July 13, 2011

"Gamification": Making intrinsic motivators better?

"How do I get people to do X", or "more of X"? That question is pretty much the motivation for the notes I write myself here.

We economists are pretty expert at answers of the form "pay them the right amount, at the right time, as the right function of observables". But on the interwebs, the question often is how to get people to work harder or contribute more for free. For one thing, a lot of ventures don't bother with things like, well, revenues (at least initially). And often more important, the transaction costs of identifying, contracting with, and setting up and executing payments to a large number of micro-contributors exceed the benefits of paying them.

So, there is much attention to intrinsic motivation: making people feel good enough about what they're doing that they want to do it without something messy, like being paid. A lot of sites have been developing and refining tools like leaderboards and badges to give people a sense of accomplishment, some recognition, perhaps a reputation.

More recently, especially following the explosive success of lo-fi casual social gaming (can you spell F-A-R-M-V-I-L-L-E?), folks are trying to combine gaming with intrinsic motivators, in what is called "gamification". Foursquare does this with its badges; so does Scvngr. A recent article in Incentives Magazine (of course) provides a pretty detailed overview of the emerging gamification industry. A number of firms now sell tools, widgets and platforms allowing folks to gamify any web site.

Games have been used for a while to induce socially useful work: these are usually called "games with a purpose", and their early growth and success is due largely to the work of Louis van Ahn and Laura Dabbish. The idea behind GWAP is to deisgn a game that is intrinsically fun to play, but the playing of which directly produces useful work. One well-known example is the ESP game: two people anonymously matched over the web are shown the same images: they type in labels. The more times they type in the same labels, the more points the score. Meanwhile, labels that are popular are saved as tags for the image. Google uses this system now in its image labeler.

The gamification business generalizes this. The games themselves need not produce useful work: rather , the fun of being able to play them motivates the user to do something (not necessarily the game) that the provider values. For example, customers might stay on a site longer, or engage more so that they remember the site (or develop loyalty) and return later.

I particularly like the following observation from the article, because it touches on the critical importance of storytelling in effective (and persuasive) communication: storytelling. Barry Kirk, solution vice president of consumer loyalty at Maritz Loyalty & Motivation, said, "before slapping badges on everything, make sure your 'game story' is well thought out". He added, "If this were a game, would it be interactive, playful, and engaging? All good games are special experiences, and how to apply gamification is just getting started.”

Posted by jmm at 12:56 PM | Comments (4) | Permalink »

September 20, 2009

Carrot, stick or jawbone? Paperless billing

Carrot: Verizon was getting about 6100 customers a week to switch to paperless billing; then in August it entered all switchers into a contest to win a Toyota Prius hybrid; the rate increased to 17,000. But is sends out about 20.5 million paper bills per month. At that rate: about 23 years to full conversion (and presumably more than one giveaway Prius.

Stick: T-Mobile was getting about 7,000 customers weekly to go paperless. In August it added a $1.50 to every print-on-paper bill; the rate went up to about 231,000 per week. Years to full conversion: about 1.25.

Jawbone: T-Mobile's customers screamed. A class action suit was filed alleging this was a change of contract terms. About a month after adding the fee, T-Mobile reversed course and is back to encouraging customers to "go green".\

Via The New York Times.

Posted by jmm at 02:50 AM | Comments (0) | Permalink »

July 20, 2009

Fines: cosmetic incentives?

The State of New York announced settlement of a lawsuit it filed against LifeStyle Lift for "astroturfing" (paying its employees to "flood" the net with false positive reviews). The company will pay a $300,000 fine, plus an undisclosed amount of New York's legal costs.

Lifestyle Lift is a facial cosmetic surgery procedure that purports to be quicker and safer than traditional facelift procedures, with shorter recovery time and cost.

According to the NY State Attorney General's office, employees published anonymous reviews to the web to trick potential customers. They did this on legitimate review sites, and they also created standalone web sites that purported to be independent, where they created all of the "reviews" or edited reviews by third parties to skew the discussion.

See also this New York Times story.

Laws that impose possible fines or other punishments (such as jail time) are an incentives-based approach to shape behavior. A simplified version of the idea is that if the expected cost of the punishment, times the likelihood that the agent will be caught and punished (discounted to present value), is greater than the expected benefit from the improper behavior, it will not be in the agent's self-interest to engage in the behavior.

