Defining the Goal, Problem, and Success Criteria for a Machine Learning Project

Like any other project, diving headfirst into a machine learning project without proper planning can lead to wasted resources, misaligned objectives, and unsatisfactory results. For those exploring the fascinating world of machine learning, understanding the importance of defining the goal, problem, and success criteria is crucial. This article delves into why these definitions are so essential and provides a comprehensive example to help those interested in machine learning grasp the concept better.


Why defining the goal, problem, and success criteria are so crucial

Alignment with business objectives
Every organization, whether it’s a business, a school, or a non-profit, operates with certain objectives in mind. When embarking on a machine learning project, it’s essential to ensure that the project’s goals are in sync with these broader objectives. By clearly defining the goals, we ensure that the machine learning project serves a purpose that benefits the organization as a whole rather than being just a standalone endeavor.

Focused approach
Without a clear goal and problem definition, it’s easy to get sidetracked by the latest algorithms, tools, or techniques. However, by setting a clear problem statement from the outset, teams can maintain a focused approach throughout the development cycle. This focus helps avoid pitfalls like feature creep, where unnecessary features or functionalities get added, diverting the project from its primary purpose.

Resource optimization
Every project comes with its set of constraints, be it time, manpower, or computational resources. Proper framing of the goal and problem ensures that these resources are used optimally. Instead of wasting time on irrelevant tasks or overcomplicating the model, teams can channel their efforts toward what truly matters, ensuring efficient progress and better outcomes.

Once a machine learning model is developed, how do we know if it’s good? That’s where success criteria come into play. By establishing clear criteria for success at the beginning of the project, teams have a benchmark against which they can assess the performance of the model. This objective assessment ensures that the model meets the desired standards and serves its intended purpose effectively.

Facilitates communication
Machine learning projects often involve collaboration among various interested parties. Clear definitions of the goals and problems ensure that everyone is on the same page. It eliminates ambiguities and facilitates better communication, ensuring that all involved parties have a shared understanding of the project’s objectives and the problems it aims to solve.


How to Define the Goal, Problem, and Success Criteria

Problem statement
The foundation of any machine learning project is understanding the problem at hand. The problem statement should articulate the issue that needs addressing. It’s not just about identifying a challenge but also understanding why machine learning is the right tool to tackle it. Let’s say a store isn’t selling as much as it used to. They might ask, “How can we guess how many items we’ll sell each month for the next year?” This way, they don’t order too much or too little. Machine learning can help make this guess by looking at past sales.

Goal formulation
Once the problem is identified, the next step is to set clear goals. The SMART framework offers a structured approach to this. The goals should be:

  • Specific: Clearly define what you aim to achieve. Instead of “improve sales,” a specific goal could be “increase online sales by 10% in the next quarter.”
  • Measurable: Ensure that the goal’s success can be quantified. For instance, “achieve 95% accuracy in sales predictions.”
  • Achievable: The goals should be realistic, given the resources and data available.
  • Relevant: They should align with the broader objectives of the business or organization. If the organization’s objective is to enhance customer satisfaction, a relevant goal could be “reduce product recommendation errors on the website.”
  • Time-bound: Set a clear timeframe for achieving the goal, like “reduce processing time by 15% in the next two months.”

Success criteria
Defining success is crucial. This involves:

  • Metric Identification: Pick the proper measurements to see how well your machine learning model performs. For example, if you’re making a system that suggests products, you might look at how often people click on the suggestions or how much they interact with them.
  • Benchmarking: Decide what success looks like. If you’re making a system that suggests products to users, success might be how well other similar systems are doing or aiming for more people to interact with the suggestions.

Data requirements
Data is the fuel for machine learning. Defining data requirements involves:

  • Type of Data: Know what information you need. If you’re trying to guess prices, you might need past prices, what competitors charge, and how many people want the product.
  • Data Gathering: Make sure you get information in a fair and safe way. This means keeping people’s information private and ensuring the data is safe.
  • Data Assessment: Before making your model, check that your information is good and useful. Make sure it’s clear, related to what you’re doing, and will help you reach your goals.



Case Study: Jamie’s Musical Machine Learning Project

Jamie, a high school junior, is passionate about music. She noticed that her friends often struggled to find new songs that matched their current mood or activity. With her budding interest in machine learning, Jamie saw an opportunity. She decided she wanted to create a machine learning model that recommends songs based on the user’s current activity or mood.

She knew that a plan was needed before beginning her project.  Her first step was to define her problem, “How can I create a system that suggests songs to users based on their current mood or activity?” Jamie recognized that machine learning could help by analyzing patterns in songs that people typically listen to during specific moods or activities.

Using the SMART framework, Jamie set her goal: “Develop a machine learning model that can accurately recommend songs for at least five different moods or activities with an accuracy rate of 85% within the next six months.”

Jamie decided her success metrics would be the accuracy of the song recommendations and user satisfaction. She set a benchmark by surveying a few friends on their current song recommendation apps and found that they had an average satisfaction rate of 70%. Jamie aimed to achieve a satisfaction rate of 80% or higher with her model.

Jamie knew she needed data to train her model. She decided to gather data on song attributes (like tempo, genre, and lyrics) and user feedback on whether the song fit a particular mood or activity. She also made sure to get this data responsibly, ensuring her friends’ music preferences remained anonymous.

With a solid plan in place, Jamie was ready to continue work on her project.