Are You Building Sidewalks Or Just Counting Cars?

Photo near my house…not where I walk my dog

I heard a TEDx talk recently by Bill Lindeke about sidewalks. He’s an urban geographer and has a lot of interesting things to say about them — most especially about how they are indicators of the health of a community. And by health, I don’t mean just “are we walking and getting exercise” kind of health, but are we, as members of a community, out where we can talk and interact with each other. Do our sidewalks invite us out, give us interesting things to look at or engage with, and, above all, provide us with a nice clear path? Or do they instead prevent us from wanting to walk? Are there obstacles in the way, are they too narrow for any but the able bodied who travel without aid of a wheelchair or other assistance? Are they clear part of the year but neglected and unnavigable when winter arrives with its snow and ice?

Bill talked about a day he spent sitting at a corner watching traffic and counting pedestrians. It was an urban intersection with plenty of motorized traffic and, as it turned out, very little foot traffic. It wasn’t for lack of sidewalks, though it may have been because the intersection was not designed for pedestrian safety or because there wasn’t much to entice people out of their cars to walk. It left little opportunity for all of those people passing through the intersection to interact with each other, to talk, to create community.

I was thinking of that presentation as I meandered down a very pedestrian-friendly street near my house with my dog. I have a basset hound who is not built for speed — walks are about good long sniffs and snuffling for smells interrupted by occasional movement forward. There is plenty of time for me to take in the gardens, play hopscotch grids, and chat with the neighbors. As he and I sauntered down the street, my brain wandered down its own path, a path that got me thinking about my “other” world, the world of (software) products.

Standng on the sidewalk, waiting for my dog to thoroughly catalog his most recent aromatic find, I realized it was a perfect metaphor for thinking about measuring the success of our products. If you talk to a product manager — or their boss — for any period of time, inevitably you will start talking about how to choose success measures. How do you know you are doing the right thing and that your customers like it? It’s easy to measure traffic volumes — things like how many visitors or downloads your site or app gets, how many people purchase, number of “clicks” and where they happen — but that’s a bit like Mr. Lindeke watching the cars go by on his designated corner. You can see the cars, but you have no idea what is happening inside those cars. There is no way to stop and interact or find out why those drivers are in that spot. We often, as product managers, do little to entice those drivers out of their vehicles to walk a bit — to look through the store windows or watch a butterfly exploring a rain garden. We might try to create a reason to stop, but too often it is the equivalent of someone paid to stand on the corner with an “Everything On Sale!” sign pointing us down the road — we want to talk with our customers, but the enticement isn’t there. Or maybe we have something that might get people to stop — like a kid’s lemonade stand on a hot summer day — but we don’t provide a place to park or any reason to pause longer than it takes to drink a 50 cent Dixie cup of lemonade. Worse yet, when we do provide nice sidewalks and ways for people to enjoy them (metaphorically), our customers find that the sidewalk may end abruptly or have a utility pole stuck in the middle of it. We had the best of intentions, but come winter we didn’t shovel the walkway.

If one measure of the success of a product is the community that embraces it, then the virtual sidewalks we choose to create and maintain are an indicator of the health of that community. If we can find ways to create reasons for our customers to move a little more slowly, to engage with their neighbors, play the hopscotch grid, then we can create better ways to find out about our customers, about our community. We can find out where the sidewalk ends abruptly, where the snow doesn’t get shoveled well in winter, or where there are gardens people love to walk by because the roses always smell nice in June. We can find out that they like the ice cream shop on the corner, but the deli has lousy potato salad.

So as you are thinking about how to measure success, take a few minutes and figure out how to look beyond the traffic measures. It’s easy to count cars, but you could get richer information if you can find ways to encourage drivers to become pedestrians.

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