One concern about using legal punishment incentives is that they involve multiple sources of uncertainty (about punishment size and likelihood of being caught and punished), and that seemingly large ex post punishments may not be that much of an ex ante deterrent.

Lifestyle Lift was fined $300,000 plus legal costs. Suppose that it had known with certainty that it would have to pay this fine several years after earning money as a result of publishing false reviews. Would it have chosen to be honest? That depends, of course, on how many consumers it falsely induced to get the procedure, and the profit on the procedure. According to current customer comments on one review site that claims to have been abused (RealSelf.com), the procedure costs on the order of $5000, only some portion of which will be profit. Suppose that the profit rate is 10% (about $500): then of the "nearly 100,000" customers it claims to have served, Lifestyle Lift would have had to falsely induced at least 600 of them. If many more than 600 had been tricked, then even knowing the fine would occur may not have been sufficient deterrent. Multiply that by the uncertainty and the number of customers they had to successfully trick might have been less (there were also uncertainties about the benefits of lying that would have to be taken into account).

There is at least one reason the incentive might be greater: harm to Lifestyle Lift's reputation. For example, this settlement was reported in the New York Times, and the story is starting to circulate through blogs and other information sources.

On RealSelf.com, where presumably the false reviews have now been removed, 65% say that the procedure is not worth it. Meanwhile, Lifestyle Lift now posts a badge and promised "Internet Code of Conduct" on its own web site, stating that it "is proud to take a leadership role in establishing new standards of Internet conduct and communications." I don't know when that "code" first appeared, but it seems likely that this is an example of trying to turn lemons into lemonade.

Posted by jmm at 04:04 AM | Comments (0) | Permalink »

July 04, 2009

Free is the new paid

The idea is not news, but it's a charming example of for-profit enterprises seeking donated labor: LinkedIn asks translators if they want to translate LinkedIn pages for free. And gosh, some professional translators don't like the idea.

Actually, it's not clear that LinkedIn was asking the translators to work for nothing. Apparently it was planning to credit their work, thus offering some compensation in the form of marketing or advertising. And at least for some, this could be valuable compensation. It's not just "free advertising" in the sense of getting to post one's name and profession in a public place. Instead, it's a free demonstration of the professional's work: "Like this translation? It was done by Tom, and here's his LinkedIn page".

There seems to be a fair bit of consensus that a powerful motivator for many people who work on open-source software projects for "free" are doing it to get training (in working in a complex, team-based software engineering environment) and to get publicly documented evidence of their skills (the code checked in and permanently associated with your user account). I've speculated that a similar motivation might explain some who write book reviews (for "free", and which help a for-profit company) at Amazon.com: writing practice with grading by others (without paying nasty tuition), and a public record of one's skills (but how many paid jobs are there to which budding book reviewers can apply these days?).

Posted by jmm at 12:28 PM | Comments (0) | Permalink »

April 27, 2009

Incentives for filling out teaching evaluations?

The University of Michigan switched to an online course evaluation system this year (Fall 2008 was the first full run).

One of the primary concerns during the study that went into the decision, and during the implementation, is what would happen to response rates. Selection bias for respondents is a concern for any survey, and there are obvious (and documented) reasons to expect that response is correlated with student satisfaction with a course and a teacher, which definitely would create a bias, the more so the lower is the response rate. With the traditional fill-in-a-form system, if administered during a class late in the semester when attendance is high (perhaps because students are getting concerned about what will be on the exam!), through convenience and peer pressure the response rate can be fairly high (as I recall, the norm at UM was above 70%). With an online system, evals are filled out at the student's convenience. This might catch students who would have missed the evaluation class day, but might lose many others.

The evidence UM collected from other campuses (and from two schools at UM that had already implemented their own online system), response rates do tend to be a bit lower, though not much.

My ICD colleague, Yan Chen, and I have chatted a bit about providing incentives to students to complete the online evaluations. One idea that she'd heard seemed effective in another department is to award a nominal amount of "extra credit" to students who submit an evaluation (in some systems, even though the evaluation content is anonymized, it is possible to track whether a student submitted something).

