6 Examples Why Not All Gamification is Bad

Gamification has a bad aura surrounding it. One thinks of Gamification as being best done by Zynga and its evil time-devouring demon called FarmVille. But a recent crop(just mentioning FarmVille has infected me!) of apps have affirmed this belief that not all Gamification is bad.

What is Gamification?

Before we dig in, here is Wikipedia’s definition of Gamification

Gamification is the use of game design techniques[1], game thinking and game mechanics to enhance non-game contexts.

Good definition but I think we could add a little more color. Before I reveal what it is, let me share details of a few apps that have influenced my thinking.

Zite

Zite is a online magazine that lets you subscribe to news on specific topics you select. Zite is like a smart sister to the pretty Flipboard. Zite absolutely shines when it comes to the quality of articles it recommends. It does that by taking feedback on the article you read. It tackles the “how to get feedback” by asking three questions i) Do you want to see more from same site/author? ii) Did you like this post? iii) Do you want to see more articles on the topics like this article?. Between these three questions it captures a nice overview of how a user feels about the content. I did not take this mechanism seriously for a while but once I started giving it the feedback, I found quality of new articles become really really good. To summarize, Zite uses Gamification to improve quality of article recommendations.

Newsle

Newsle is a new breed of recommendation system. It does one thing, to show news articles about people you care about. It picks the list of people from your social graph and also provides means to add ad-hoc names. Imagine you could keep track of your friends, competitors to see if they get mentioned on any news articles. Newsle deserves a bigger post because they use entity recognition algorithm to solve a practical problem(how do I see news about people I care about?) cleanly. Newsle takes feedback from you on whether the person entity it has recognized in an article is the same person you care about. So, Newsle uses Gamification to improve its people recognition algorithm.

Cargobot

Cargobot is an ingenious game designed to teach programming principles. You instruct a robot to move in certain predefined set of ways to accomplish task of moving cargo boxes. I found this an absolute delight to play and even got my kid interested in instructing the robot to do things. This could a nice first step before getting kids onto bigger stuff like Lego’s Mindstorms. You play a game but the side effect is to learn programming principles. Clever use of a Gamification to teach programming.

Lift

Lift, an iOS app, is yet to be released. From the reviews I have seen its helps accomplish changes to your habits by having a virtual group of friends to motivate you. Simple app and am sure there are many like it. I really like how Lift, and similar apps, use Gamification of social interactions to influence old behavior or acquire new ones.

Contactually

Contactually is CRM for your email. It takes your email contacts and helps manage each relationship by reminding you to stay in touch with people. The reason it finds a place here is in how it make you categorize your contacts. Getting your contacts grouped by what they mean to you is a chore. But Contactually makes it into a game by asking you to bucket contacts. I found ‘bucketing’ to be more palatable than just calling it categorizing contacts. The feature would have remained they same in function and UX if it had been called categorization. Contactually have tweaked your perception of categorizing to make it more enjoyable.

ReWire

ReWire is an app to help build attention/concentration skills. Disclosure – this is a game my firm did the development for. Essentially what it does is to take a conventional audio or video signal and interrupts it and looks for action from you on whether you have recognized the interruption or not. Deceptively simple mechanics but it produces a zoned in state where your senses are tuned in. This is almost like a regular game but what makes ReWire different is that it tries to focus exclusively on the negative spaces and not the actual audio or video signal that is going on in the app. It helps you to stay mentally at one place without being distracted. Exactly the state you need to be in to solve hard problems or do meditation or any activity that needs concentration. Again good example, I think, of Gamification to improve concentration.

Summary

In all these examples the key element was to influence the user to take an action. Whether it was by making an activity into a game, or by game-like rewards for taking a specific action. This is conventionally called interaction design but I feel some of these examples go much beyond that. So here is my definition:

Gamification is the process of engineering or eliciting a certain behavior. Gamification uses a combination of interaction design techniques and understanding of human psychology to accomplish its goals.

What do you think? Does my definition capture what Gamification means to you? What other apps do you know do this better? Let me know in the comments.

Product Management Lessons from an Android User

Android vs. Alien

My views on why Samsung/Android sucks drew some fun reactions. Here I summarize my understanding of how to build products, based on the horrible experience I have had with my Samsung Galaxy S2. I will try to keep emotions out of the way here btw.

