The problem with numbers

A couple of years ago I wrote about the tyranny of notification numbers – the numbers that nag you about how many unread e-mails, app updates and to-dos you’re meant to be dealing with.

Since then, I’ve started to wonder whether it’s not all numbers that are the problem.

Stories about the ethics of buying Twitter followers are amusing because follower numbers having become essentially meaningless. I currently have 1,535 followers, it seems, but I’m pretty sure I only actually interact with a dozen or so of them – and a good proportion of the rest probably don’t actually use Twitter or read my tweets any more.

Twitter also prominently displays the total tweets I’ve made and accounts I’m following (7,199 and 679 respectively). I’m not not sure what these really tell anyone – they’s certainly be a poor method of evaluating whether to follow me or not.

Just because computers are good at adding up, it doesn’t mean we should display numbers everywhere.

What are the downsides? Aside from visual clutter, they encourage us to focus on the wrong thing. If it’s true that everything measured goes up, then we need to be damn sure we’re measuring the right things. Otherwise we see the emergence of pointless behaviour like buying Twitter followers, or obsessively marking e-mails as read when most of them can be safely ignored.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t measure things — just that numbers might not always be the right interface.

To take a concrete example, at Folksy we used to display a ‘views count’ on each of the item pages. We removed this to improve performance and also because it was completely inaccurate for all the same reasons that Hit Counters used to be. However it was hugely popular and we still get loads of requests to re-instate it.

It wouldn’t be too tricky to re-integrate page views counts, probably derived from Google Analytics data — but would this encourage sellers to focus on that rather than say, sales revenue and making products? The view count does communicate something — something akin to ’leads’ or general interest in a product — but perhaps this could be communicated in more effective way?

Displaying fewer numbers might mean less solicitations to ‘rate me on TripAdvisor’ and more of a focus on the quality and range of interactions.