This is a guest blog post for OnStartups that I wrote talking about our experience fundraising for Glyder and how we’re thinking about building our business in spite of challenging odds for closing a next round.
First, an intro: I’m the co-founder and product designer at Glyder (www.glyder.co). I think about this stuff quite a bit because our product is an iPhone app that connects to and sits on top of message distribution services that small businesses struggle to use (facebook, twitter, your smartphone address book, constant contact, mailchimp, etc) and provides coaching, suggested content, and metrics that help them use these channels effectively. I’ve been a long time reader here but finally got hooked into the discussion a few days ago with the conversation around the new Twitter Cards announcement.
At Glyder, we’re in the business of helping small businesses (mostly sole proprietors to businesses with fewer than 20 employees) make the most of online marketing channels, and to because we want to make that experience as easy as possible for our users, we do API integrations with the major platforms so that the coaching & content we provide can be used to create and publish messages immediately, without going into another app. We prioritize which platforms to integrate with based on the value we think services can bring to our users (currently this list includes Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Constant Contact, MailChimp, Highrise, Salesforce, and the address book on your iPhone).
Outside of the platforms we already connect to, our most requested platforms, ranked by volume of requests, are:
1) Google Plus 2) Foursquare 3) Tumblr
I deeply admire Dennis for his conviction and dedication to pursuing the vision that’s been in his mind for more than a decade, and although I don’t know anyone on the team there, my outsider view of their core product’s evolution over time shows a level of patience and consideration for user experience that few companies can match.
But Google+ is beating them in awareness and mindshare (at least with 10,000+ merchants), and I think it’s indicative of some some issues in their merchant product & value proposition:
• For a company whose core product did a great job of introducing a novel behavior (the check in) and turning that behavior into a habit for millions of people (using mayorships, badges, scores, etc), their merchant experience is pretty uninspired.
Yes, they’ve had 1,000,000+ businesses “claim” their pages, but how many of those businesses are regularly interacting with Foursquare?
If the offers I see in my foursquare feed are any indication, it’s not getting great traction with local businesses (I live in SF, which should be one of 4sq’s strongest markets, and almost every special I see is a national chain using 4sq specials to drive traffic, not true local businesses).
Maybe they’d be doing better on this if they put the same level of attention to building a great user experience for merchants as they do for consumers. Our experience at Glyder is that attention to onboarding and mechanics that demonstrate immediate value are critical to motivating business owners to interact on an ongoing basis.
• Small businesses are constantly inundated by large and small tech companies with new marketing options. Very few platforms have been able to achieve the mindshare needed for the FOMO effect to work (where local businesses just inherently believe they are missing out by not using it).
I would argue only Facebook and email marketing currently hold this place in the mind of most local business owners, with Twitter gaining steam. Among Glyder users (10,000+ merchants), more than 50% connect to Facebook, 35% use email marketing channels, and 25% use Twitter. We’ve had less than 10 requests to add Foursquare support, so it’s just not top of mind for local businesses.
Why isn’t Foursquare top of mind for local businesses? Here’s my anecdotal personal experience after claiming the business page for my mom’s retail store 1 year after they opened. There were 6 checkins (total, since opening), so I’m already skeptical that Foursquare is a place where my customers hang out. The store is in Marin County, a fairly tech savvy place where everyone has smartphones, so what does this mean for businesses outside of Foursquare’s big markets (superdense urban areas).
After claiming the page, it wasn’t clear to me what my next step was that would actually add value to my business. I saw my checkin metrics, but I couldn’t interact with any of those 6 people that checked in (no 1:1 messaging). I could post an update but it isn’t clear who sees those updates and why it’s worth my time. I can post a special, but again, no indication of how many people might see it, and as business owners have been getting screwed by daily deal companies for the past few years, convincing me to post a special without any info on reach or ROI is a tough sell. This gets to my next point, which is that the current 4sq merchant offering doesn’t really fit into an existing slot in the minds of business owners.