Spec is not the product

The map is not the territory and the spec is not the product. It is possible to manufacture an alluring product which sucks when used..whether in usability, reliability, utility and more. For example, the Galaxy S2 has a beautiful display, dual-core chip, extensible memory and Google’s Android..yet when its all put together we get a strange concoction instead of a smooth martini we were expecting. Engineers need supervision by artists. And please don’t get lawyers anywhere close.

Design for use not just for selling

A big factor in how customers buy products is by checking a bunch of features, it is human to maximize what we get for our cash. It is the same process an enterprise goes through when it tries to procure a product. But if your design is driven by specs that will get attention of customer then you are not doing something right. Attention is just the first step, engagement is next. Design for use. Design for day to day experience.

Take Samsung/Android’s claim of being a multi-tasking mobile OS, what did it lead to? Piss-poor battery life. Side effects? Well, the display has to be switched off to conserve battery. When reading a long text the UI goes off. Samsung fixed this in Galaxy S3(check Smart Stay), guess how? Well, they put an algorithm to figure out you are staring at the device by using the camera. So the problem(display going off to conserve battery) caused by a feature(multi-tasking), required a feature(camera based recognition if you are using device) that will aggravate problem(poor battery life/power management) further.

See how Microsoft pitches its Windows Phone by asking people to do common tasks, that shows attention to detail and not trying to sugarcoat junk. And btw, if I had not spent money on Galaxy S2, would have gladly bought the Nokia Lumia 800 or 900..I tried it out and its sheer joy to use. Windows Phone has original UI design and fantastic developer support.

Step back, dig in constantly

See the big picture of how a customer would perceive your product. Then get into details of how it is implemented and the implications. Do this constantly, for every thing you do. Good products are good through out because people who built it actually cared about details. It is not enough if the hardware is awesome, the apps are the ‘Smart’ in a ‘SmartPhone’. Your default apps are crucial. They need to be awesome. If awesome is not your style, then be fair and allow the customer to do what she wants with the device she paid for..allow to uninstall those apps without having to jailbreak.

Every customer touchpoint is the product

To a customer anything that carries your logo is you. Whether its an utility you provide(Samsung Kies 2.0), or associated help(online help from Samsung/Android), or any upgrade process(say the OS!), everything reflects on you. The attention to detail shown for how the device looks does not extend to software and every other aspect of Samsung/Android. It is as if Jekyll designed hardware and Hyde took over for software and all related services.

Don’t sell anything customers will buy

Not all customers are smart. As a product vendor you might only care about who can afford your product. But money is not everything over the long run. Vendors can choose to do the right thing and do what is best for the customer, even if the product or service is opinionated. Its easy to fool customers, especially the non-technical ones in the short-run. Do the right thing, it always pays off in the long run.

Photo Credit: JD Hancock via Compfight

Taste and Specification

Taste in product creation overlaps a lot with design: doing it well requires it to be valued, rewarded, and embedded in the company’s culture and upper leadership.

That is a quote from Marco Arment‘s post titled Time and Taste. An excellent post as usual from Marco, and I would like to elaborate on the taste aspect.

Specification is not the Product

Any product is always built to a specification. A 4-inch touch-sensitive screen, 1GB RAM, 8GB memory, expansion via SD card slots and so on. Yet the result, when one considers an Android phone, feels like something a one-eyed drunkard put together, after pondering nuances with co-drunkards in a noisy section of a 3rd world bazaar.

Yes it is manufactured to specification but the thing functions in a way that makes you feel disappointed every damn time. That experience betrays lack of taste at every point from, and between, producer to consumer. Of course there will be a market for poorly designed products/services. You could argue about affordability, demographic needs, wider price points and so on. But a producer of such tasteless goods is only a slightly refined version of crooks who steal from children.

Aesthetic Escapes Specification

What is taste? Hard to describe but taste can be i) an aesthetic sensibility ii) an outcome of a specific world-view or iii) result of a reasoned belief. Taste, like reasoning, is a skill of mental cognition. Everything needs to be actively thought about, critiqued and most important savored for what it is beyond its functionality .

Put simply, if specification is prose then taste would be poetry. A specification can never capture beauty and feeling.

