How many games can we handle?

The number of active Draw Something players has come back down to Earth. This Forbes article captures a few big reasons:

  • The novelty of the game mechanic has worn off
  • The same words are repeated frequently (“DORITO again??”)
  • The app takes too much time and effort for continued engagement

The last point (and the most common answer in my unscientific poll of ex-Drawers) raises an interesting question: is there a practical limit to the number of games we can play at once?

While good game mechanics can make certain tasks rewarding and spare our willpower reserves, perhaps games simply drain a different mental reservoir. Gamification fanatics (myself included) dream of games everywhere, turning the mundane (Expense reports! Answering the phone!) into fun and engaging quests. But what happens if we all just have a five-gallon tank of Giving A Shit?

If there is a upper bound to the number of simultaneous games that an individual can care about, then the race to consume this attention should result in better, more engaging game dynamics. Companies hoping for a magic motivational badge system, however, will be disappointed; if your attention is already being consumed by nine concurrent sessions of Scream At Friends (see: Voxer), why engage with your company’s strained support ticket system that designates you a “ninja” if you close twenty in a day?

In a game-saturated world, the app that generates the greatest emotional reward for the least attention input will have the best chance of winning those last few drops of engagement. Of course, input and reward are often positively correlated and unintuitively intertwined — a wickedly complex human behavior optimization problem. Solving it means, essentially, creating the game equivalent of methamphetamine: massive satisfaction for minimum conscious effort.

And I’ll play it. As long as I get to keep my teeth.


How three ideas per day cured my fear of startup failure

Mister Bubbles had better get used to it.

I just murdered my first startup. It had it coming.

Let me elaborate.

To do customer development, you have to be willing to kill your idea.

Over the past few months, I’ve been working HireRiot through the early phases of the customer development process.

For each iteration cycle, I produced a walkthrough video or scripted description of a low-fi MVP, then asked a number of potential customers their thoughts on the problem and on my solution. If a key aspect of the business model was thoroughly invalidated through these interviews, I would take some time to rebuild, then come back with a new angle.

  • Plan A was to run a two-sided marketplace for outsourcing job interviews to industry veterans, who would give their expert opinion on potential hires.
  • Plan B was to let industry experts monetize their professional network by letting recruiting companies pay them for access to their connections.
  • Plan C was to let recruiters “sponsor” (schedule and pay for) lunches between target candidates and client firm employees.

I’d heard the customer development process was all about failure, so I was prepared to iterate to Plan Z if necessary. Fortunately, I came up with a Plan D that made a lot more sense.

I killed the whole concept.

This was a pretty low-risk move, since I hadn’t actually built anything, hired anyone, or made any promises to customers. But it was still hard. I really liked my logo.

You're pretty, but you're not worth going insane for.

One thing made it much easier though: I had a pile of other ideas that I was excited about.

If you only have one idea that excites you, you will be too afraid to test it.

Note: this does not apply to Spartans, or George Washington. Everyone else, ‘fess up: you’re afraid that your “big idea” won’t stand up in the real world, and if it dies you’ll have to go back to your lame cubicle. This can lead you to do silly things, such as never attempting to falsify your key hypotheses. This is bad.

You fix this by having more ideas. Unrelated ideas. Ideas that suck — until they don’t.

As a fun little challenge, I’ve tried to generate three new business models per day over the past few months. I usually sketch them out with the help of Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas. Many (many, many) are simply atrocious — Facebook-for-Dogs atrocious. I would say 90%. To be kind.

But during my customer development process, I noticed that my growing “maybe” folder was having a surprising effect. That bench of backup ideas made me far more comfortable with breaking out the validation sledgehammer on HireRiot. I wasn’t afraid that customers would hate my concept, because if I couldn’t pivot after a crushing invalidation, I could simply dust myself off and start working on another idea. There had to be something interesting in that pile.

This mindset allowed me hear feedback from customers I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to hear. It suppressed my natural ego defense, and let me see my idea as just another business model that needed to stand or fail on its own.