• The dilemma in selling to local merchants is that they have limited time and attention, so it’s tough to convince them that your innovative, shiny new thing is critical to their business.
Local businesses have been proven to pay for two things consistently:
1) Advertising that consistently drives new customers to their door. This used to be the yellow pages, now it’s daily deals, adwords (if they are sophisticated or engage with a middle man like AppStack), and perhaps Yelp is getting to critical mass here as well.
2) Tools that help them earn repeat business from their existing customers. Constant Contact built their business here, Facebook/Twitter are the new guys in town that are lowering the barriers for customer communication, and Belly/Spendgo/etc are doing the loyalty thing, although the friction is still so high with manual opt in that I question whether any of those can ever really win the market.
Foursquare is somewhere in the middle of these two things:
• On one hand, you can argue that posting specials to 4sq can drive new customers, but in practice, 4sq’s consumer audience probably isn’t (yet) large enough for them to deliver on this promise for most businesses outside of SF and NYC urban hotspots. However, I really like their new discovery/search features for consumers, and I think over time they will reach critical mass on the consumer side here, and eventually businesses will follow.
• On the other hand, you could say that posting updates to 4sq is a good way to retain and re-engage existing customers, but this is also mushy at best because the messaging tools are limited and the merchant UX doesn’t really help businesses figure out how to use this channel effectively or make a compelling case as to why they should spend there time on 4sq instead of Facebook or Twitter.
The mushy value proposition hurts them with SMBs who need to be very careful about where they allocate their precious time and marketing budgets. 4sq doesn’t quite fit into the checklist that they have marked in their heads as “must do”, so they have some awareness and education to do here, and my guess is their revenue potential from merchants will be limited until they solve this.
All that said, my interactions with hundreds of business owners over the last year make me convinced there is an opportunity for someone to come in and provide a new customer acquisition + engagement marketing solution for small businesses that provides a far better experience (for both business and consumer) than email marketing or facebook/twitter pages, and I think that solution will look a lot like a network that connects businesses to consumers through a predominately mobile experience.
Is Foursquare going to be that company? The current product isn’t there yet but I could definitely see them getting there if they put the same time and attention into their merchant tools that they put into their consumer experience.
If they can nail the merchant experience with a crisper value proposition that resonates outside of urban hotspots, the revenue potential is tremendous.
designer & founder, Brad Feld’s recent post Who Owns Your UX Philosophy? asks about an area I’ve spent quite a bit of time working on. User experience is a a tricky skill set to build or hire for, as it requires a mix of traditional design and product management skills that I think are best learned through apprenticeship rather than traditional academic design education.
I recently taught a seminar on digital product design at UC Davis and included an introduction to user experience as part of the class - I agree with all of the commenters on Brad’s post who said you can’t just add UX later (whether intentional or not, every app already represents the user experience philosophy of the creators), and great user experiences happen when considered as an integral part of building the company and the product.
My personal belief is that for most startups, the best way to tackle UX is to have the product manager/product owner also own the UX philosophy - a good product manager is the keeper of a great user experience and is the last line of defense against shipping something that sucks. Often this is the CEO in early stage startups, and later someone else when the company can afford to have a dedicated product manager position.
Here are some UX lessons that have helped me over the years:
Think in Flows, Not Screens
Web and mobile applications are primarily about making it as fast and easy as possible for a user to complete a desired task or series of tasks. Unless you’re still at the most basic MVP stage, your application probably helps users complete at least several tasks, and each one of these tasks has a series of steps that the user must go through to be succesful. This series of steps is called a task flow, and when striving for a great user experience it’s important to think about how to make the task flow as easy as possible.
In my design process, the very first iterations of a new feature happen entirely at the most basic level of outlining the task flow in a text editor. When drafting a task flow for a new feature, I try to remember that it’s not just about describing the task I’m focusing on, but also how the new task flow relates to the existing application and the other features (task flows) it contains. How the user accesses this new feature (the start of the flow) and where they end up after they complete it (the end of the flow) are as important as the steps in between.
