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03 / Using Gamification to Build User Experiences

Hosted by Sean Flaherty



Headshot of Gregg Gordon

Gregg Gordon


Gregg Gordon was the President and CEO of the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) for many years before transitioning to Managing Director of SRRN when the company was acquired by the Netherlands-based publishing company, Elsevier. SSRN is devoted to the rapid worldwide distribution of scholarly research in the social sciences and humanities fields. Thanks to their continued growth under Gregg Gordon’s leadership, SSRN now has a collaborative of more than 1.7 million users, nearly a quarter-million authors, and a database of over 682,100 articles contributed by scholars.

Gamification is a means for eliciting specific behaviors from your users by depending on the premise that humans are naturally competitive. Some more than others, but competition is the basis for our economy and drives many of our behaviors whether we admit it or not.

In this episode, Sean and Joe discuss gamification as an important part of the system design process, and then have a great conversation with Gregg Gordon from about how they use gamification within the environment to both foster friendly competition and encourage users to increase their usage of the system by making it a pleasure to use.

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Sean: [00:00:21] Hi, welcome to the Product Momentum Podcast, a podcast about how to use technology to solve challenging technology problems for your organization.

Joe: [00:00:30] All right, so welcome to the Product Momentum Podcast. I’m Joe Hoffend, here with my cohost Sean Flaherty. Hey Sean, how’s it going?

Sean: [00:00:38] Good Joe. How are you today?

Joe: [00:00:40] I’m doing alright. You know I’ve been talking to a lot of people, getting feedback about the podcast, how it’s been going so far, and it’s been overwhelmingly positive. Morning time, recording this in the morning time, big mistake number one. And you know, people have said the content is very rich, it’s good. You know they maybe want it a little shorter for drivetime, which we’re going to aim for moving forward. But overall it’s been good. And I was going through all the requests of the feedback for the podcast and surprisingly, you know what number one was?

Sean: [00:01:16] What, what was it?

Joe: [00:01:17] More dad jokes. They want more dad jokes.

Sean: [00:01:21] Hahaha. How about some dad bod jokes because we’re reaching that phase in our life.

Joe: [00:01:24] It is summertime. It is summertime. Beach bods are made in the winter though. People should know that.

Joe: [00:01:31] Yeah we had Jeremy on from Paychex, that was great. We had Adam on from Amazon, people loved that as well. And so today we’re gonna be talking to Greg Gordon from the Social Science Research Network. And our topic for today is gamification. I know you’re super hyped up about gamification, even have your own little spin on it that you’ll talk about. But I think really what we want to just talk about is, “what is gamification?” Because I think it’s one of those terms where people have their own kind of idea of what it is, and it’s kind of been morphed over time as different mobile apps come out, and different, you know, just products in general try to use it.

Joe: [00:02:13] And so to me, my definition of gamification is really taking game-like elements that you would see in like video games, so, you know, powering up, ranking up, leaderboards, progress indicators, those kinds of things; it’s taking those and applying them to let’s just say everyday kind of products. So things that you wouldn’t normally typically think are you know fun, or you’re doing for entertainment, but things that you need to get people’s attention in. And we’ll talk about that too, like it’s not getting their attention in a negative way, but you want them to be able to engage in a product and, you know, want to engage in the product.

Joe: [00:02:57] So I have a couple examples. So personally I was trying to get into running a few years ago and I found this app. And it was called Zombie Run. And I’d always hated running. I just thought it was so boring. You know, I could do for a few minutes, and then my mind would wander, and I would just want to be done with it. But I found this called Zombie Run and it makes jogging fun. So it makes you part of a storyline of a zombie invasion. And basically what you’re doing is you load up the app on your phone, and you’re listening to it, and it’s “oh my gosh, the zombies are here, you’ve got to get to the supply warehouse, it’s a mile away, so you can start collecting food and water.” And so you got to run the mile. You know, you get there and then it’s like, okay, “you got the supplies now you got to get to the school gym to free a couple of people,” or whatever. So it kind of takes you through this experience and you kind of sort of forget you’re jogging as you’re going through that. You want to know what happens, next you’re thinking about it, you’re kind of picturing it. And, you know, that was just a really simple example where I was like, “oh my god,” they’re taking something that some people dread but want to try to do for their health and making it fun.

