Making Metrics Matter: From Fresh Starts to Learning Loops

Jun 25, 2024

This is a cross-post from Nuance Behavior. For the full article, follow this link.

Very simple choices in the display of performance metrics can have profound impacts on user goals and motivation. How you choose to count, display, and communicate metrics can mean the difference between success and failure.

Often, the performance feedback provided by apps is about consistency, which can be very motivating — seeing past success can inspire continued adherence. However, a focus on consistency can promote perfectionism, and an all-or-nothing mindset which can end up undermining the goal.

Consider, for example, two common Behavioral Science tactics that are often at play when it comes to performance metrics: Streaks and Fresh Starts.

Streaks encourage maintaining consistent behavior, while Fresh Starts offer a reset point, like New Year’s Day, to begin anew. In the former, consistency is gained, and in the latter consistency is assumed. But both have the same underlying motivational profile — maintain that clean and perfect consistency.

However, because Fresh Starts and Streaks rely on the same psychology, they have similar ways of failing. The seeds of their own demise are built into the very premises. The pursuit of perfection can be demotivating when users inevitably fail. The difference between 99% and 100% success is significant: perfection is binary. Whether it’s losing a streak or a clean slate, any deviation from perfection can diminish motivation.

In statistics, values that can only take on 2 values are sometimes called “dummy variables.” The name is apt here. ‘Perfect’ is a dummy variable in more ways than one.

But there is a saving grace. All of these terms — fresh start, streaks, perfection, clean slate, consistency — they aren’t real. They are frames. Artifacts of the metrics we choose. Or in other words, their existence only depends on how performance is measured and communicated to the user. As a result, there are a lot of levers we can pull to keep motivation high, while preventing failures from undermining the pursuit of perfection that keeps people motivated.

This principle is important to keep in mind for all metrics that an app might track. Profound psychological influence occurs not because of objective feedback, but because of how the metric is communicated.

Below are three principles for helping users to overcome failures in order to keep motivation high.

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