Balancing Simplicity, Purpose and Incentive

Photo by Arenamontanus on Flick used under Creative Commons

You probably know we think a lot about games and game mechanics here.

This is largely Paul’s doing, since he’s done a lot of thinking about what makes games fun and if/how the fun of games can be applied to other typically un-fun activities, namely work.

I’ve been playing foursquare for about six months, and even though it’s not as engaging as it was when I started, I continue to play.

Why? Games are fun, and as an unabashed early adopter, I like shiny things. As a bonus, the game mechanics may translate into product.

I’ve also tried My Town and Gowalla, specifically to compare the games with foursquare, but neither one has stuck for me.

The reason is simple: badges.

Foursquare has them, and they’re front and center for everyone to see. The others have variations, but they’re not as obvious, at least not to me.

Badges equate to personal bling, and everyone is down for that. I’ve also found competition around mayorships has kept me playing. Again, because the mayorship becomes a badge.

People are competitive by nature. It’s an evolutionary trait that used to drive our survival, and now finds outlets where it can, including only everywhere.

People who claim not to be competitive often find themselves competing at it, i.e. to be the least competitive person you’ve ever met.

Badges on the interwebs are everywhere in all kinds of incarnations, so foursquare isn’t unique in that regard. What I found intriguing about the game is they have identified a clear goal for themselves, boiled it down to a simple unit of work (i.e. the checkin), and created incentives to make you do their bidding.

Paul refers to this as the “purposeful” part of the game in his commentary about foursquare.

I suddenly have a theory.

Take simplicity + purpose + incentive and you’re on to something.

When you lose a balance among them or take one as implied, you begin to expect too much from people.

Try it yourself. In my head, I visualize it as an equilateral triangle, which makes the effect of changing the length of one side obvious.

For example:

Work is mostly simple + purpose + incentive, but if one goes the wrong way, you’ll have to balance by increasing one or both of the others.

Facebook used to be simple, but as it’s become increasingly complex, they have relied on increases in the other areas, i.e. stronger incentive and purpose. You first joined to be connected to people, and that purpose only gets stronger as more people join. Plus, you’ve been posting photos and adding social artifacts for so long that quitting becomes a big disincentive.

Obviously, you can succeed with imbalance among simplicity, purpose and incentive, but if you’re starting or designing something new, this seems like a good litmus test.

Maintaing balance among them becomes the real challenge. Once you have some momentum or are successful enough to afford an imbalance, maybe it’s time to think about starting over with the same objectives, while applying what you’ve learned.

This post took a left-turn onto Cerebral Highway in the middle so apologies if it’s not fully coherent.

What do you think? Find the comments.




  1. Assuming the simplicity + purpose + incentive formula for a startup – and it sounds valid to me – then you face a long-term challenge, because in all (or almost all) cases, simplicity goes away as time passes. Customers demand new features, developers add them, and the new iteration of the product is much less simple than the old. Initially, Twitter didn't even have @replies – now it has retweets and lists and pictures and a number of other things that decrease the ease of use of the original model. Presumably the loss of simplicity is accompanied by an increase in one or both of the other variables, but sometimes that is debatable.

  2. NB I did say all that in the post 🙂

    And added that maybe it's time to start over at that point. Paul says every 7 years you should start over from scratch. I tend to agree, but I've no empirical evidence to support it. Just sounds about right.

  3. “Why do we do anything?” isn't just Zen. It's a perfectly valid question of psychology. And believe me, since we've been working with cognitive psychology rather than behaviourism *Gack Ptui!* we've really gone a long way. “Cognitive ergonomics”, for example, UX stuff … huge strides.

    What I've come up with pressing forward with my restricted case (“discourse” and “decision support”) is that “fun” is a big part of things … high ROI because there's so little invested. Kinda like eating salted peanuts. So of course novelty / variation on a theme is a big deal. (Ever play pachinko? I was totally entranced … for about 12.5 minutes. Fortunately I recognize the chimp with the brain-implant dynamic.)
    In my system that's how I treat “news”. By applying my magic mojo-cream *poof* 90% of the un-structured information falls aside. Now that might mean that I loose 90% of readers. Toughers. The 10% who remain are likely motivated by more than a yen for salted peanuts. And that, for me, is a Good Thing.

    Just do a slight survey of ads in FB … says a whole lot about the state of our cyber world!

  4. It's a challenge to start over from scratch. After all, that existing code base is sitting right there, and it would take so much effort to reinvent the wheel entirely… why don't we just improve portions of the code? Um…or better yet, why don't we just improve the look and feel? Um…as long as we're at it, why don't we add these three new features?

    If you have any tips to encourage people to start from scratch, please share them.

  5. Doh, sarcasm translation fail, I started writing before I finished reading. Unfortunately, I have no tips. Some day someone smart will pull this of, make a lot of money and reinvent the industry. My money's on Apple. They're already doing it (kinda) with OS X and iPhone/iPad OS.

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