quickly solve a design challenge, provide UI elements that change often (since anything that doesn’t change is assumed to cause people to lose interest), and seemingly make the product’s value obvious.

It’s also a way to avoid doing the hard work of determining what that value really is, beyond counting things in database tables. Answering that question for the product and more importantly, for the people who use it, is a difficult, time-consuming, and essential process. Some products and companies are never able to answer it. Don’t avoid the challenge and settle for the path of least resistance.

Second, emphasizing numbers demeans the people who use the app or site. Each person has value beyond the sum of their totals, yet the design often suggests otherwise. When I see a scoreboard in a social or content-driven app, I assume the company has a single request for me: Please increment these numbers early and often, thanks!

The wrong incentives

Finally, the scoreboard often encourages unhealthy behavior. When you expose a meaningful internal metric, it will motivate some people to increase that number for its own sake or introduce an unnecessary element of competition. The balance of your ecosystem will be thrown off and you’ll soon find yourself trying to solve the much more narrow problem of how to limit or de-incentivize that behavior.

The elevation of numbers to disproportionate prominence in the UI is the most regrettable design trend of the past few years. Let’s rethink what value means for our companies and for the people who use our products, then design experiences that reflect and encourage that value.