Why should you care? Tasteful products have competitive differentiation built-in. Of course it requires an audience with taste. The challenge will be to identify this audience, if not to work towards educating and building up an audience with taste. That done, you don’t have to play the “price drop” game anymore. And taste is hard to copy too. Your competitor can steal a feature or your style but they can seldom be you or your product.

Where does taste stand in your scheme of things? Does your organization have it, encourage it?

If This Then That

If this then that

Between Flipboard and Zite on the iPad my primary means of consuming news and social media is a settled thing. But the workflow to act upon an information item is not consistent. A new startup IFTTT, aka ‘if this then that‘, takes an excellent crack at the problem.

To add more context, on Flipboard my way of marking an item for acting upon it later differs. I ‘favorite‘ tweets, ‘star‘ RSS entries from Google Reader and ‘like‘ Facebook entries. On Zite, for items I wish to act upon, I end up ‘bookmarking‘ them on delicious. Ideally I would have all favorite tweets, star RSS entries end up at delicious.

Think of IFTTT as a way to act on content from any of your social media streams, based on specific conditions being true within the content. Simple example is to bookmark a tweet in delicious if I favorite it in Twitter. IFTTT does this automatically now.

To be clear Yahoo Pipes does do this and more but the user interface is suited for those with programming experience or at least the ability to understand and build flow-charts. IFTTT excels because of its UX simplicity. The means for setting up a task are like reading a simple sentence and filling in the blanks. GUI has given way to a simple textual interface. Beautiful is an understatement!

Head over to IFTTT and have a play. They are in beta though. I have 5 invites to give away, drop me a mail(check my ‘About’ page) and I can send you one. And my first recipe to save favorite tweets to delicious is here.

(Thanks to Robin Sloan at Snarkmarket for pointing out!)

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Google Correlate Draw, Finds Data That Fits Drawn Pattern

Used to be that you first had data. Then you did analysis to figure out the patterns and trends in it. Now you imagine the pattern and Google Correlate Draw checks if there is a search term that correlates to your pattern. This is awesome.

In case you can’t yet make out what the fuss is. Imagine how a person picks a dress to buy, they find a dress that fits them. Now reverse it, pick a dress and imagine finding a person who would fit it. See that!

Google Correlate Draw Examples

Note: the blue lines are what I drew and Google Correlate plots out matching data in red.

Downward trend

And guess which search term pops up? Windows Server 2003 Enterprise! And a near perfect correlation too 🙂 LittleSnapper

Upward trend

Ends up lots of people had parking tickets on their minds. Am sure city councils would have seen their parking ticket revenue increase in this period. Google Chrome

Sine wave-ish cycle

Curiously the term ‘adware free’ seems to have had a fluctuating fortune. Google Chrome

Further thoughts

Correlate Draw’s approach brings out interesting possibilities. The basic idea of search using something other than text has been attempted before. For example i)Google Goggles, search for images or ii) Voice interface to search term entry or iii) Shazam, search for songs based on recorded snippet, all try to think of search as an activity that transcends looking for “textual” information.

But what is intriguing about Correlate Draw is its ability to search, or should we say match?, for patterns in quantitative data. And that too using an intuitive drawing interface. That twist of expressing a search query as a drawing is what makes this so interesting.

Imagine this. What if an research analyst in a financial firm ‘draws’ stock price movement patterns and have the system bring up companies whose stock price correlates with it? What if every time-series data could be searched in this manner?

There is also the UX aspect. The variation that can be expressed in a drawing can never be matched in a regular search interface. You could have textboxes to capture certain terms, sliders to express value within a range, a drop down to capture a single item out of a set and so on. But the expressiveness in a drawing would be hard to beat.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. What do you think about Correlate Draw? How far can you push this idea?

Windows 8: Awesome UX, Not So Much Underneath

Big news coming from the D9 conference around Microsoft. Its flagship OS gets a rethink with the tentatively codenamed Windows 8. Take a look.

Simply love the concepts here. The tiles, ability to compose windows, IE 10.0 and more.

But all the rush vanished when they showed Excel and Windows Explorer. You got to the same old Windows, the junk was brushed under the carpet and nothing more.

John Gruber does a fantastic job enumerating why this is a flawed approach.

