Measurement ParadoxOpen Access

Measurement Paradox

We enjoy experiences less when we track them

While measurement may increase our performance, it comes at the expense of how much we enjoy those measured activities and how much we want to keep doing them.

Etkin, J. (2016). The hidden cost of personal quantification. Journal of consumer research, 42(6), 967-984.

The study

Setup

95 university students spent the day leisurely walking. In the measurement group they were given the choice to wear a pedometer. In the control group, everyone used a sealed shut pedometer. Afterwards, they rated how much they enjoyed walking.

Results

Measuring led participants to walk more but decreased how much they enjoyed it – even for those who chose to be measured.

Study graph

Key Takeaways

Consider what you want your users to feel.

While measurement may improve performance, it comes at the expense of enjoyment. By adding a measurement option, the behaviour will feel like work instead of fun.

Takeaway image

Understand why users engage in an activity when deciding whether to measure it.

Sometimes the benefit of achieving more may outweigh the cost of users enjoying the experience. Does the end you’re looking to achieve justify the means of measuring its progress?

Takeaway image

Switch the motivation type by becoming pro-social and giving meaning to the measurement.

For example: If you reduce your calories, you could send the equivalent of those excess calories to someone in need of food.

Takeaway image

Prior data can set reference points that demotivate us

Our personal motivation can suffer in the face of prior data, setting unhelpful reference points about future expected efforts.

For instance, consider the following: "I can see that I ran 10k 3 times in a row, so if I don't run 10k this time, I feel that I'm doing worse. But I just don't feel like I can do 10k today, so I won't go at all."

However, in absolute terms, you're doing more in total by doing any more running at all, whether that's 1k, or even 100m, so you're best off ignoring the data and doing *something*.

A good counterbalance to this is to focus instead on the *experience* that running provides. This removes the quantifiable reference point and frees us to just enjoy the act for what it is. And who knows, maybe we'll end up running longer than 10k in the process!

Takeaway image
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Measurement Paradox

Measurement Paradox

We enjoy experiences less when we track them

While measurement may increase our performance, it comes at the expense of how much we enjoy those measured activities and how much we want to keep doing them.

The study

Setup

95 university students spent the day leisurely walking. In the measurement group they were given the choice to wear a pedometer. In the control group, everyone used a sealed shut pedometer. Afterwards, they rated how much they enjoyed walking.

Results

Measuring led participants to walk more but decreased how much they enjoyed it – even for those who chose to be measured.

study graph
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In detail

With the rise of wearable devices, personal quantification is easier than ever. It's not a surprise that self-tracking has a large adherence in a competitive, comparative culture where the individual is constantly improving his performance in every possible measure.

But it has a cost.

One of the responsibilities of product creators is to understand and examine the resultant behaviours that modifications to the product design will trigger. By adding certain features or changing their salience, you will inevitably change the behavioural dynamics.

It’s well studied that external rewards undermine intrinsic motivation, but now we know that the act of tracking can also impact it by reminding us of the output, making the activities seem like work. Thus, not everything that can be measured should be measured.

Peter Drucker said “What gets measured gets managed, even when it’s pointless to measure and manage it, and even if it harms the purpose of the organization to do so”.

It’s a warning from the father of management that it’s not often taken to heart, and this study reminds us of it.

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