A well-chosen metric can provide the clarity of focus and ownership that helps you and your team cut directly to your desired result. Alternatively, poorly-chosen metrics can cause confusion, frustration, and wasted efforts - or even worse they may take you in the wrong direction entirely.

In this post, I’ll share some of the steps that I try to take to properly define, and keep track of, important metrics.

If you haven’t done so, you may want to first check out my Goal Setting series which provides a lot of the necessary introduction to this topic. Part 1 covers a lot of key terminology and Part 2 covers some of the best practices.

Having pure thinking

As I’ve elaborated in my Goal-setting: Clarifying terminology post, metrics can be used at any level in the company: from evaluating the success of a minor feature to tracking the performance of the business as a whole. But regardless of the level you’re operating at, deciding on the right KPIs - the metrics that are most important to you - begins with achieving clarity.

Before I start working on an activity I try to ask myself a simple question: “Why am I doing this thing?”.

No word-smithing - this is a tool to clarify my thinking, not to inspire others.

No thinking about how or whether I could even measure it - I’ll come to that later.

Try this exercise of just saying, in plain words, what you are fundamentally trying to accomplish with your effort. I will refer to this as the Pure Goal: the uncompromising articulation of the core result you are trying to achieve.

For example, if I were building a notification center for my product, my goal might be “I want to prevent users from feeling overwhelmed by all our product communications”. If I were leading a donation drive with my local USO charity airport center, my goal might be “I want to acquire enough enjoyable snacks to feed visiting troops for a month”. If I were making a salad for lunch it might be “I want to feel good about my eating choice”.

This seemingly trivial step is an important one because the supposedly obvious reasons that we do things are sometimes more nuanced (or even logically flawed) after some reflection. Let’s review the first example of building a notification center:

The step of thinking through a pure goal helps ensure that your efforts are in line with the outcome that you want to achieve.

It also helps you avoid creating a Vanity Metric: metrics that you measure to feel good rather than to actually drive your business. If you can draw a direct line between your KPI(s) and your pure goal then you need not worry. But the more opaque and hand-wavy that line is, the more likely you are to have a vanity metric on your hands.

<aside> 📎 Want to learn more about Vanity Metrics?

In my post NPS: Useful KPI, Vanity Metric, or Joke?, I explore the pro’s and con’s of using Net Promoter Score and share my assessment of whether the controversial tool should be considered a vanity metric.


Once you have clarity in your thinking you are ready to figure out the best metric for the job.

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