I quite understand Microsoft’s predicament. How could you not provide backward compatibility?! There would be a virtual revolt from consumers, especially the corporates, if their favorite apps did not work. So the internals with its 20 odd years of legacy will have to remain. What about the Office suite? Imagine all the corporate drones who live in Office, who raised a ruckus when the Ribbon menu interface was introduced! Whilst it would be possible for the Office team to reinvent the UI for a touch based environment, they would have a PR disaster on their hands if they attempted anything on those lines.

Microsoft is doomed by its past successes. Whilst it might have the intellectual mettle to re-invent itself for the post-PC world, it is chained to its legacy and thus doomed for irrelevance. Apple has craftily maneuvered itself out of its niche status in the PC world by using its low market penetration to invent iOS and related services to define a new field and own it.

Interesting times.

Idea – Flipboard for Financial Research

FlipboardForiPad

Flipboard is a personalized, social magazine for online content. Currently an iPad app, it has completely revolutionized media consumption for me.

Media consumption workflow

Almost 90% of my online time is spent on iPad/Fliboard at home. My twitter, facebook and rss feeds all are rendered in beautiful magazine layout. Add the ability to share the content again via Twitter or store for later via Instapaper and I have the right workflow for media discovery and consumption on the iPad.

Rich media aggregators like Flipboard on the iPad are the harbingers of how online media should be presented and consumed.

Online News and Financial Research

This has been interesting to me since my day job is running a product business that helps research analysts produce financial research. There are many similarities between online news and social media feeds and financial research. There should be no reason why the same experience available for news via iPad should not be possible for financial research.

Antiquated Tools

Of course reality is a little more complicated than that. Financial services firms are typically behind on the technology adoption curve. Research is produced using antiquated tools, stored in proprietary file formats and distributed in PDF.

What about RIXML?

RIXML, an XML standard, has been around as a structured way to publish and distribute research and the data elements surrounding it. But its adoption has been hampered due to complexity of specification, clunky authoring tools or reluctant businesses who don’t see sufficient ROI via this approach.

Whilst I have my own views on the utility of RIXML, I firmly believe a structured form of data exchange will benefit all parties concerned. Some of these capabilities, or consequences of using a structured data format in popular tools for research authoring from my firm and others.

Sellability

But it is always a tough sell when talking about the benefits of serialization formats, metadata in general and adhering to a standard taxonomy and making the output available in a standardized format.

With Flipboard it becomes easier to sell the benefits of publishing content in standardized formats. Because without RSS feeds and standard ways of marking up and publishing content Flipboard-like experiences would be an impossibility.

Last thoughts

Of course I do get that financial research is mixture of structured and unstructured data and there are a ton of cool things that can be done here to make the job of communicating and consuming insights a vastly superior experience to what it is now.

Drop a note/comment if you are interested to hear more or wish to discuss.

Interactive Exploration of a Dynamical System

Meet the fusion of data visualization, interactive exploration and touch based interfaces.

Interactive Exploration of a Dynamical System from Bret Victor on Vimeo.

Hope you are as excited as I am. This is not just a pretty visualization but can be a sign of how touch-based app interfaces can enable interaction with various end-points of a system.

In this case it is seed states that initiate the system, coefficients that determine strength of each rule and how each rule interacts with the rest of the system.

But it can be so much more. Anything that can be represented as a model can have an interface like this to allow dynamic exploration. Imagine a model that represents the financial health of a country or a company, perhaps in real-time. Tweak various parameters and it reflects on the bottom-line, immediately.

What do you think?

Found via Asymco

Aphorisms on Graphic Design–Frank Chimero

John Maeda linked to a post by Frank Chimero via this tweet. The title of the post by Frank is rather innocuous, “What advise would you give to a graphic design student”. But I highly recommend you don’t take it at face value and head over right away and read it.

Some sample quotes, if you are not convinced as yet, or if you do not know Frank.

Most decisions are gray, and everything lives on a spectrum of correctness and suitability.

If you can’t draw as well as someone, or use the software as well, or if you do not have as much money to buy supplies, or if you do not have access to the tools they have, beat them by being more thoughtful.

Think of every project as an opportunity to learn, but also an opportunity to teach.

There is tons more where the above sample came from.