Joe: [00:04:08] And then there’s a really extreme example where kids with cancer, they need to track their pain in a journal. And so the hospital created an app called Pain Squad, and you know, these kids they’re just in so much pain, they don’t want to be tracking it in a journal, they don’t want to be writing it down, thinking about, “oh my gosh, this hurts that hurts I’m miserable right now.” And so what this app does is it helps the kids pretend that they’re basically part of a police force and they need to hunt down pain and eradicate it. Because reporting where the pain is and how much pain they’re experiencing helps the doctors and the care providers so much in being able to know what to do next basically in curing their cancer or helping them, you know, rid themselves of the cancer. So this whole game a curates an experience of, you know, “you got to help us,” you know, and it’s got videos of real-life police officers like telling them how, “it’s up to you, you’ve got to help us, we’ve got to get rid of this pain.” And it’s just a really, really cool example of, you know, taking something that can be a really terrible experience and trying to make something that’s a really important part of it, you know monitoring the pain, you know, achievable.

Joe: [00:05:21] So those two examples really were speaking to me when we talk about gamification. And you know, there are times though, when gamification can go bad and it’s used poorly and it’s probably where people get a bad connotation about it, or a bad representation of what it is. What do you think of that?

Sean: [00:05:39] So gamification, first of all, I don’t like that word, and you know that. But let me take a half step back because you talked a lot there. So I want to go back and I want to start with the conversation on Gregg joining the show later. He has 20-plus years experience actually game-ifying what started out very small but became one of the largest academic social networks on the planet. So I’m super excited to have him on because he’s seen the good, the bad, he’s seen things that worked and haven’t worked, he’s seen where again gamification has gone terribly awry and created behaviors that could have possibly been very detrimental, and we had to put all kinds of checks and balances in place to address that stuff. So it’s going to be a really, really interesting conversation.

Sean: [00:06:29] So then talking about gamification, so we’re more in the business space than the game space. And gamification obviously grew as a term in the game space, and now it’s widely used in the business space as well. But it’s very deceiving. And I think it can go very bad, and it has gone very bad. I mean there’s examples out there if you do a Google search you’ll find lots of good examples, or bad examples depending on how you look at it, of gamification gone bad. Brands like Marriot building Facebook games, as a great example. Or using badges, you know, sometimes badges just don’t make sense. And even companies, big companies that you’ve heard of like Zappos have made big mistakes with using badges where they just they just don’t make sense. So I guess the one piece of advice here is that it’s gamification isn’t for every business problem. It doesn’t work everywhere, and you should never start with tactics like gamification, it’s really a set of tactics, you shouldn’t start with those tactics before you really come up with a good vision for your product and have a good…

Joe: [00:07:35] Yeah, so don’t say, “We want to gamification. How do we do we do that. Where do we get things to fit in?”

Sean: [00:07:40] Exactly. So you have to think. You’ve got to put a lot of energy into thinking about the psychology behind what your user is trying to accomplish, what they care about, what needs you’re meeting for them, what their motivations are, so that you can apply the right tactics to to do something positive in the world with these things. So we like to use the word motivation mechanics. We’ve done a little bit of research on that with our clients and with people that we work with in this space to try to find the right language to use. So we call motivation mechanics a set of tactics that we can use to influence behavior in a very positive way. And it is things that we borrow from the gaming industry, things like progress bars and badges and leaderboards and you know, competitive things that you could apply in a software space that can be extremely, extremely powerful.