Here is a blog entry on the use of course evaluation incentives from the Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology at Washington State University. Their impression is that the incentives (including extra credit and randomized cash awards) have had little impact on participation (at least at the level at which the incentives were offered). Their conclusions are mostly based on anecdotes, but they provide a link to a discussion of a comparative study that was done in their College of Engineering which, it appears, was being submitted for publication.

Posted by jmm at 01:36 PM | Comments (0) | Permalink »

February 12, 2009

Work for the Patent Office, for free!

The Peer-to-Patent system created by Beth Noveck's group at NYU Law School and being piloted by the U.S. Patent Office has gotten a fair bit of attention. The basic idea is to gather user-contributed content from experts who can help patent examiners figure out whether a proposed invention is novel (no prior art). Anyone can submit comments on the posted patent proposals, and in particular can cite to evidence of prior art (which generally leads, if valid, to denial of the patent application). The purpose is to speed up patent reviews, and in particular to help prevent the granting of invalid patents, because it is often costly, time-consuming and chilling to later innovation to fight and prove a granted patent is invalid.

Andy Oram wrote an editorial in the Feb 2008 Communications of the ACM urging computer scientists to participate (viewing article may require subscription). He explained the system, and why it would be good for innovation for experts to donate their time to read and comment on patent applications.

Why would experts -- whose time is somewhat valuable -- want to do this? Andy argues that the primary reason is public service: donate to create a public good (better software patent system) for all. There are lots of ideas of things that would be "good for all" that require volunteer donations of time, effort, money. It's actually not a given that such public goods are a good idea: the value of a public good does not always or automatically exceed the cost of the time or other resources donated by the people who created it. The experts who Andy seeks to contribute to Peer-to-Patent are highly trained people whose time is generally valued quite highly. In any case, if P-to-P depends on volunteer contributions by experts, how likely is it to succeed? These are people who already feel deluged by requests to volunteer their time to referee conference and journal articles, advise students on projects, advice government, serve on department and university committees, serve on professional organization committees and edit journals, etc., etc. I know few serious, successful academics who work less than 50 or 60 hours a week already.

Andy also suggests another reason to volunteer time for Peer-to-Patent: the bad patent you block may save your startup company! Now we're talking....a monetary incentive to "volunteer" time. But this is a bit problematic too: it points out a strategic concern with P-to-P. Potential competitors, or entrepreneurs who at least want to use the disclosed invention, have an interest in trying to block patent applications, and may try to do so even if the invention is legitimate? They can flood the Patent Office with all sorts of "prior art", which may not be valid, but now the patent examiners will have more work to do. And just as patent examiners may conclude incorrectly that a patent application is valid, so may they conclude incorrectly that one is invalid. It's not prima facie obvious, especially given that those most motivated to "donate" time and effort are those who themselves have a financial stake in the outcome, that user-contributed content in this setting will be a good thing, on balance.

Posted by jmm at 05:29 PM | Comments (2) | Permalink »

July 08, 2008

Economics meets social psychology on incentive theory

In another June 2008 American Economic Review article, Ellingsen and Johannesson introduce a standard concept from social psychology into a standard economic model of incentives, and find that it helps explain some well-known empirical puzzles.

This is not at all the first article in the economics literature that explores the role of social motivations, and the authors provide a good discussion of prior work.

"In Pride and Prejudice: The Human Side of Incentive Theory", Ellingsen and Johannesson add two motivational premises to the standard principal-aget model: people value social esteem, and the value they experience depends symmetrically on who provides the esteem: they value esteem more from those who they themselves esteem.
Their main result is to show how an incentive that otherwise would have a positive effect on behavior can have a negative effect for some people because of what the incentive tells the agent about the principal. For example, they suggest this as an explanation for "the incentive intensity puzzle that stronger material incentives and closer control sometimes induce worse performance" (p. 990).


Posted by jmm at 09:06 AM | Comments (0) | Permalink »

March 29, 2008

Presentation at Yahoo! Research on user-contributed content

Yahoo! Research invited me to speak in their "Big Thinkers" series at the Santa Clara campus on 12 March 2008. My talk was "Incentive-centered design for user-contributed content: Getting the good stuff in, Keeping the bad stuff out."

