One man ‘ s criminal is another man ‘ s thought leader

Ever since the glory days of Napster, businesses of every kind of have been living in mortal terror of those cyber-terrorist pirate super-thieves who have been stealing, pillaging, and otherwise raping corporate America's horses and riding off on their women.  Obviously, the thing to do is to crack down SWIFTLY and VENGEFULLY with the Mighty Hammer of the Law.  After all, did the Old-West just allow people to rob banks?  No!  There was justice.  There were rules. There was BLOODSHED for violating the sacred tenets of commerce that our civilization was built upon.

The problem is, and if you're reading this I'm more than likely preaching to the choir, things have changed. Much of the crime that business is concerned with these days is of the digital sort. Crime that seems mostly victimless.  And honestly, most of us don't know anyone who has experienced an FBI team crashing through their bedroom windows after downloading whatever Mike says has "hot-fire" lines (should hot-fire be hyphenated?).  So it goes on, because it's easy, consequence free, and feels victimless.

Some examples:

  • The PC game Spore has been under fire since it came out for its use of SecuROM DRM technology … which is apparently what DRM would look like had the Nazi's finished their top-secret research. The problem was that it didn't work. TorrentFreak is reporting that it was the most pirated game EVER, being pirated almost TWO-MILLION times in 2008.

  • It's been anecdotally reported that Target employees have started trying to stop people from scanning merchandise with their iPhones to find the cheapest price online. I will start doing this once I've downloaded the app. And so will you.

We are at a point in the evolution of commerce where, for the first time, companies are losing control, and it goes way beyond merely losing control of their brand.  They've lost control of fundamental things like how their products are distributed, what mediums their content appears in, how their intellectual property is valued, and even their in-store experience.  And really, there's not much that can be done about it. It's like trying to put the sun out with a glass of water.  You look silly and it costs a lot of money.

So if trying to reverse the flow of a river doesn't work, maybe the best thing to do is to learn to swim with it.

"Find out what people want and help them get it."

I saw that quote on Copyblogger and thought it spoke to the essence of what this post is about.  If you think about it, most of the consumer practices that companies are going nuts trying to prohibit aren't about ripping companies off.  They are usually about new technology making it easier for people get what they want … just in a different way than businesses are set up to deliver.  And given that companies are unlikely to be able to stop this from happening, maybe it would be more cost effective to look at these people as partners in innovation rather than criminals. After all, these trends tend to start on the bleeding edge of digital culture before being widely adopted by the masses.

Some Examples:

Success: When digital downloading was first becoming prevalent, and the record industry thought that it was more important to sue people to make them go back to CD stores than figure out how to adjust, a non-music company called Apple came along with iPod and iTunes, and ushered in a new era in music distribution.

Fail: When Hasbro caught wind of Scrabulous on Facebook, they immediately saw a threat to their Scrabble brand, even if that threat was increasing sales of Scrabble.  So naturally, they sued to have Scrabulous killed, then put up their own, unsuccessful, Facebook app.  Maybe they should've partnered with the Scrabulous guys?

At the end of the day, people are still going to steal music and otherwise take advantage of businesses …  I don't think it can be stopped.  So it seems like companies might as well use it to their advantage. Its like having free consulting on how to set your company up to be more future facing, or in even more business-friendly terms:  it's free suggestions on how to make more money.

What can Application Developers Learn from Gaming?

Danc over at Lost Garden has put together a really interesting presentation on what application designers can learn from videogame design.  I’m going to explain it here mostly to help myself wrap my head around it, and remember it, because it’s really, well, smart.

The oversimplified gist of it is that applications are bad at teaching users how to use their features.  In fact, something like 80% of features in programs like Photoshop are used once or never.  One answer to this has been the Web 2.0 app model, where most features are stripped out to create a very simple, yet shallow, user experience.

Then, over time, features are gradually added until you need a Dummies book for the app, like Google Apps.  Or maybe you build a tutorial.  But he points out that tutorials are really only good for teaching users how to move forward in the tutorial, not actually use the program.

He then looks at video games.  Where feature rich apps have a very steep, tall learning curve, and Web 2.0 apps have a quick, smaller learning curve, he points out that videogames have an incremental learning curve, and at each increment, when you learn something, its actually FUN.  (you can see his earlier app learning curve and the shallow Web 2.0 learning curve faded in the background of this chart)

This is done through exploratory learning.  He likens the different things you can make a character do in a video game to the features in an app.  So making Mario jump is similar to making Gmail sort.  The difference is that instead of just laying all of the features out there for the user to mess around with, games require you to master certain abilities before moving on to more advanced abilities.  So in Super Metroid, you learn to jump up walls by being thrown in a pit with no way out.  It’s a fairly non-threatening way to make sure you master a skill that will be necessary to use later, in much more complex situations.  And it ensures that players learn how to use the entirety of their character's skill set.

The presentation is wrapped-up with a set of learnings and examples of how this sort of thinking has been used in practice. I'll go ahead and suggest you read it for yourself, as I probably couldn't do his thinking justice. if you're interested at all in how to build better user experiences, this is a can't-miss.