Sean: [00:08:32] But again, it’s not for everybody and it’s certainly not to be used blindly. “Let’s just put some badges on the site to give people a reward.” For what? Like let’s work backwards and really figure out what people want to be rewarded for, what do they care about, how are we going to make them look good to their peers, right? So those are things that we want to be talking about. Does that make sense, Joe?

Joe: [00:08:55] It does, and you know, anytime we talk about gamification there’s a particular author who comes to mind. His name is Nir Eyal. So N, I, R, E, Y, A, L. And he’s got some really great writings he does and specifically a book. It’s got this kind of like a figure eight model. It talks about forming habits and hooks and getting people to come back to your product, essentially. And the four steps of it, because you really want to look at the visual of how it all plays together. But essentially, it goes trigger, action, reward, investment. And so it’s just a really simple way of thinking about, you know, if you’re going to try to do gamification, if you think you’ve got a good fit for it, that’s kind of an easy little model to follow in terms of, you know, how to implement it step-by-step, per se, and make sure that that experience kind of goes all the way around.

Joe: [00:09:49] Exactly. There’s a Harvard Business Review article; I’ll link to it here in the podcast, from like eight or nine years ago that talks about what really motivates people. And they were talking about on an internet or motivating workers with technology, but if I remember correctly, it’s really around progress. And they found that the power of progress and actually showing that you’re making progress, you’re learning something, you’re achieving something, and just showing this sort of achievement over time is one of the most powerful motivators that keeps people positively enthusiastic about the work that they’re doing. And when we’re building business applications, this is the thing that we want to take into account.

Sean: [00:10:32] There is another book called, um.. I love Hooked by the way, Nir Eyal, great author.. there’s a book called Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi which is really about peak human performance, but a lot of his tactics and methodologies can be applied to software development too, so we use that in our workshops. And it’s around setting up people for this progress and figuring out what is the right level of challenge to present to them and understanding what their skill levels are so we can constantly be moving them up this pattern that we call flow.

Joe: [00:11:09] Yeah that’s a good one we use in the workshops and just kind of talk about, you know, “don’t make it too hard, don’t make it too easy,” and you know what is. You know, “what is flow?” You know, because everyone kind of feels that when you’re in that state of flow working. You’re really doing focused work, but you know, to actually dig into it a little deeper. It’s important to understand. Nir Eyal’s actually got a new book coming out, it’s called Distraction. It kind of like piggybacks Hooked and talks about, you know, what does it mean to really do focused work so near if you’re listening, you know, please come on you can plug it again. I just did for you. He’s listening.

Sean: [00:11:41] I’m sure he is. Another, another great one. One last book plug is Charles Duhigg, it’s The Power of Habit. In the audience there, if you haven’t read that one I highly recommend it. It’s a good one, and one last one, a buddy of mine Gabe Zichermann, haven’t spoken to him in awhile, but here’s a plug for him. Make sure we get him engaged here. Gamification by Design, he’s actually got two books out, but Gamification by Design was his first one. It’s a very tactical book about how to apply some of these gamification tactics that we’ve used in the past. It’s been super useful.

Joe: [00:12:15] Very cool. So are we are we doing a pivot right now? Is this becoming a book review podcast?

Sean: [00:12:20] It sounds like it, right. Well, you know, we’re big learners and learning is a part of the process right.

Joe: [00:12:27] There’s a lot of good blog posts out there too, you know it’s not all about books. There’s lot of good content all over the Internet these days, and some of those authors, you know, they write up good content online as well.

Sean: [00:12:37] For sure, for sure.

Joe: [00:12:40] Okay, well was there anything else you want to go over with gamification? I think that’s a nice, good introduction to what it is. And we’re going to talk to Greg in just a minute about it.

Sean: [00:12:47] Sounds good. I’m super excited.

Joe: [00:12:52] So our guest today is Greg Gordon, and he’s from the Social Science Research Network or SSRN. Greg, thanks for joining us, and would you mind starting off, just tell us a little bit about what SSRN is and your role there, in how it’s evolved over the years.

