Dave Concannon

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In Pure Water, No Fish

Quick fix as a Competitive Feature Set

This season’s must-have startup feature set is the quick fix. At the crossroads between the attention deficit disorder of internet users and voyeurism we have the phenomenon that is Chat Roulette. In some sort of mix between the visuals of the classic 80’s board game Guess Who and some sort of stalking application we have the recent StartupBus winner DateBrowsr.

Under the category of mobile applications there is the simple check-in use cases of Gowalla and FourSquare. And of course, the standout heavy hitter in the category of quick fixes that I’ve yet to mention is of course Twitter, fueling the zeitgeist one minuscule update at a time. There is an element of both bragging and voyeurism to all of these services, and the major usage is built around the fact that the user can leave at any time – the user workflows are very short and there’s a lot of fun to be had in that short time.

Chris Dixon has an excellent article about why for a lot of business models having the user stick around for a long time may not help the revenue model. On a consumer web app dependent on advertising revenue having the user hang around not clicking on ads is just burning up your server cycles. More and more, the simpler web applications are tending towards just a single feature. Foursquare has an interesting revenue model, bringing game mechanics and analytics dashboards to real-life businesses. Twitter has ubiquity which should eventually lead to decent revenue,  but it remains to be seen whether there is a sustainable business in the other ideas.

Can Game Mechanics make Serious software ’sticky’?

Robert Scoble has an interesting post about Incentivizing social behaviour in your app. Coincidentally, during the week I was listening to Amy-Jo Kim’s excellent Mixergy interview about Game Mechanics and wondering how the concepts could be applied in more ’serious’ software. (Edit: Alan O’Rourke also directed me to this excellent presentation on the subject. Another great presentation by Amy-Jo Kim here.).

When I was still at college I spent an unhealthy amount of time playing MUD. This is like the text-driven grandfather of World of Warcraft or similar online games. Looking back, it looks like an antiquated relic – no graphics, grindingly slow, and you’d be randomly disconnected all the time; but it was as addictive as crack cocaine. Playing MUD became an obsession. My friends and I would try to cram in 10 minutes playing before lectures or exams, and often hang around the computer labs until we were kicked out.

Amy-Jo Kim nicely summarizes a lot of the essentials of Game Mechanics in her Mixergy interview so  instead of repeating them I’d advise you to go and listen to it. One fundamental concept she mentions several times is to create “Braggable Moments” for your users. We see this happening organically on a service like Twitter, where the ‘re-tweet’ evolved as users wanted to share a quality tweet from another user. Being re-tweeted by a famous or popular user is the very essence of a Braggable Moment.

Scoble’s blog post defines the sort of social mechanisms he sees for software such as FourSquare, but I see these applications as being designed specifically as games. I don’t see them solving a particularly pressing pain point for a customer that can’t already be solved in a more direct way – E.g. “Where are my friends? Well, I guess I’ll ring them and ask.

Defining a “Braggable Moment”

I’m going to create a loose definition of a ‘Braggable Moment’ as a shared action which elevates an individual user in status among their peers. Akin to the “retweet” example from Twitter, we have the “like” button on Facebook. Someone “liking” your status update is something which adds kudos to the original poster’s content, elevating the user’s status. At it’s most basic it’s pandering to the user’s ego, but if used correctly it can be used to encourage the types of behavior you need for your software to be successful.

Implementing Game Mechanics in ‘Serious’ Software

So how can similar addictive elements be utilized to make more serious software ’sticky’? Ebay has a leaderboard and a ‘level’ system for it’s power sellers. Amazon has a ‘top reviewers’ leaderboard for people who have contributed the most reviews. In a very simple example which Max Klein describes humorously as Pavlovian conditioning, the bell sound added to lead conversion software was a very prominent braggable moment – When a lead converted into a sale, the salesperson’s software made an audible sound to tell his peers that he had sold something. Furthermore, these sorts of features drive the users competitive nature – encouraging them to use the software more.

Implementation Ideas

  1. Leaderboards - probably the most accessible method for enterprise software – Create a top ten list of the most active users (rewarding only actions which add value to the system E.g. Adding useful comments to a data service, Most Sales).
  2. Sharing of added content - The re-tweet concept. If someone shares a valuable information added by a user, let the user and their peers know somehow that their information was considered valuable. Display a list of their items which have been shared in their profile or create badges or levels for being shared a certain number of times.
  3. Elevate Individual items of merit – Prominently display a “best comment of the week” or similar added content, solved problem, or whatever other purpose the software is designed for.

Game Mechanics and Customer Development

The first thought after I read Scoble’s blog post was to explore the idea of baking these viral concepts into software directly from the initial Customer Development process by identifying not just the pain points but the types of things that pander to the user’s ego. My feeling is that unless you’re either developing a social application, designing a game, or innovating in a market where the problem space is well understood you’re probably trying to paint the boat before the hull is finished – aim for the absolute minimum deliverable and iterate. The whole idea probably reflects that I’ve been reading too many articles on Customer Development recently.

With that said, If you’re trying to innovate in an existing market where the problem space is well understood, I’d hold up something like StackOverflow (which uses badges, levels etc) as a great example of how to increase ’stickiness’ and reward desirable behavior with braggable moments. Question and Answer forums have been around since the dawn of the consumer internet and the problems and opportunities in this area are well understood. Adding game mechanics to this area has increased usage, attracted more knowledgeable participants, and greatly improved the quality of the content.

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