Additional info: Chapter 3 in Robert Hoekman, Jr.’s excellent Designing the Obvious - A Common Sense Approach to Web & Mobile Application Design and Jason Putorti’s 10 Things CEOs Need to Know About Design.
Understanding Mental Models
If you’re a technical founder or product lead, remind yourself that your users don’t see the source code of your application. This may sound obvious, but it’s easy to forget that your users don’tknow why you designed a feature a particular way, they don’t have the benefit of understanding how all the pieces of your app fit together, and they don’t really care about the functional processes going on behind the scenes, except when things don’t work the way they expect.
Real users understand products through a process of discovery and trial and error, and as they use your application they slowly develop a mental model of how they think it works. A mental model is effectively their internalized understanding of the task flows in your app. The process of building a mental model can be artificially supplemented through tutorials, tooltips and other learning aids, but the best user experiences are designed so that the application itself helps the user quickly build an effective mental model, without relying on additional learning aids to convey key information.
Additional info: Chapter 5 in Designing the Obvious - A Common Sense Approach to Web & Mobile Application Design.
Don’t Re-Invent the Wheel
When designing the experience for a feature, think about how other applications address similar task flows. Humans are natural pattern matchers, a trait you can leverage to accelerate the construction of effective mental models by relying on existing design patterns that many users will already recognize from their previous experiences.
Design patterns are often platform-specific (especially on mobile) so it’s important to build and maintain familiarity with platform standards and design patterns used in popular applications (apps shipped with the OS are a great place to start).
The same point applies internally to your own application. If you have two features that are related in terms of similarity of task flow or the goal achieved upon completion, try not to re-invent the wheel and maintain two similar but slightly different patterns. In the common case where you’re adding a 2nd feature where the flow is similar to an existing feature, consider refactoring the UI of the first feature to accomodate the needs of the new feature, keeping the interface harmonious and consistent. Just like your codebase, the user experience of your app will accumulate cruft over time - you will have to go back and rework things as you iterate.
Additional info: Theresa Neil’s Mobile Design Pattern Gallery - UI Patterns for Mobile Applications - skim it once, then refer to it when specing new features or refactoring old features. See also Google’s official design patterns for Android and Apple’s iOS Human Interface Guidelines.
You Are Not Your User
Finally, as a founder or employee of a company building a product, you need to know that you are not your average user. Even if you started your company to scratch your own itch or solve a problem you have and you’re trying to serve a target market of people similar to yourself, you spend at least 100x more time thinking about your product than any of your users do.
The difference in your level of understanding vs your users is often a source of angst (especially for technical people), and is commonly surfaced in you or your team’s negative reactions to user support requests. If you find yourself dismayed at the apparent lack of intellegence of your users, you’re guilty of falling into this trap.
Building and maintaining empathy with your users is key to a great user experience. When you’re deeply involved with the creation of a product, you can no longer depend on your own intuition to maintain this empathy. Talking to real users is an effective solution, and it doesn’t need to be costly or time consuming. If you’ve never done it, you will be astounded by how much you’ll learn in a half day, informal usability testing session where you spend time with 3 actual users who don’t work at your company.
Start running your own quick and dirty usability tests: skim Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems, watch the example usability test video, hire testers on TaskRabbit, and get to it!
More UX Resources
- Jesse James Garret’s The Elements of User Experience will help you understand how UX relates to other design disciplines and think through the layers to be considered from user needs/task completion all the way through to the presentation layer.
- The personality your product expresses can have a big impact on how users perceive the experience of using it. Designing for Emotion is a great place to start thinking about this facet.
- If you’re working on mobile UX specifically, Tapworthy provides a concise intro to some of the common issues and pitfalls you should think through.
