Tracking the Numbers. Losing the Joy.

The April edition of Wired‘s Mr. Know-it-All column really resonated with me. ((Sadly, there’s no online version of this column I can find other than this excerpt.)) The question involved a person who didn’t like their Fitbit and wanted to get rid of it. Mr. Know-it-All shared some just-published research that suggested it might already be too late for the person who wrote in.

…[W]hile measurement increases how much of an activity people do (e.g., walk or read more), it can simultaneously reduce how much people enjoy those activities. This occurs because measurement can undermine intrinsic motivation. By drawing attention to output, measurement can make enjoyable activities feel more like work, which reduces their enjoyment.

Assuming this research applied to Fitbit users—that device wasn’t specifically tested—users of Fitbits will exercise more, but they’ll also lose the mental benefits of exercise. As someone who runs on occasion, one of the main things that keeps me going is the good feeling when I’m done. If I didn’t have that, it would get much harder to start again after taking a break! And the research bears that out:

As a result, measurement [of an activity] can decrease continued engagement in the activity and subjective well-being. 😱 [Emphasis added. Also the emoji. I added that too.]

This almost surely impacts nonprofits and people who build websites.

As examples:
Many developers consider the GitHub contribution calendar chart a measure of your overall productivity. I guess I don’t do much…

Data are undoubtedly useful for ensuring transparency and accountability or testing assumptions, but the love of data, tracking, and analytics must not become an unquestioning devotion. ((Famously, Google tested 41 shades of blue to see which one users “preferred” most.))

Whether it’s tracking website analytics every day—something I’ve done more with the launch of Nonprofit WP—or analyzing project outcomes, we should all be careful. At the worst, data can belittle specialized or localized knowledge that may not seem meaningful (more likely it isn’t or can’t be measured).

It’s easy to look at numbers on a screen and draw conclusions from them, but the choice of metrics and way in which something is measured are just as important as top-line numbers. One could reduce bicycle deaths by banning bicycles.

Comic: Time-tracking pie chart. Smallest slice is "Actual Productive Work." Caption: "Time-tracking software shines an uncomfortably harsh light on my daily life."
A recent comic from XKCD.

What hooked me on making websites was the magic of writing code and seeing it come to life in a browser. (It was Netscape back then!) Most people driven to start nonprofits don’t get into it because they love spreadsheets. As we introduce data and analytics into our fields of passion, we must be careful to not lose the joy.

For both the web and the nonprofit sector, I still think we’re searching for the right balance. If you’ve figured it out or have ideas, let me know.

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