Outcomes and Outputs are terms people use quite often at work. Like benchmarking, brainstorming, storytelling, lean UX, KPIs, and OKRs, which you have probably heard before.
But just because they are part of work routines and people hear about them all the time doesn’t mean everyone knows their true and original meaning.
This article will clarify the difference between Outcomes and Outputs and teach you how to be more assertive in delivering results. Unfortunately, this confusion can cause misunderstandings and, in extreme cases, compromise project results. Keep reading to know more!
What are Outcomes and Outputs?
Starting very directly, the definitions for outcomes and outputs, in business terms, are:
- Outcomes: what the business wants or needs to achieve;
- Outputs: the means necessary to achieve these outcomes.
To illustrate, let’s think of a typical situation outside the business world: gardening.
Imagine you want to create a small garden bed with many flowers. You want to have a variety of colors yet easy-care flowers to add joy to this corner of your house.
Therefore, you need a few actions to implement your project:
- Prepare the soil: removing any grass and adding soil amendments;
- Purchasing and maintaining the flowers: choosing, planting, pruning, and watering;
- Understanding the needs of each flower in terms of light, water, and fertilizer.
So your goal of having a blooming garden is your current Outcome. And each item or action on the list is a necessary Output in order to achieve your goal.
Also, notice that resources are different from Outputs. In the list, the actions count, not the materials, for example. The land itself is not an Output but a resource.
Fulfilled Outputs don’t mean achieved Outcomes
Although the relationship seems quite obvious in the example cited, when we scale these concepts to business, it can be easy to get lost.
Therefore, it is important to be clear about the relationship between your outcomes and your outputs.
This is because outputs can be fulfilled but will not necessarily contribute to achieving the desired Outcome.
Going back to our gardening example, imagine you have established that one of your outputs is to water the soil hourly every day, with abundant water.
You may comply with this output, but it will not help your garden flourish. In fact, it will most likely have the opposite effect, weakening your flowers.
Therefore, understanding the expected Outcomes should guide how to conduct your Outputs. Otherwise, all the effort may be in vain.
This relationship leads us to an important lesson: never measure the status of your project based only on the fulfillment of your Outputs.
The two concepts must be measured together to ensure a greater chance of success.
A UX Perspective over Outcomes
In general, the definition of Outcomes being what companies want to achieve is correct, but there is still room to narrow it down.
According to Josh Seiden, asking ourselves, “What Outcomes do we want?” can lead to a vague answer, and it is important to detail this concept further.
Seiden states that Outcomes are when we create a specific change in customer behavior that drives a business result.
This way, narrowing the concept and adjusting focus gives more clarity to which Outputs should be carried out.
The vision of Outcomes as a means to satisfy and improve the product for the user is very much aligned with UX Design and User-Centered Design purposes.
In addition, Josh reinforces the importance of not focusing on Outputs without first understanding whether they are helping to achieve the desired Outcomes.
Which Outcomes should you start working on first?
You can start with two simple questions to find the right Outcomes to work on:
- Which customer behaviors impact business results for the better?
- How can we make our users replicate more of those behaviors?
“Whenever they ask us to develop a new feature, we do it and we are happy with it. But we never ask ourselves ‘is the user actually using this feature? Are they getting the expected value out of this feature?'” – Josh Seiden
Focusing on Outcomes might be challenging
The main focus should always be on achieving the Outcomes because they are the real game changers for business.
Despite this, many companies and teams still find it difficult to work focused on Outcomes, and there are a few reasons for this.
1) Outcomes are hard to measure
One of the reasons why it is difficult to focus on Outcomes is that they are challenging to measure.
It is easier to measure outputs because they were either achieved or not. A few questions around fulfilling outputs:
- Was the resource created on time?
- Were the week’s goals met?
- Was the user research done?
But when we talk about Outcomes, quantitative and qualitative factors are involved.
In this sense, suppose an Outcome is defined as “Improving user retention.” And at the end of the project, you managed to retain 50% of the new users. But is this number good or bad? Was the Outcome achieved or not? Do we need to improve?
2) Company culture is focused on Outputs
A company’s culture directly influences the way its teams work. Therefore, a company that values Outputs will turn them into goals, often encouraging employees with bonuses.
It will be hard to implement an Outcome-oriented vision if Outputs drive the whole structure of the company (including goals and bonuses).
You might see people working hard to achieve Outputs because those will be their goals. In these cases, teams can not answer which Outcomes they want to achieve because the company itself does not understand this difference.
3) Being forced to change
Many companies will only change their focus to Outcomes when they suffer the consequences of focusing on Outputs.
It is similar to exercising. We all know we need it, and people keep telling us how important it is. But, many people will only start exercising when they have some health problem that makes them change their mindset.
In this sense, companies may even understand that they need to focus more on Outcomes, but they don’t fully comprehend the whole picture yet.
4) Changing takes effort
It’s difficult to change, and it takes time. Moreover, understanding how to implement and adapt the changes to the company’s reality is essential to ensure that everyone focuses on Outcomes rather than Outputs.
Turning efforts to achieve Outcomes
Once you understand why your company or team might struggle to focus on Outcomes, how can you change the situation?
1) Establish criteria
If outcomes are difficult to measure, it is important to establish criteria for success.
In this sense, once we establish that Outcomes are changes in user behavior, we should ask ourselves: “how do we measure the user’s decision process?”
This way, find ways to measure:
- the user’s learning curve in front of a new feature;
- what they are prioritizing in the product/interface;
- how well the user journey is going.
In addition, it is important to establish what is considered a good Outcome. For example, if a new feature has started to improve the learning curve in the platform for 5% of the users, is this number a good evolution or not?
2) Promote an Outcome-oriented approach
As we have seen, there may be companies whose culture and vision are rooted in delivering Outputs rather than achieving Outcomes.
Encouraging this approach throughout the company is essential to transform the business, including stakeholders.
Thus, facilitating meetings and conversations is an excellent way to promote discussions around the importance of Outcomes.
3) Clarify what Outcomes mean
In line with establishing success criteria to measure your Outcomes, it is also important to make them clear to everyone.
In this sense, when defining what the Outcomes will be, it is important to know:
- Is it clear who this Outcome will impact? The users, the company, or the team?
- What is the expected impact as a consequence of this Outcome?
- Does this Outcome bring value to my work and my time?
- Are the defined Outcomes aligned with the company’s objectives?
4) Start small
To work with an Outcome-oriented vision, start first by making changes within your team.
Choose a project that might be interesting to experiment with the change of focus and work with that.
Starting small helps to understand and validate the actions needed to make deeper and more comprehensive changes within the company.
With these actions, it is possible to start changing the company or team’s mindset about Outcomes and Outputs, clarifying their differences and why it is important to have a vision focused on results and changing user behavior.
It is not an easy job, but the benefits are essential to improve the gains of the project and the company.