If you’re reading this, perhaps it’s because we asked the provocative question “Do user metrics make you heartless?” You naturally wanted to know the answer. Who wouldn’t? I’ll tell you who wouldn’t: Daniel Falko.

But we’re not really going to talk about Daniel Falko. He’s just a guy we made up to retain your interest beyond the first paragraph. If it worked, then it illustrates an important point: people really want to know how a story ends.

People love stories. They keep your attention. They’re also easy to remember, even the subtle little details. Storytelling is a great way to learn and remember rich, complex information, and the best teachers are great storytellers.

(Also, teachers rock in general.)

People love numbers, too, but numbers don’t come quite as easily.

What's Lost in Large Numbers?

People’s innate number sense is coarse-grained. Logarithmic, in fact. While it’s easy to see the difference between quantities that differ greatly — 10 versus 100 versus 1,000 versus 10,000 — reliably noticing small differences is much tougher across scales. For example, 2 is as close to 7 as 9,349 is to 9,354. Kinda brain-melty, right? It’s easy to miss nuances buried in there.

In the business world, you’re applauded for professing how much you love numbers. So, in many companies, it’s been all numbers, all the time for the past few decades. But these days, customer experience is ascending, and numbers alone aren’t a powerful enough lens to give businesses real insight into what matters most: the actual, real-life experience of being a customer.

Think about it. If your charty analytics show that your website has 50,000 users and the number is growing fast, how sensitive will you be when another line on the same chart shows that that (only) 0.8% of those users experienced an error? It won’t seem like a big deal.

A growing user base, great! But what's that tiny little error line?

But that flattish red line represents 400 people!

Imagine those 400 people sitting in one big conference room, experiencing that error at the same time. You can almost hear the collective groan. They’d be all “eff this effing website” and “whyyyyyyy can’t they make their stuff not SUCK” and “I’ve got to find some alternative to this pos”. Like this…

Admit it: as a user, you say the same sorts of things every time a website craps out on you. Does it remotely matter to you how many other people are or aren’t experiencing the same problem? Would you take any comfort whatsoever if the business told you, “Well, look, only 399 other people have been affected by this today. That’s a negligible percentage of our user base”? It would piss me off to hear that, and fortunately nobody actually says it. But the truth is, businesses do actually operate that way. I’m not throwing stones; great websites are hard to get right, and we at FullStory fall into the same kind of rationalization—unless we’re careful.

I’m not saying businesses have to be perfect in the customer experience department. But shouldn’t they at least want to be perfect?

The Psychology of Psychic Numbing

Suppose your business does indeed strive to deliver a stellar customer experience. How should you approach it? As Paul Slovic’s research on psychic numbing shows quite dramatically (and heart-breakingly) in the realm of philanthropy, the very vocabulary of a numbers-based approach rather than an individualized, story-based approach can actually inhibit — yes, prevent — empathy that would otherwise be present.

We have a more powerful response to seeing the crisis of a single person than to hearing how that same crisis affects thousands.

It’s absolutely crazy-sounding, but it’s true: the typical person empathizes less as problems get demonstrably bigger because the problems have to be described with numbers rather than stories. We have a more powerful response to seeing the crisis of a single person than to hearing how that same crisis affects thousands.

Cognitive psychologists have suggested two reasons for this. First, there is evidence that engaging in quantitative analysis appears to somehow evict emotions out of your brain, so “doing analysis” and “feeling emotions” may indeed be mutually exclusive, at least in a given time period. Second, big numbers can simply feel overwhelming, giving the impression that a problem may be too large to fully solve, so why even try?

Charities have long known this, which is why the most effective ads show a single child in need — one individual with a compelling story — rather than a chart showing that, indeed, many millions of people are in the same boat.

From Big Numbers to Human-Level Scale

Where does this leave us? Businesses must use quantitative analytics—there's no way around it. But is there a way to make your big data-based decisions and keep an eye out for individual users, the "Danni Falkos?"

Imagine how it might work. You can see the line graphs—the trends—and also "zoom in" ... all the way to the individual users making up your aggregate user metrics.

What might that mean for your product teams, your marketers, your management? What becomes possible when you can overcome the effect of psychic numbing?

You probably know where I’m going with this: FullStory is designed to give your team the full context about the customer experience:

Knowing there was a single person behind a given session overcomes the psychic numbing problem because it grounds an insight to an individual. It respects personhood. It tells a story. It's the bridge between the quantitative and the qualitative that you always needed but never thought possible.

And it’s clear from talking with—not just graphing—our customers that it is a uniquely motivating way to drive real change in your company.


Updated February 2019. Originally published May 8, 2016.