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I was listening to the Nightly Business Report podcast on my way to work today, and it’s both optimistic and depressing. Experts say that the economy is recovering…but we’ve been hearing that pretty much since the beginning. Every day is “We’ve turned the corner.” “Jobs are being created.” “The recession is shrinking.” After a certain amount of good reports and optimism, you really start wondering when you’re actually going to start seeing the results of this mythical recovery.

In a similar way, reports on the unemployment rate are depressing, even when they’re trying to be positive. The unemployment rate is dropping…because people are giving up and stopping their job search. It doesn’t seem like this is a good metric for measuring how America is gainfully employed, if we remove the people who are crushed worse by the lack of available jobs.

The metaphor I came up with was a football stadium. The team owner says “Woo! 80% of the people in the stands are die-hard fans, up from 70%! We’re winning!” and the stadium owner says ‘Yeah, but total attendance is down by 25%.”

Social games work along the same metaphor. We have numbers like % of paying users, and it can be tempting to watch that number increase, even as our overall active users is decreasing (because something we did upset the non-paying community). Or, likewise, we could be spending a lot of time worrying about our % of paying users, when our overall users and overall revenue is rising.

This is a reason that, while I find metrics really important in my work, I try to push back against the current industry trend of identifying everything in terms of metrics. Eventually you need human intelligence and human intuition to look at the numbers, look at the big picture, and get a gut feeling based on instinct and experience that tells you which way to go.

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