My hosts wrote a summary of the talk (that is a bit incorrect in places and skips some of the main points, but is reasonably good), and posted a video they took of the talk. The video, unfortunately, focuses mostly on me without my visual presentation, panning only occasionally to show a handful of the 140 or so illustrations I used. The talk is, I think, much more effective with the visual component. (In particular, it reduces the impact of the amount of time I spend glancing down to check my speaker notes!)

In the talk I present a three-part story: UCC problems are unavoidably ICD problems; ICD offers a principled approach to design; and ICD works in practical settings. I described three main incentives challenges for UCC design: getting people to contribute; motivating quality and variety of contributions; and discouraging "polluters" from using the UCC platform as an opportunity to publish off-topic content (such as commercial ads, or spam). I illustrated with a number of examples in the wild, and a number of emerging research projects on which my students and I are working.

Posted by jmm at 10:02 AM | Comments (0) | Permalink »

March 03, 2008

UCC incentives the old-fashioned way

Ben Kaufman announced Kluster at TED 2008. This is a business through which businesses can solicit user-contributed content: innovative technology or product ideas, business solutions, etc. Why would anyone give a for-profit company good innovation ideas? For a cash incentive...Business post challenges with a cash bonus, and Kluster has a scheme for paying out tha bonus to people whose ideas are successful. (It also runs a prediction market on the side for wagers on which of the proposed ideas will succeed.) No volunteers here: this UCC is compensated in the traditional form of tournament prizes.

Two similar businesses, at least, are already operating: InnoCentive and Cambrian House.

Think you're smart, but don't have time or capital to turn your ideas into businesses? Go sell your ideas online!

(Based on reporting in Putting Innovation in the Hands of a Crowd - New York Times)

Posted by jmm at 01:27 AM | Permalink »

March 02, 2008

Looking for (well-paid, highly-trained, very busy) volunteers

The Peer to Patent project is one of my favorite examples of a user-contributed content (UCC) project recently, not because it has been very successful (yet), but because it demonstrates the surprising and important ways that UCC may go to benefit society. It's no all Wikipedia and social networking!

Peer to Patent is a project started by Prof. Beth Noveck and her Do Tank group at NYU Law School. The US Patent Office adopted it for a one-year pilot starting 15 June 2007. It is a system to post patent applications for public comment, in particular seeking suggestions about possible prior art, to assist USPTO examiners determine whether a patent should be granted. It was motivated by a widely held sense, particular in the area of software and business process patents, that the USPTO has been overwhelmed with the number of applications and the advances in technology in recent years, and that many and patents have been granted which can have the effect of stifling new innovation. During the first six months of the pilot, over 1800 people have registered to participate, and over 150 prior art references have been submitted on 24 patent applications that can be reviewed through this system.

In the February 2008 issue of the Communications of the ACM, Andy Oram published a column about the project in which he discussed the incentives challenges that may stand in the way of success. First, of course, not just any user is likely to be able to make quality contributions: to be useful, a contributor must have serious expertise in the area of the patent in order to be able to understand the application well enough to recognize possible prior art, and must know the literature well enough to identify the prior art. That's not a lot of people, and they aren't the type who have a lot of underpaid hours to volunteer. Indeed, he quotes Jon Bentley of Avaya Labs who points out that the whole essence of patenting is making money, and that the people in the best position to contribute may be those least interested in doing so.

One of the hopes of the project is that it is the monetary incentive itself -- not provided by Peer to Patent, but indirectly -- that will induce people to contribute: competitors. That is, if some company is using technology on which a patent is proposed, or is developing something similar, it will have a financial interest in seeing that the patent is not granted. Thus, they might be the ones to put the time in to review the application and propose the prior art. Although they are interested parties, as Oram says "prior art is prior art no matter who finds it".

Interesting problem, and I'm looking forward to seeing whether or not Peer to Patent can succeed (and I hope it does, because I tend to think that too many software and business patent applications are approved).

Posted by jmm at 09:28 PM | Comments (1) | Permalink »

January 22, 2008

Tying Odysseus to the mast

There is a well-known, difficult-to-solve motivation problem: keeping a commitment to yourself. Nearly everyone experiences this in one form or another: "I'm going to diet until I lose 25 pounds". "I'm going to get more sleep" (honest, right after I finish typing this post). "I'm never going to smoke another cigarette." John William Waterhouse's 'Odysseus and the Sirens'

In Homer's epic, when nearing the Sirens whose entrancing song would lead men to dash their ships on the rocks, Odysseus had his men tie him to the mast and plug their ears with beeswax so they could hear neither the Sirens, nor his orders to doom them (all of this because he was curious and couldn't resist listening himself!).

