Fly Like Sully: 3 Rules to Becoming Data-Driven

C.B. “Sully” Sullenberger is a hero. He is the incredibly seasoned pilot who emergency-landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, after a flock of birds blew out both engines immediately after takeoff.

This is what Sully’s office looks like. These are his instruments. Lots of shiny dials & buttons.

cockpit

Consoles have lots of shiny knobs & dials. Don’t get lost in them.

Sully uses his instruments all the time, but they are especially important when the weather is bad. That’s when he has to fly by instruments.

No pilot, no matter how experienced, likes flying in bad weather.

Flying by instruments—Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), officially—is scary. It’s serious business. According to FAA rules, you have to go by IFR when  ”[flying] under conditions in which flight by outside visual reference is not safe.”

Basically, you have to go IFR when you can’t see much and aren’t really sure what the heck is going on. You have your gut and know your plan, but you can’t just go by what you see.

Sounds a lot like life in a fast-moving startup.

(Except Sully is highly-trained and flies IFR on advanced systems, and in the scenario addressed here you are flying in IFR conditions but now installing the speedometer/altimeter for the first time.)

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One of my past projects at Namesake  has been to rebuild our metrics systems & internal dashboards. The goal? Bring more data into our process and help us make better decisions.

First, I want to give a shout out and say thank you to James Ritzer, who has probably forgotten more about metrics/analytics than I’ll ever learn. He has been hugely helpful as an advisor in this project, and a good chunk of this post is knowledge transfer from him. Thanks, James.

So what are the key things I’ve learned about building your first dashboard and making it something that actually gets used?

  1. Simplify, simplify, simplify.
  2. Know your goal. Everything must drive action toward this goal.
  3. Consistency is more important than accuracy.

Knowing these will benefit anyone going through the process of making their company data-driven, or someone in a startup who is building their first dashboards and needs some guidance to get going.

1) Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Thoreau was right. Simple is good. Simple is better than complicated. Especially in a startup, where you are always short on time and manpower. Be honest with yourself—you don’t work at Facebook or Twitter (I’m guessing). You don’t have a legion of quants to throw at the problem to have them work their data sorcery. You’re probably just one guy (or girl) doing everything related to data and metrics for the whole company. Simple is your friend.

So as David Cancel put it in this brilliant preso, be ghettofabulous. I LOVE this phrase and use it all the time. Ghettofabulous solutions are good because they’re simple, fast, cheap, and they work.

As James told me, “don’t get lost in consoles.” He’s right—you can literally lose HOURS in Google Analytics, Woopra, getClicky, or whatever other analytics suite you’re using. For the most part, stay the hell away. Don’t leave GA open in a browser tab all day and keep hitting refresh.

I guarantee that you need just a few numbers from GA and then you need to get the hell out of their interface.

So where should you be? You should track 3-5 key metrics in a simple spreadsheet. Track these numbers as of yesterday, a week ago, a month ago, and 3 months ago. Then calculate the growth rates per metric between each of those time periods. Simple.

Update your dashboard first thing in the morning—every morning—with the latest and send out an update to the team. Yes, even the engineers or customer service people. After all, how can they all be CEO of their jobs and make informed decisions if they don’t understand what’s going with the company? The details of how to best report this data to the team is for another post, but send it out daily.

Your team members can’t make informed decisions unless they…

2) Know your goal. Everything must drive action toward this goal.

First off, know your goal. Ask yourself, “What am I trying to achieve? What is the desired outcome? What does a good, healthy site look like?” You should understand this vision on a visceral level and how your key metrics drive it.

Secondly: every metric must drive some human action. You *must* be action oriented. Every metric must be actionable, or you’re wasting time. Which you don’t have. If you can’t take action on it, it’s just interesting. “Interesting” has no place on your operating dashboard. That’s for you to ponder over coffee on the weekend.

Each of your 3-5 key metrics should directly influence your daily actions. If you’re looking at conversion rates in an onboarding or signup flow, that has direct actionable outcomes: a copy change, a Qualaroo popup asking users what the problem is on a page where they keep getting stuck, perhaps a radical simplification of the signup form. You will have lots of ideas and should augment these ideas with customer research to understand the problem better.

Let me give you an example of actionable vs. interesting metrics : pageviews vs. conversations. Pageviews are a vanity metric, and don’t really tell me very much. There’s not that much I can to affect our overall pageviews on any given day. Further, that pageviews number is really the output of several other factors combined (such as conversations, comments, people on site at any given moment, etc).

But as a conversation platform, we directly and immediately benefit from more conversations happening on the site. I can do something about this: I can start engaging conversations myself, encourage passionate users to start more, etc. This number also has a second-order / ripple effect on the rest of the system.

I am much more interested in this number than in pageviews. I am a freak about this number.

A *great* resource to consult as you’re deciding which metrics to include, and how to frame them: Dave McClure’s AARRR metrics. Thinking the AARRR way is essential and is something you should should aim for even if v1 of your dashboard doesn’t do this.

Now, for the key lesson that surprised the hell out of me…

3) Consistency is more important than accuracy.

I used to assume accuracy was the most important thing about my metrics and reporting. Absolute accuracy on the web  is an illusion. And frankly, it’s one that wastes a hell of a lot of time. There are tracking errors, cookies get scrubbed, a sufficiently large database will never return the same number twice…100% accuracy is an illusion.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because everything is digital, it is 100% accurate. Accuracy is a mirage. Give up on that mirage. The water is elsewhere. The water is in consistency.

mirage

Accuracy is a mirage.

Consistency is more important than accuracy. Why?

First, while the numbers may not be 100% accurate, your results will be directionally correct as long as you are consistently tracking them. Being consistent will give you usable baselines, and having these baselines will help you understand if the actions you’re taking in product or marketing are making a difference  or not where they matter most. It’s the baselines that matter, not the spikes.

Being understandable is also more important than being accurate. Why?

Because your team needs you to take a boatload of numbers and turn them into something accessible that helps them make better decisions. It’s your job (and mine) to do the mental work of sifting through all the bull and reducing the mass of data into something that’s actionable, useful, and informative for each team member’s work relative to company goals.

They need to be able to trust that you’ve got this handled. Being consistent and reliable will help build this trust and they’ll know that you’re owning the data. Then they will trust you more when you start bringing data points into real team discussions, and your work will actually pay off.

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***Update***: I made a template for you of the ghettofabulous spreadsheet that I use (and it will even pull in your GA data for you, thanks to my friend Dimitri). No excuses at all now. Links/info in the comments.*

I’ll try to share other lessons I learn while about becoming more data-driven and how to lead that change in your organization. It’s an ongoing learning process for me.

For those of you who have been through this process, what have you learned? Any tricks you can share?

Please share your feedback or experiences in the comments!

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