Two people cycling down busy street.

Output vs. Outcome

Outputs and outcomes are used frequently in both product management and research to understand how people are using a product or service. We often say that we want to focus on outcomes and not outputs, as outputs can be misleading, un-impactful, or even harmful.

What‘s the difference between an output and an outcome?

An output is a measurement of what has been created.

An outcome is the level of performance or achievement that occurred based on what was created.

How to plan for outcomes

It’s easy to get caught up in solution based thinking as you’re trying to get work done because it initially feels faster.

But focusing on outcomes, rather than output, helps us avoid future rework because we’re already taking problems into account and focusing on what the user should experience, in addition to what the UI or product should do.

You can start planning for outcomes on your team with a few questions.

What problems are users having when they use our product?

What needs to be true in order for the user to feel successful in the product? Why?

What needs to be true in order for the product to be successful for the company? Why?

Asking these questions about your products or during your research will help you come up with better solutions on your teams and give you more confidence that the work you’re doing will have a positive impact.

The problem with outputs

In Portland, we have roughly 350 miles of bikeways, which we tout regularly.

319 of those miles can be broken down like this:

  • 77 miles of Neighborhood Greenways
  • 188 miles of bike lanes
  • 85 miles of paths

And 17 of those miles have physical barriers to separate cars from cyclists:

  • 6 cycle tracks
  • 17 buffered bike lanes

The majority of the 350 miles are on shared roadways, where cars and bikes are on the same street. In neighborhoods there are greenways with very few cars. But as you get closer to downtown Portland, you get more lanes and higher car speeds.

These are all outputs. It’s a measurement of what already exists.

The city also has 50 more miles of bikeways planned in the next few years.

That means there are countless roads that someone could go cycling on in all different parts of Portland.

This sounds great in theory, but is it?

If Portland has 350 miles of bikeways, that’s great, but how can we get more people to use them?

Thinking through outcome based measurements

A better way to look at Portland’s bikeways are through outcomes.

An outcome defines what you know must be true in order for a thing to be valuable to both the person (customer) and you (company). An outcome is what we want people to experience by using the thing we’ve created.

How do you figure that out? By talking to people and getting actual feedback.

So what does the city want when they create bikeways? They want to control infrastructure costs, get people to participate in the local economy through their jobs and consumption, and make it a pleasant place for tourists to visit and put money into our city.

Bikeways are part of this because it makes it easy to get around, infrastructure cost for repair and maintenance is lower compared to busy roads, and a stronger economy means more people will visit.

Alternatively, cyclists may want to use the road for daily commutes and weekend travels. They use it to exercise. In order to use it though, they want to feel and be safe while cycling.

This is an important distinction. The perception of safety (physical barriers or distance between cars), means that more people who may not have been interested in cycling will try it out. As an anecdote, I am proof of this. I now live in a neighborhood that has separate bike lanes and bike only streets. I bike more now than I ever have.

Physical partitions on roads to separate cyclists and cars lead to more cycling, and more types of people cycling, including children and the elderly. This is an outcome that has already been proven in Montreal, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and New York.

So, if we look at this through the lens of outcomes, we get many more ideas, and a much different story on how to make cycling easier for people while also contributing to the city’s goals.

When we decide on new changes using outcomes, then instead of focusing on the output of 50 more miles of bikeway, we would have additional constraints:
1. The bikeway must be continuous or easily connect to different neighborhoods throughout Portland.

2. Physical partitions must be included on busy roads.

With these constraints it’s now easier for us to know whether or not the changes we’re making are good because we know that our decisions are tied to behaviors (outcomes) that we want people to do, in addition to the outcomes that the city wants to see.

In fact, this is something that Portland has also started to understand as a critical move. On paper, at least, Portland is committed to making the majority of bike lanes protected through their new bikeway design guide.

I’ll be excited to see how Portland commits to this as the city grows and we focus on important mobility initiatives that support equality and density: like mobility plans that put public transportation, walking, and cycling first.