I came across this question tonight on Quora. It’s an area that I have quite a bit of experience so I thought I’d post my thoughts:
Having worked with a number of companies in a product management consulting capacity, I’ve found that the roles & responsibilities of a product manager vary widely based on company. That said, here are some common threads that I believe are generally indicative of a good product manager:
- Good product managers are extremely detail oriented throughout the product development process. You should be able to identify and resolve inconsistencies in the features/application you are defining and participate in the entire development process. Driving a quality product to release may require hundreds of minor adjustments, clarifications and decisions to get to that highly polished state of a truly great experience.
- Good product managers are pragmatic and clear communicators. The specs you write should be as simple as possible and no simpler. Knowing this line and staying on the right side of it is part of the art of product management. Your team needs to understand the intention of what should be created but you need to facilitate this understanding in the most efficient way possible. The level of communication required varies widely based on the experience of your team, whether you work together onsite or remotely, the backgrounds of individual team members, etc but as product manager you should have an instinctive understanding of what information your team needs from you right now.
- Good product managers have enough technical understanding of the product they are creating to know why some things are difficult to implement and why some things are easy to implement. Initially you will need help from your engineering team to understand the system you’re working on, but good product managers quickly internalize the basics and can have reasonably accurate guesses on time and effort required for changes. These guesses will need to be validated with your engineering team but should be directionally correct as your team is depending on you to make the calls as to whether a particular feature or change is worth the time required to implement it. Good product managers can also think about their product from an engineering perspective and understand how the thing they’re specifying fits into the existing patterns, database structures, etc that already exist in the product.
- Good product managers have great relationships with their engineering teams. Product managers typically have very few direct reports but have to work with many members of the team to get something successfully released. This means they can’t depend on authority to get things done - product managers must cultivate a strong feeling of collaboration and team work, so that when you ask someone to put in that extra effort to get the release out the door, they’re willing to do it because they know you would do the same for them.
- Good product managers maintain strong ownership and leadership of the build/release/get feedback/iterate process. In practice this means that a good product manager puts feedback systems in place (both quantitive and qualitative), actively monitors those systems and uses those signals to inform future decisions, and is adaptable and willing to quickly change thinking/approach when data indicates the reality is contrary to a hypothesis.
- Good product managers have good taste. A good product manager will strive to get the product out the door as quickly as possible, but knows when something just isn’t ready for prime time and will be the one to say so. Good product managers are keepers of a great user experience.
- Good product managers think of engineering bandwidth as the single most valuable resource on the planet. They should seek to refine the product development process so that the engineering team has everything they need to build the product as efficiently as possible. This means that required documentation is done in advance, concepts are validated with prototypes or other low-impact tests prior to investing time in full builds, the real data and assets needed are prepared prior to the dev team needing them. You won’t always achieve this level of preparedness, especially if working in an agile process, but the bar should remain high.
Finally, a less specific but important point: good product managers are prepared to do whatever is needed to release a quality product. Most of the time this means doing a great job with the above points, but at times you need to do things that may not exactly fall within your responsibilities. Do you think there’s a need for one final usability test before release? You should be willing to find the participants yourself. Is the engineering team close but not quite there on the current release? You should be willing to go buy pizza to keep them going or tell them all to go home and get some sleep if you think it’s better for the team and the product. Is the QA team having trouble tracking down a particular display bug that’s blocking release? You should be scanning the site with Firebug and trying to find the buggy CSS selector yourself. Good product managers are ready to get their hands dirty with what whatever needs to happen to move the product forward.