There is a well-known story among economists that Nobelist Thomas Schelling advised those who wanted to diet: "Write a large check to the American Nazi Party and put it in an addressed envelope. When you break your diet, mail it." (Steven Levitt writes that he heard the advice first-hand.) This sensible scheme to increase our incentives to stick with a commitment suffers the problem of a bit of circularity: if you decide to break your diet (or other) commitment, what is to stop you from breaking your commitment to mail the check?

Yale economists Ian Ayres (a classmate of mine while getting our Ph.D.s) and Dean Karlan (also an MIT grad) have started a Web-based company to help implement this tempting but difficult to implement scheme: StickK.com. The scheme is pretty simple: mail them the check and they will hold it in escrow, and if you break your commitment will mail it for you.

"But what", you say, "will force me to let them know I broke my commitment"? Here's where the time-honored mechanism of a trusted-third party referee comes in: set up your commiment in a way that can be verified, and then have a friend or other trusted third-party monitor you, and agree to notify StickK.com if you break your promise.

(Yes, yes, of course: what's to stop you from offering your buddy half of the money if she doesn't report you? Isn't recursion fun?)

This is a fun example of a principal-agent problem: you are the principal and the agent, and you have what amounts to a hidden action problem. That is, you cum principal can't enter an enforceable contract with you the agent to ensure performance because the agent can take an "unobservable" action: instructing you the principal to not enforce. The third-party mechanism transforms this into a symmetric information problem with verifiable, enforceable action.

(Thanks to Buzzy Nielsen for pointing me at StickK.com.)

Posted by jmm at 10:58 PM | Comments (0) | Permalink »

January 13, 2008

All user-contributed, all the time (almost)

I've been fascinated for the past couple of years with businesses that rely on user-contributed content (UCC) for substantial inputs to production. It is sometimes jokingly referred to as the "Tom Sawyer business model": get your friends to whitewash the fence for you, without paying them (in fact, they paid Tom quite handsomely, including "a key that wouldn't unlock anything, a fragment of chalk...and a dead rat on a string"). Tom Sawyer's Whitewash

Randall Stross writes in today's New York Times about two fairly well-known businesses that have nearly perfected the art: Plenty of Fish, and Craigslist. Craigslist is a wide-open classified advertising service where employers post jobs, homeowners sell their old "Monopoly -- Star Wars Version" games and unwanted gifts, and, most piquantly, people of every shape, age, color and preference seek partners for a nearly infinite variety of polymorphously perverse, chaste and romantic interactions. Craigslist is one of the top 10 visited English language sites, has versions for 450 localities in over 50 countries, and runs with only 25 employees. All of the content is written, edited (such as it is) and maintained voluntarily by users; user volunteers also provide most of the customer service through help forums.

Plenty of Fish is more specialized and not quite as successful, but perhaps more remarkable. It is a dating service localized to 50 Canadian, US and Australian cities. Markus Frind created it and devotes only about 10 hours a week to running it...and he only in the past year hired his first employee. Yet the site has 600,000 registered users (which grows rapidly despite purging 30,000 inactives a month), and receives 50,000 new photos per day. Spam-filtering of text is done by software. Filtering of photos (to make sure they are human and clothed) is done by user volunteere: in the past year the top 120 volunteers scanned over 100,000 photos each! The users provide the customer service too, through help forums.

Great business model: have the users whitewash the fence, and you work 10 hours a week for $10 million in annual profits (Stross estimates that Frind's claim about his advertising-only profits is plausible). What are the generalizable principles. How can *I* start such a business and succeed (the road is littered with UCC-driven businesses that never turn a profit).

It is obvious that one of the most important questions is why? Why would users volunteer the time and effort to provide the content, the customer service, the photo filtering, etc.? You may think it's obvious why users want to visit Plenty of Fish: there are a lot of lonely hearts out there. And it is 100% free to users: Frind only charges advertisers. Of course, without user effort, it won't succeed: there will be no information about potential life partners, no help information, and lots of undesirable photos polluting the service. But no individual user needs to contribute anything: there is no requirement for volunteer hours (as there is at our local food coop), there is no public tracking of effort and peer pressure to pull your weight. It's a free-rider's dream.