It failed. So I’m back to Plan A on another cool idea.

I’ll keep you posted.

Skillshare, Codecademy and the gamification of education

Codecademy badges

I'll stop with the "-ifications" when I'm good & damn well ready

Two Skillshare classes taken, 500 Codecademy exercises completed, and about 200 hours under my belt trying to drag my startup toward anything that could reasonably be termed “traction”… my brain hurts. In a good way.

The non-traditional learning opportunities that have emerged over the last year are almost unbelievable in breadth and scope. But the content isn’t new. Little is being taught today through these new platforms that you couldn’t get for free at the library (or worst-case by paying a course fee to your local community college).

So why the hell are they so freaking amazing? Why can this average-to-difficult student not get enough of this here ol’ larnin?

The best thing about these education platforms isn’t cost (although Codecademy is free and Skillshare courses often barely tick above single digits). It’s the concreteness of achievement.

In middle school, for every book that we read, we received a paper trophy that we could color in and pin to the wall. Then after 5th grade graduation, that stopped. Why?

I’m serious. Why?

It was a brilliant play to human nature. In general terms, we like getting things for doing things. We’re not good at receiving abstractions as consideration for a job well done. I’m not reading Wuthering Heights until I get a POG slammer with Heathcliff’s face on it, as portrayed by Ralph Fiennes. [Note: update this reference to something less painfully nineties].

“Badges” are a teensy step in the right direction, but clearly are only motivating to the weak-willed (guilty!) and easily impressed (ditto!). Soon, someone is going to discover a way to apply the crack-like effect of well-designed games like World of Warcraft to the educational realm. I want to learn algebra about as much as I want to spend eighteen hours killing and skinning virtual warthogs. Why is it so easy to get people (not just kids) to do the latter?

Education is just the beginning. Companies like EmployInsight are tackling the problem of employee engagement with psychological assessment platforms, so that people are matched up with the most appropriate positions. But what if you took on the problem from the other direction? What if you could increase engagement by gamifying work?

(Stephen Hawking called. He says that I just broke the universe.)

Is that so crazy? Dan Pink argues (convincingly) that job satisfaction is driven mainly by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. A well-designed game dynamic strokes all three. Maybe in ten years, we’ll have Level 62 Accountants running around, completing audit quests and hustling to get above 85 skill points in Tax.

Do games make us stupid? Sort of. They jack directly into the “dumb” part of our brain that rewards us, bypassing the “smart” part of our brain that makes us do things we don’t want to do. The end result? Underachievers can be motivated to learn and accomplish things beyond their conscious capacity.

And that will be awesome to watch.

MITx and “coffeeshopification”

Via In the future, everything will be a coffee shop.

…imagine a personnel manager at a mid-sized corporation who’s looking for an employee with some particular knowledge. There are two candidates: one with an appropriate college degree from the local state school, a second with relevant MITx certificates. Let’s say all other things between the candidates are equal. Which should the manager choose?

Having just enrolled in a few free online courses (several CS courses via Stanford-originated Coursera and the MITx pilot course on electronic circuits), I think the model has merit, but I doubt it will evolve in the way people expect.

For MITx and other “open learning” initiatives to catch on, they will need to deliver measurable competency improvements to early adopters. By “early adopters”, I don’t mean enrolled students; I’m referring to the first employers who take the risk that the emerging generation of online learning tools confers knowledge comparable to that gained through traditional methods.

It will be crucial to integrate interactive assignments rather than the lecture/reading model common throughout postsecondary education. A few weeks of Codecademy’s Code Year have given me a working understanding of Javascript (from literally zero experience), and I cannot wait to see where the platform goes once the promised 3rd-party lessons come online.

Entrepreneurship as long-term risk mitigation

Stumbled across this today via HackerNews:

Just How Risky is Entrepreneurship, Really?

In addition to the psychic merits of working on the personally meaningful, in an economy where low-wage, high-skill overseas workers and no-wage machines encroach ever more rapidly, it is essential to compete both in input and output.