I was recently invited to be the alumni speaker at the UC Davis Design department graduation reception, and honor that I quite enjoyed. I had been thinking about what to to say for the last few months, and I settled on telling a few stories about what I’ve been working on since I graduated three years ago, and trying to explain some lessons through those stories. I believe that now is an incredible time to be a designer, and I hope my optimism provided an encouraging counterpoint to the ominous economic situation we’re all struggling with. Here’s what I said to the new graduates:
UC Davis Design Department Graduation ReceptionJune 12th, 2010by Alan WellsI have to admit that I find it a little strange to be standing before you today. Three years ago today I was sitting where you are now, happy to be finished with school but anxious about heading into a future that held all sorts of uncertainty. I’m still trying to figure out how this crazy place called the real world works, so I thought I’d share a little bit about what I’ve been doing and a few things I’ve learned along the way.
During my time at UC Davis, I studied both design and ecology. I started with an ecology major but became interested in design and how it could be applied to solving the problems in the world around us. Shortly before graduation, I was quoted in UC Davis magazine as saying that I wouldn’t take a full time job until untilI found a position related to sustainability. I thought that I could continue the freelance work I had started in school and find a job. Optimistic about my chances, I moved to San Francisco, signed a lease, and tried to get started - but the freelance work I had in school had slowed down, and I wasn’t making enough money to support myself. I needed a job - fast!
I applied for several positions at design studios but didn’t get anywhere. I also applied for a job as a web producer at a small startup called Affinity Labs. The word “design” wasn’t even in the job description, much less anything about sustainability, but it looked like something I was qualified for and I needed the work. I was offered the job and happily accepted it, acknowledging that my interests in sustainability would have to be put on the back burner for a while.
When I started at Affinity Labs, I spent most of my time sourcing content, writing emails, and engaging with the users on the social networking sites the company ran. Despite the fact that design was not in my job description, I found that I was able to bring my design skills into the position - first by designing emails and helping other producers with HTML. I was able to find ways to show my design skills, and was quickly moved into a position where I led the user interface design and software development process for the company’s social networking software platform - a job I would have NEVER been considered for had I applied for it originally.
Here’s the funny thing about the work I did at Affinity Labs - due to class scheduling constraints, I only took one web design class at Davis, and I definitely didn’t consider myself an “interaction designer”. But this is the first lesson about design that I’d like to pass on today: the design skills you’ve learned here can be applied to a wide range of problems. There is a trend in design to segment the field into an increasing number of very specific titles - “graphic designer”, “interaction designer”, “user experience designer” is particularly hot right now. But in my experience, these distinctions are fuzzy at best. The design process you’re now well-versed in is a framework that you can use to solve many different types of problems. Sure, different mediums have different tools and jargon, but those are the easy things to learn. The ability to develop an appropriate solution to a problem while working within constraints is the hard part, and you’ve been well prepared by your teachers here to use that process. So my advice to you is to broaden your design horizons as much as possible, and to open your mind to all the ways that you can use what you’ve learned here.
The willingness to work on a wide variety of projects was key to the next stage in my career. I was offered a position as a product manager at a growing gaming startup called Zynga. For those of you who don’t know Zynga or their flagship game Farmville, the company has turned into one of Silicon Valley’s hottest startups. At Zynga, I was hired to design and manage iPhone games - another area I had never worked in before, but again, I found that the design process that I already knew transferred easily. Zynga should have been a dream job for me - I was designing at the hottest gaming company around, working on Apple’s then-new iPhone platform, and being well compensated all at the same time. But that quote about sustainability kept coming back to haunt me - I couldn’t get much further from sustainability than making an iPhone poker game.
I desperately wanted to work on a project at the intersection of technology and sustainability, so I decided to build an iPhone application that would help San Francisco residents recycle. I needed data the City had collected to make the application work, so I pitched the project to them and asked for the data. I think they were skeptical that the project would actually happen (I was proposing to create the app with no financial support from them), but they gave me the data I needed. I spent the next three months working nights and weekends so I could release the app to coincide with a recycling campaign they were starting last June. Along the way, several incredible things happened that made the app a reality. I found a programming team to build the app, and when I told them I was volunteering my time to design the application, they offered to develop the app at no cost. Shortly after we started development, Mayor Gavin Newsom got wind of the project and decided he liked it enough to issue a press release about the app. Later in the summer, we were invited to participate in the Mayor’s press conference about Government 2.0 technology in San Francisco. Because of the support from the Mayor, our app was covered in Fast Company, Fortune Magazine, CNN.com, and several other major publications.
