How This Math-Hater Became Data-Driven

When I was six years old, a teacher told me that I was really good at reading and bad at counting. I still don’t understand why she had to frame it that way, but it got stuck in my mind forever. I shied away from all things that concerned numbers from that day. Even when I was finishing my masters degree in Business Administration I panicked during exams and wondered if 0 to 10 was actually 11. Did I have to take the 0 in consideration or not?

Nevertheless, when I fell in love with building digital products I realized that I had to overcome my fear of numbers. Otherwise, you are driving without any headlights on a pitch black highway, burning resources and no clue if your are heading in the right direction.

Here are the 5 ways I overcame my fear of numbers and learned to embrace data-driven product development.

1: Data has little to do with math
For me, being data driven means 3 things:

A: Having access to trustworthy data, making sure all event tagging is correct, data sources are sound and definitions across markets, teams and user cohorts are the same.

B: Have a profound understanding of the metrics that matter for your product or business. For example daily user engagement (time spent) is very important for a social platform, but not for a very functional airline app. I want to minimize, not maximize, the time spend in our app.

C: Most importantly: understanding the effects of real world events like weekends, holidays or bad weather – and adaptions of your product to your metrics.

Most of the calculations that you need for above are actually quite basic, percentages and averages will mostly do for most product managers. If you need some heavy analysis on big sets of raw data, and you need some real math, there are many people in your company who’ve been told that they were bad at reading and love to help you.

2: Create your own dashboard
The amount of different metrics, definitions and all the dashboards and sources can be overwhelming. I have to check 6 data sources – with their own tools and definitions – to get an overview of our performance. Something that really helped me was creating my own super simple dashboard of key metrics. Metrics that make sense to your product and context. Focus on getting a profound understanding off the first basic set of metrics and how they interact. Build it up from there.

3: Use metaphors for numbers
I have difficulty remembering numbers – especially large numbers. I mean what’s the difference between 100K and 100M really?! The way that I remember these fairly abstract numbers is to connect it to things that make sense to me and make it visual. So for example our daily active users is the amount of people that live in Amsterdam. Current daily revenue is 4 times the price of my dream boat (Boston Whaler 210 Montauk yeaah) . Downloads per month is the population of Zwolle.

Personally I prefer to look at daily numbers much more than at monthly or quarterly numbers. They seem to make more sense to me. It feels easier to connect them to events in the world and you get more familiar with the actual numbers. For a lot of numbers, I don’t need my metaphor trick anymore.

4: Daily key metrics
Once you have defined your key metrics and setup your own dashboard (which can be as simple as a regular spreadsheet), make sure to spend time on daily metrics every day. I have to get my key metrics from 6 different sources and it takes me 30 minutes, but if you do this, you’ll see the numbers become alive. The numbers become a story – aha! Stories! I was good at that all along.

I also got a lot more engagement from the team when I started reporting the daily metrics to them. They see the numbers fluctuate and try to figure out what the causes are. We have better discussions and insights when we are all involved.

5: It’s never perfect
The tagging is not updated, the definitions are not the same, you cannot compare these numbers. These demotivating discussions keep returning – and probably will stay forever. It’s my guess they are the same at almost every large company.

I keep telling my colleagues that it’s not the actual number that interests me (besides for A-B testing), but it’s the trend, the course, that I need to follow. The metrics are my compass – they tell me where to go and help us making decisions. If I have been looking at the wrong exact number – but the right trends and comparisons, that fine too. It took me quite a while to fully accept this. It’s perfection in progress.

To conclude
We can’t all be engineers and there’s a place for strategists, product thinkers and design researchers in product development. Hope this helps! Now go stalk your CFO, prioritize that tagging update and crunch some numbers my fellow Alpha’s and Gamma’s!


PS: to Miss Bos from the Engelenbergschool in Kampen. Screw you lady!