July 8, 2006

Incentives: the next step in user experience

Filed under: Incentives — admin @ 8:15 pm

Incentive-centered design is a new and promising approach to solving problematic issues in the design of complex software, websites, or information systems. In short, the idea is to give users incentives to adopt behaviors that are socially beneficial (i.e. it’s not just about the user). A more elaborate definition can be found here. For instance, spam is a common problem because users have misaligned objectives (i.e. spammers want to send spam, but recievers don’t want spam). “Improving Email Service with Markets“, a project at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, provides a possible solution to spam.

Simply recognizing that users have misaligned objectives and designing incentive-compatible mechanisms can vastly improve the user experience. I had a previous experience with a seemingly trivial software feature that was attentive to incentives. Flash, a software that use quite frequently, comes bundled with a scripting language. When I type in the scripting pane a contextual menu will pop-up to give me the next available options. The caveat, though, is that the menu will only appear when I use a certain naming convention (as defined by Macromedia or uhh… Adobe). For a while I was perplexed by this. It seemed that from my experience with programming it would have been easier to make the menu always appear. Wouldn’t that provide a better user experience? Why would Macromedia design it this way?

Well… it’s about incentives. Flash is typically used as a single user desktop application, but Macromedia has been pushing it towards a collaborative development environment. One hang up (and there are probably others) is that users might find it difficult to share documents if they are written with different naming conventions, and, thus, avoid collaboration. Even if users do recognize the value of collaboration, coordinating on which naming convention to adopt is difficult from the user perspective. To put it concisely, Macromedia rewards users with a better user experience if they adopt their naming convention. Even I eventually and reluctantly adopted the naming convention.

The more interesting take away is this. Organizations with a large user base might be in best position to design incentives that allow coordination and collaboration on activities that would have not been possible otherwise.