UX Goals, Signals, Metrics: Define Signals That Indicate Progress

Signals show you're moving towards or away from your UX goals

This is a three-part series about how to use the goals, signals, metrics framework to define and measure user experience goals. Missed the first post? Read “Align Business Goals with User Goals.”

Goals, signals, metrics is a framework to help your team decide what user experience goals you need to measure and how to measure them. Ultimately, you’re using this information to improve your digital product. In the first section, we talked about defining business goals. It’s critically important to ensure business goals align with user goals through user research—don’t bother moving on to defining signals until you’ve done that first. That user research will also be used to define signals that show we are moving towards—or away from—our goals. Defining signals is the focus of this post.

What are signals?

In part one, we used the analogy of training for a triathalon. Your end goal is to complete the competition in under three hours. But you also have goals for swimming, cycling, and running. These goals are specific to you, just like goals, signals, and metrics and unique for each digital product. Once you’ve established goals, think about the signals that would show you’re moving the needle towards achieving those goals. Signals could be something a user does, thinks, or feels. So, not only could a signal be an action, it can also be a subjective or psychological reaction. Perhaps the thought of swimming in open water puts you in a state of panic. Progress for you would be feeling a sense of calm before and after the swim phase. The point is, a signal doesn’t have to be something that’s easy to measure, like the amount of time it takes to do something. Don’t shy away from something that seems difficult to measure, like subjective reactions.

Moving away from the triathlon analogy, what are examples of signals for digital products? After a flurry of customer service complaints, product teams might be focused on improving the signal of perceived ease of use completing a particular task. By measuring perceptions before and after product changes, they can monitor if the changes affected how the customer felt about the experience.

Often, digital product teams want to increase engagement. The problem? They don’t know what engagement means for their digital product. That’s where user research comes in. Through the process of understanding your users’ motivations, goals, and behaviors, you uncover patterns of behavior that indicate those users are engaged. Often it’s series of actions that increase the likelihood of the user moving forward in the sales funnel or using the product again. Here are two examples:

  • In the user research we’ve done for nonprofit marketing websites, for example, we’ve uncovered behaviors for each persona that are predictors of ongoing support and advocacy. Armed with this information, we optimized the website to facilitate these behaviors and set up metrics to measure the impact.

  • For a SaaS (software as a service) product, we found a first time trial user was more likely to become a customer if she added at least three events. So we focused our resources on making changes to the product to ensure it was as easy as possible to create an event or import it from other services.

In both of these examples, we found leading indicators.

What are UX leading indicators?

A term typically used in economics, a leading indicator is something that signals a shift in the economy, like a recession. In contrast, a lagging indicator might be the employment rate—important, but it would have been better to know earlier so you could do something about it. A UX leading indicator signals a shift in user behaviors or attitudes. A UX lagging indicator may be a decrease in active daily users or subscription cancellations. The importance of leading indicators is that they give us time to react. That means we can optimize the product to encourage behaviors and attitudes that get us closer to our goals or fix issues that may result in the opposite. We often uncover leading indicators by conducting user research and/or analyzing segments of users through product analytics.

Remember, signals are product-specific. They are unique to your UX goals and should not be affected by outside factors. If a signal your team has chosen could be influenced by outside factors, think about whether it is truly a product-specific signal. It may be that your signal is influenced by the sales or customer service teams. If everyone in your organization is not rowing the boat in the same direction, you have a larger problem that needs to be addressed from the top down. In this case, your team may need to take a step back and ensure there is organizational alignment on the goals you determined as the first step in the goals, signals, metrics process.

What’s next? Assuming there is alignment on goals, you’ve defined what shows you are moving towards those goals, now you need to know how to measure the signals you’ve identified. In part three of this goals, signals, metrics series, we’ll discuss what makes a good UX metric.

Wondering how to apply the goals, signals, metrics framework to your digital product? Our UX Goals and Metrics workshop helps your team get the UX insights they need to measure what really matters to improve your digital products.