Greg: [00:13:08] Sure Joe. Happy to do that, and thanks for the opportunity to talk about SSRN. Always enjoy these kind of conversations. So probably about 20 years ago, Michael Jenson, one of the forefathers of finance, was a friend and I helped him found a SSRN which started off as a social science research network has become much broader since then. But basically the idea was we wanted to take research that Mike was seeing at Harvard but wasn’t necessarily seeing at the University of Rochester and make it available to the masses, make it available freely, as quickly as possible so people could use that research to write better research, or as we’ve really been focusing on more recently, just to help them answer questions, you know, to have actual real scholarly research at their fingertips.

Sean: [00:13:55] Hence the tagline, “tomorrow’s research today,” right, which I’ve always liked.

Greg: [00:14:02] Haha, well thanks Sean. Yeah that was kind of a funny piece because we were actually in the Stanford Law School faculty lounge arguing about what the heck we were doing and what we were trying to create a long time ago and I said, “guys, guys, what we’re just trying to do is just make tomorrow’s research available today.” And they said, “well, available doesn’t really work,” so we decided on “tomorrow’s research today” as our tagline, which is basically what we do. We do try to bring the research that’s going to be published tomorrow and make it available online today.

Joe: [00:14:33] It’s interesting because if the audience just needs to get an idea of the influence that SSRN has had in the world, you know, up until now and continuing through now, you know it’s kind of timely that Malcolm Gladwell who’s a very prolific author and has written some popular books like Blank and Outliers, he’s got a podcast and he just referenced you guys on there as his favorite web site. So that’s a pretty big deal.

Sean: [00:14:55] Did you know that, Greg?

Greg: [00:14:57] Yeah, I had heard that somewhere somewhere along the line, I had heard that possibly he had mentioned us… No, we’re very proud of that. You know, we know that Malcolm and a number of important influential thought leaders, authors, journalists and others use SSRN because of the access because you get us to surrender content, because you get thousands and thousands of papers every single week made available to you for free. And again, it is early. It’s the currency the information that provides real value. And we do know that they use that. It’s referenced in Supreme Court proceedings, it’s referenced by authors and journalists around the world. But, you know, when Malcolm Gladwell says that you are the best site on the Internet that’s certainly a nice feather in everybody’s cap here at SSRN, and that’s something we work hard for, and we’re very very proud of that.

Sean: [00:15:53] Well along that line you’re probably familiar with Nir Eyal, who’s also an SSRI author, and he wrote a book called Hooked. It’s about gamification, and that’s we’re here to talk about today. What we call motivation mechanics, which is the act of trying to find triggers and things that will help motivate users to behave in a certain way or to behave positively in our ecosystem, right. So as you know, SSRN has been a big purveyor of some of these tactics since the very beginning of your site. So can you talk about that a little bit and how you use some of those tactics to progress the platform and the authors on that platform?

Greg: [00:16:37] Sure. So many, many years ago, some of us were were meeting with some professors and we were talking about the ways that we were actually trying to help people work their way through the research. So some of the original concepts were to use tools that weren’t available for this early-stage research, like downloads, to help people find things that may be of interest to them. You know, this is more popular than that. And so we started to come up with basically download counts. And I’ll talk about it in a minute, about the costs of coming up with rankings and things like that, but basically what we said was, you know, hey we should kind of create these things that back then we started to refer to as tournaments, where we basically ranked the papers based on a variety of different metrics. Downloads per author, downloads, citations citations per author, timing, just a number of different measures that allow people to kind of customize the ways in which they wanted to get in and out of the content themselves. And we thought that was pretty cool, and then we started to talk to some professors, law professors and economists and others, and they said well this is just gamification, you know, and we weren’t even thinking about that way. We were thinking about it as a set of tools to allow people to get easier access to the content as the volume of content started to increase. And it increased significantly in a very, very short period of time.