What struck me was this. The points in there were not based on some theoretical framework – with a formal definition for what graphic design is, a set of axioms, a set of theorems built on the axioms and so on. This was like plugging into the mind and heart of a designer who has lived and breathed his craft. What issued from there were not formulae but more aphorisms that have to be encountered, entered into and become one with by the journeyman who wishes to tread the path.

I have already read it a handful of times, and recommend you do so too.

Designing for the End

Often times we value an object based on its durability. Of course aesthetics, utility and usability do play a big role, but even when all these are present, we value an object’s ability to endure contact with and usage by us. In that context I came across this post by Berg about Nike Mayfly shoes, that has planned its own obsolescence with elegance.

What follows is my own musings about the perishability of things, the design of perishable things, our own mortality and god knows what else. You would not miss much if you just read the post about the Mayfly shoes, but my gratitude would be alone without your company of course.

Perishability of Things

Not all things we touch and consume is durable. Much of what we consume for bodily sustenance is perishable.

Expiration

Take any food packaging and you can find its ‘use by’ date firmly stated. Here the utility of this commodity degrades over a period of time.

There is little we can control here, apart from making the package better and control the climatic conditions that would maximize the lifetime of the commodity.

Compartmented Perishability

On the continuum between perishable and near eternal, the next notch would be those of things that can be reused by replacing the perishable component of a product. Think of any common pen or ball point pen. With the ink as a consumable resource, the thing to do after the ink is over is to refill the ink, or change the refill.

As an aside it is interesting to see how the verb re-fill has started playing the role of a noun.

What am thinking about here is how our design choices are influenced by the perishability of things, how we manage to compartmentalize the perishable stuff, maximize the reuse potential and perhaps reduce the cost of the products we create.

Designed Perishability

But what the Mayfly product by Nike emphasizes is a curious take on planned obsolescence, something that wears its supposed weakness(utility for a limited duration only) with pride.

Nike Mayfly

It inverts our subconscious preference for durability and makes one celebrate its arrival and departure in a methodical fashion. It is almost as if this thing was alive, a thing conscious and demanding to be treated accordingly. Perhaps to be named, entered into a relationship with and even mark milestones towards the inevitable end.

I can almost imagine the product designers conceiving this not as a product but a statement about their worldview. And in doing so make this a work of art and not merely a product to serve a mundane function. It takes a courageous organization to put its name on something so ephemeral, more than most consumer products.

Perishability in Digital Media?

So that brings this question in my mind, does digital media perish? Well, by definition digital media is forever since its just a bunch of bytes that don’t degrade with time. Here it is a question of findability, having access to the media in question and its utility to the individual that determines the value of it.

So stuff like movies, songs and all other forms of entertainment are arguably forever, as long as the three factors(findability, access and utility) are taken care of. If only the business models that surround them accounted for this factor and not created an artificial scarcity am guessing they would do much better than they do now.

Relevance to Software Products

Again, a software product does not perish so perishability is an alien concept here. But do note that evolving expectations from users make what was once useful to be less so over a period of time, and in that sense they are indeed degrade over time. Hence the drive on the part of software vendors to continually release newer versions that cater to these evolving expectations. And in doing so come out with abominations like Adobe Acrobat v.zillion and Microsoft Office v.zillion+1, which have drastically lower utility in an online world.

If only software vendors, and consumers, were willing to consider planned obsolescence more frequently, it would create more opportunities for newer possibilities to emerge frequently.

This leads me to wonder how we humans deal with our own perishability.

Immortality by Proxy

As a species that is aware of its own mortality we assign great value to things that outlast us, perhaps as a means to attain immortality by proxy. And that impulse to live forever, they say, powers our culture, relationships, art, literature and science. In contributing to these fields and engaging in these activities, we leave something of us behind for all time.

Take for example the poem Ozymandias:

Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

Sculptures that outlast the men and hearts that crafted story out of inert stone.

We are not designed for eternity, at least not the corporeal part of us. Instead we seem to have been equipped with this unique gift to ruminate on this abstract concept of aesthetics while rummaging through the debris of life and fashion out of numberless moments something that we can be remembered by.

Looks like I have wandered off quite a bit here. Anyway, read the article on Nike Mayfly. Drop a comment if this has made you pause and think even if for a moment. And thanks if you have come this far!