Contributing content is easy: if you don't submit a profile you aren't going to get any dates. But what about photo scanning? Yes, you want to scan photos anyway: that's why you're there. But why not let someone else filter out the junk so you only have to filter the worthwhile photos? Is there that much of a first-mover advantage that you are willing to filter 100,000 photos per year to have a shot at being the first to contact the newest hunk? My guess is that the expected return on that investment is pretty low.

And why spend your time providing free help service to other users? Maybe Plenty of Fish is lucky to have a demographic for whom the value of time is unusually low (lonely single people with nothing else to do on Saturday night), but that just means the cost is lower to make the contribution: what is the benefit? Is it that the volunteer helpers are trying to be noticed as helpful, well-informed web geeks as a way of attracting dates?

I think the answers to these questions are transparently not obvious. If the answers were easy, we'd have a lot more people working 10 hours a week to make $10 million per year. And the answers are not likely to be something that involves only traditional economic views about incentives and motivations. Developing generalizable principles about the motivations for user-contributed content will surely need to draw on psychological explanations as well, from the psychology of personality and self, and social psychology (at least).

Posted by jmm at 11:03 AM | Permalink »

December 19, 2007

Psychology of motivation

I today attended a continuing education class for librarians at our university on "Motivation in the Classroom". It was taught by two psychology professors who had specialized throughout their careers (they are emeriti now) on psychology and teaching. I thought this might be an opportunity to learn more about psychological theories of motivation, and get some ideas of new ways to provide incentives in design to motivate people interacting with technology or with each other through technology.

The assigned reading was a nice introduction: "Motivation in the Classroom", by Barbara K. Hofer, in W. McKeachie and M. Svinicki, McKeachie's Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, 12th ed. (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).

Hofer writes:

Researchers typically consider three indices of motivation: choice, effort, and persistence; achievement is an outcome of these variables. Accordingly, students who are motivated to learn choose tasks that enhance their learning, work hard at those tasks, and persist in the face of difficulty in order to attain their goals.

She then suggests that many human beings have a fundamental need for autonomy and self-determination (citing Deci & Ryan, 2000), and thus, by offering meaningful opportunities for choice and by otherwise supporting autonomy, we might increase their motivation.

She cites Ryan & Deci (2000) on research indicating that providing external rewards (extrinsic motivation) may diminish intrinsic motivation by undermining self-determination, though she thinks that on balance recent research supports a mix of intrinsic motivation and external rewards.

She then discusses expectancy theory. Citing Wigfield & Eccles (2000), people

direct their behavior toward activities that they value and in which they have some expectancy of success.

In a loose sense, motivation is the product of these two factors (if one is absent, the motivation is zero).

Motivated behavior is directed towards goals. Hofer identifies two types of goals especially pertinent to teaching: mastery and performance goals. Mastery goals concern a desire to learn and understand the material. Performance goals concern a desire to perform well relative to one's peers (e.g., if the course is graded on a curve). It's not immediately obvious to me how to use this distinction in incentive-centered design, but she suggests various implications for teaching to students of one type versus the other.

When individuals experience an unexpected outcome, they seek to explain it by making attributions about the probable causes. Hofer cites Weiner (2001) to suggest that attributions can be characterized along three dimensions: locus, stability and responsibility referring respectively to whether the cause is internal or external, stable, controllable. When someone explains a negative outcome with internal, controllable attributions ("I know I didn't prepare adequately for the test") she is likely to be motivated to do what it takes to do better next time. If she uses a stable, uncontrollable cause ("I will never understand statistics") she will probably be less motivated to change. Thus, for example, providing system feedback that guides users to attribute problems to internal, controllable causes is more likely to motivate them to improve.

Hofer also briefly discusses social motivations, drawing on social psychology. For example, she suggests people want to be socially responsible and form social relationships with peers (citing Patrick et al. 1997; Wentzel & Wigfield, 1998).

Hofer then offers a number of recommendations specific to teaching, which are too specific to that context for me to include here, but which exemplify ways in which these psychological principles of motivation can be incorporated in design.

Posted by jmm at 12:30 AM | Comments (0) | Permalink »