Just before we released the app, when I heard that Mayor Newsom was going to put his weight behind the project, I came up with a company name to brand the app with. That turned out to be a good decision - the app put Haku Wale on the map, before we even existed as a company!
The lesson that I’d like to convey here is about the power of working on things that matter to you. When you put your heart and soul into a project, you’ll be surprised by the support the world sends your way. I know this may be hard to believe, but it’s true. W. H. Murray, the Scottish mountaineer, once described this phenomenon: “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back – Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.”
The danger in not doing work that is meaningful to you is that you will find it hard to fully commit yourself to the work. And if you don’t fully commit yourself, you’re missing out on all that Providence has to offer. And you don’t need someone to hire you or give you permission to do work that matters - find a way to do it own your own, you’ll be surprised by what comes from it. When you do work that matters to you, magic things can happen.
Shortly after the success of the EcoFinder app, I joined forces with a high school friend of mine to officially start Haku Wale New Media Studio. We didn’t want to lose the momentum we had gained during the EcoFinder launch, so we quit our jobs, said goodbye to our full time salaries, and tried to make a go of it. While our studio is less than a year old, we’ve been fortunate enough to work on some interesting projects with great clients, most of which have strong connections to sustainability and social impact.
The final thought I’d like to leave you with today is that I believe that now is the best time in recent history to be a designer. I know the economic context that we live in today doesn’t paint a rosy picture, but I believe the graduates in this room are better positioned for success than just about anyone else graduating today. In recent years, the value of good design is finally starting to be acknowledged as a key component to commercial success. In many fields, technology is no longer the limiting factor or primary challenge - the challenge is in creating things that are desirable, understandable, delightful. At its core, I believe design is a process for creating something that didn’t previously exist. So the question for those of you graduating today is: how will you use that process? What will you choose to create?
I’d like to close with a thought from Daniel Burnham, the Chicago architect who built the first skyscraper: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work… Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.”
Thank you and congratulations to you all.
“Building a new technology company is really, really hard. In order to do it successfully, you have to sweat the details, worry about all the things that might go wrong, and suffer more than a few sleepless nights (either from working through the night or just worrying through the night). All of those things that you go through—a boiling stomach, lack of sleep, waves of paranoia, and vivid visions of your own demise—turn out to be good things.” - Ben Horowitz
It’s hard to do, but if you get it right, the payoff can be huge. If I were on the team at Apple that designed the iPad, I would consider this post from Fred Wilson to be one of the highest compliments I could receive. Fred’s initial reaction to the iPad was lukewarm at best. After spending some time with it and seeing how the device fit into his home, he said this:
“I like how I feel when I am using the thing.”Those of us who are early adopters, technology-savvy, or otherwise ahead of the curve often forget that it’s not about the walled garden but still abundant app ecosystem, the conflict between Apple and Adobe, or the presence or lack of multitasking. It’s about how it makes you feel. And in that respect, it seems as though the iPad is a resounding success. Or at least 2 million people seem to think so.
Fred’s post reminded me of Simon Sinek’s TEDTalk, where he talks about great companies (like Apple) that build brands around meaning:
Saw this on Fred Wilson’s blog yesterday, and woke up thinking about it this morning. This is one of those things I’ll file away in the back of my head for those dark nights when I question the path I’m walking:
“Courage is a funny thing. It is continuing to function calmly and purposefully when the environment suggests otherwise and discourages continuing… There are people who can simply ignore the fray sufficiently to continue to operate. They seem to have ice water in their veins but in reality they simply have a high tolerance for chaos and can continue to focus on the issues at hand.
