In the digital age, the success of products and platforms is often gauged by user engagement metrics—clicks, likes, session durations, and activity levels. This practice pervades across both consumer and professional spheres, serving as the cornerstone for strategies aimed at maximising user time spent on apps and websites. While engagement metrics offer straightforward, quantifiable insights into user behaviour, they paint a misleading picture of value creation and can lead to practices detrimental to users’ well-being.


The Flawed Premise of Engagement Metrics

At the heart of the issue is the assumption that more engagement equates to more value—for both the user and the product owner. This perspective is flawed for several reasons:

  1. Shallow Engagement: High engagement rates do not necessarily indicate meaningful interaction with a product. A user might spend hours on a social media platform, not out of genuine interest or utility, but due to the platform’s design that exploits psychological vulnerabilities to increase screen time.

  2. Negative Impact on Well-being: The relentless pursuit of engagement can harm users’ mental health. Studies have shown that excessive use of social media and other digital platforms can lead to anxiety, depression, and decreased satisfaction with life.

  3. Misalignment with User Outcomes: Focusing on engagement metrics can divert product development away from delivering real value to users. Products should aim to solve problems or enhance users’ lives in tangible ways, but when the metrics of success are based on engagement, there’s a risk of prioritising features that merely increase time spent on the app rather than improving user outcomes.


Consumer vs. Professional Products: A Common Pitfall

The emphasis on engagement metrics spans across consumer and professional domains alike. In consumer products, such as social media platforms and mobile games, engagement is often directly tied to advertising revenue, creating an incentive to keep users hooked. In the professional realm, platforms like enterprise software and online learning tools also track engagement as a proxy for success, assuming that more interaction leads to better outcomes, which is not always the case.


Towards Outcome-Based Metrics

Shifting focus from engagement to outcomes requires a fundamental change in how success is measured. Outcome-based metrics—such as user goal achievement, satisfaction scores, and real-world impacts—offer a more holistic view of a product’s value. For instance, an educational app should measure success not by how many hours students spend on it, but by the improvement in their knowledge and skills.


Regulatory Considerations and Ethical Implications

The issue of engagement-centric metrics has also caught the attention of policymakers. There’s a growing debate around the idea of taxing companies that design products to maximise user screen time, especially when it’s to the detriment of mental health. Such measures could incentivise companies to adopt more responsible design practices that prioritise users’ well-being over mere engagement.


Going Forward

The reliance on user engagement metrics as a measure of success is a flawed paradigm that overlooks the true value products should deliver. As digital products continue to intertwine with every aspect of our lives, product owners must reassess what success looks like. Moving towards outcome-based metrics and considering the broader impact of products on users’ lives and society at large are crucial steps in fostering a more ethical and meaningful digital ecosystem.

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