I think the importance of these points completely dwarfs the rest of the argument.

Set aside the fact that the psychic value of working on your own project can, for many people, offset much of the higher expected monetary value of a steadier job. Crucially, starting and running your own company rapidly develops your executive, decision-making and management skills, largely independent of financial success. These are skills that aren’t going to machines or offshore, at least in the near term. Entrepreneurship IS long-term risk mitigation.

Would you buy a Lamborghini to mow your lawn?

Not unless you care more about impressing your neighbors than cutting your grass. So why do consulting firms look for Lambo talent to do John Deere work?

Lamborghini Tractor
Okay, maybe you can have both.

Performance on generic case interview questions and brain teasers can be correlated with quick-fire intelligence — or with how many editions of Case in Point the candidate owns. Less-structured interviews with principals and managers burn billable hours, and are impractical as an early-round filter.

Firms make these mistakes because they often fail to create a structured, relevant case process that identifies the best candidates (not the brightest) at the lowest cost.

Companies usually rationalize this away: “We just want the big brains. We can train them on any necessary skills.” That’s like buying a Lamborghini to mow your lawn because it has the most horsepower, even though you’ll have to spend the next 6 months modifying the undercarriage to install the blades.

If you hire the smartest people out of top schools without regard to relevant capabilities, you are overpaying for talent.

Consultancies whose entire business model is based around overpaying for talent are off the hook. Would you hire McKinsey if it didn’t mean a gaggle of Ivy Leaguers would soon be Thinking Very Hard about your business problems? This is part of their brand promise. And it works for them.

For most firms, though, the right evaluation approach is built around specific job skills. This isn’t because the ability to learn and grow is worthless; it’s just that you can’t evaluate it accurately. House keys, dark street, streetlight, etc. Firms overpay for proxies, like elite diplomas, when simply targeting the right metrics could radically widen the base of acceptable candidates.

Karl Kapp on educational revolution

Kapp on the need for revolutionary change in education:

Year End Musings, Reflections, Predictions and Thoughts: Part Two | Kapp Notes.

We need to wipe out the current structure and put into place a structure that recognizes the realities of today’s modern world, that emphasizes 21st century skills like problem-solving, creative thinking and entrepreneurial thinking.

The school day shouldn’t be divided by subject, it should be based on projects, students working in teams creating a company or answering a request for proposal or preparing for a forensic debate…

We don’t need to band-aid the school system; we need to fundamentally change its core. We need to align the educational structure with the needs of society and the world. 

Where do I sign up?

It’s not an either/or issue; creative, integrative and relational skills are ways to reinforce and solidify subject-area learning, not some new-age replacements for concrete knowledge.

Education certainly would be more efficient if the human brain were built to process narrative-free modules of pure information. But since it’s not, why do we keep teaching that way?

First! (Or: Hopefully we’ll look back on this one day and laugh)

4/366: Beginning

In many ways, this post is like a beige LEGO -- boring, yet full of potential.

The very first post on any blog cannot, I suspect, escape the connotations of its low-tech parallel: an unfamiliar person on your favorite form of public transportation speaking coherently to no one in particular. In fact, the latest in nano-headset technology ensures that our prospective madman has far more excuses than we to be holding forth at the apparent void. When you begin writing on the Internet, it is assured that your first words are ignored at the time of writing. So think of this post as a time capsule — not meant for immediate consumption. Less self-indulgent content: TBD.

I record the proposed subjects of this blog below, partly as a commitment device to restrain my topics of exposition (it won’t), and partly as a guide for you, the currently-nonexistent reader, on what you might find here someday. The areas that most interest me are:

  • Nontraditional education and self-directed learning
  • The methods firms use to select, recruit, evaluate and train employees
  • Labor market skill gaps and solutions
  • Entrepreneurship and the development of human capital

Off-topic posts are likely, ranging from small-city life (Boston) to nutrition (it’s…good?) to gentlemanly attire (assuming I find any).

See you out there.