In the business world, I think this virtue or characteristic is a critical element in being an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur has the courage to continue to operate when lesser (?) folks would be disuaded from acting. Founders had the original courage to start the company and continue to have a reservoir of courage which they can call upon at difficult times.”
-JLM, via a comment on Fred Wilson’s blog
Last night I attended a Designer’s Accord Town Hall meeting at Lunar Design. I gave a quick five minute presentation about some ideas I’ve thinking about lately from my work at Zynga. Zynga is the largest social game company on the web, with 10 million daily active users across eight social networks plus the iPhone platform.
The point that I tried to make in my talk last night was that social games are exceptionally strong drivers of consumer behavior. Zynga and other game companies have shown that huge numbers of people will come back every day to play games. The success of these games is no accident - these experiences are designed to influence behavior and drive very strong engagement. In a world where sustainable living often costs more (or at least appears to cost more given current market structures), I think there are lessons from social games that can be applied to influencing consumer behavior beyond depending on altruism.
For years, single player games have shown strong engagement. Basic mechanics like achievements, unlocking, and leveling up have proven to be strong drivers of engagement. There seems to be something in these very clear reward structures (you know what you have to do, and you receive some reward when you do it) that appeals to human nature. These mechanics are part of social games as well. See the screenshot below of my Poker Profile on Zynga’s Texas HoldEm game. The visual representation of Achievements brings visibility to the things I can achieve in the game, which compels me to play more to hit those milestones.
With the help of internet-based communication platforms, such as Facebook, MySpace and the iPhone, social games have added another level of mechanics onto the traditional single player games. These mechanics deal with interactions between people - and more importantly, interactions between friends. The mechanics of this space - competition, comparison and cooperation - have driven aboslutely explosive growth in the social games industry. Again, these mechanics seem to appeal to something fundamental to human nature, and that appeal stretches across geographic and cultural barriers (social games are growing just about everywhere there is a platform to enable them).
A few examples:
Competition: YoVille is a virtual world, where you create a digital representation of yourself and customize your space in that world. You can then interact with others in the virtual world - having conversations, visiting their apartments, dancing, and giving gifts. The YoVille friend ladder, a persistent element at the bottom of the game, shows how highly your room is rated relative to your friends. By seeing how you rank against your friends, you are motivated to invest more in the game to rank higher in your social circle.
Comparison: Everyone in YoVille has an apartment to customize. You can visit your friends apartment and check out all the cool stuff they have. Really well done apartments get more visitors, and make you want to go back and improve your own.
Cooperation: In Mafia Wars, a game where you become leader of your own Mafia, growing your mafia is key. You can improve your odds for fighting, gain money, and increase your power faster by adding more people to your Mafia. When adding Mafia members that fill certain roles, there’s a synergistic effect - together, you can do more in the game than you would be able to on your own.
I think that there is huge potential for designers to learn lessons from the mechanics used in these games. By using these mechanics in our products, we might be able to spark widespread change in ways that wouldn’t depend on guilt or altruism. One idea that I’ve been thinking about lately that might serve as a useful example: “What if my local power company were a social gaming company? What would my energy bill look like?” A few thoughts:
- My bill wouldn’t be a monthly piece of paper, it would be a rich interface where I could receive up to the minute information about my energy usage and performance
- Every day, I would see my energy usage relative to those of my friends. By framing energy efficiency as a competition between my friends, I would be motivated to try to beat my friends every day.
- I might see how my city block ranked against others in my neighborhood. If my block was lagging, my neighbors would pester me to be more efficient so our block could win and get our efficiency bonus.
- Even if I couldn’t manage to change my lifestyle enough, I might have a way to trump my friends by spending more to buy wind or solar power.
- There would be a clear path to improvement, incentives to level up, and rewards along the way - from day one, I could see how to be an energy rockstar, and the competition would engage me to invest in this.
Zynga Games (just a few - see more at zynga.com):