Greg: [00:18:05] So information overload was the number one thing we were trying to figure out. What we then realized was is that this gamification, you know, points, badges, leaderboards and like, was actually something that the community found very very valuable as a way to measure themselves against each other. We started to see authors start to be much more creative with the titles of their papers, with the abstracts, how to be much more engaging, how to allow people to find things in a way that they just hadn’t been thinking about previously because it was just a research paper.

Greg: [00:18:37] So we started to get some cute titles, some more vulgar titles, but we start to get titles that were much more engaging, that allowed people to try to find the content in a different sort of a way. And I think that despite some of the costs in and around that where people do try to cheat, so to speak, I think that the efforts by a researcher to make their research more engaging, to make it more open to the masses, I think is a very very good thing.

Sean: [00:19:10] So I know that download count seems to become like the currency for SSRN, like how many times your papers have been downloaded, and citations is another one that’s big. And you guys have even come up with another ranking called the Eigenfactor. Can you talk about one a little bit?

Greg: [00:19:29] Sure. So we think about these things in different ways. But one of the things that we find interesting is that we also have abstract views. And the ratio of abstract views to downloads can tell an author about how well maybe their title has been written or their abstract has been written. Does it does it provide the answers to the reader? Does it help them get into the content? But downloads in general are what we believe to be one of the best sources for the currency of the information. How important is this right now? Because it’s an immediate impact, right. I download the paper, it ticks the ticker, and keeps moving on. With citations, which are kind of the grail of scholarship, of publishing in general, we think that those are very very important, because they tell us a slightly different thing. And that thing that they tell us is, what was truly influential in the research that you were doing? What really really made the difference to that author to the point where they said, “this needs to be referenced in my research paper,” because it had a material impact.

Greg: [00:20:35] And then third, as you mention, Sean, is Eigenfactor. And we worked with Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West at the University of Washington. And the Eigenfactor is basically a twist on the eigenvector, which Google uses in a much much much more complex manner to identify which sites are related to which other sites and then how that helps them rank it in our world. It’s more like a random walk though the woods. “This paper influenced these papers. This author influenced those authors,” and instead of a one to one relationship, like citations- “this paper cites that paper,” it’s more of this random walk through the woods, where this paper influenced that paper which influenced these three other papers which influenced those seven other papers, and it’s kind of this random walk through the woods that then is much more mathematical and algorithmic than I’m making it out to be. But basically that is to show the ecosystem of influence throughout the different nodes of the network that allows you to see a different way to look at how impactful something is as compared to something else.

Greg: [00:21:40] And again, there are different ways to count usage and there are different ways to use those counts to help either the researcher understand how impactful their research is, or how engaging their research is, or for the reader to try to filter through this mass of information overabundance that we’re all dealing with every day.

Joe: [00:22:02] So downloads being the currency of the papers, that’s pretty important that the data be accurate. Did you have any problems with users trying to game that system at all to increase their download counts?

Greg: [00:22:14] Well, you know, the moment that you start counting anything somebody is going to try to cheat and make themselves look better. So we have had a few people over the years. We’ve built a very nice system with ITX to watch for fraudulent activity, downloads that lack integrity, we couldn’t verify or validate them. And, you know, interestingly we would then write to an author and say we’ve noticed an irregular download pattern. And almost always we would get back within a few minutes a response to the e-mail saying, “well, I had a research assistant and he/she must not have understood not to repeatedly download my papers from the site over and over again. Please make whatever corrections need to be made immediately.” So we’re on this trek to find these handful of bad actors, these bad research assistants who seemed to be doing all the cheating. Because no researchers, no authors, have ever done any cheating themselves with SSRN land. But we do see that the moment that you start to put up some blockers, just flash up a little warning that says we’ve noticed an irregular pattern, or a required sign in, you know, do a variety of different little things that are relatively lightweight. They made a huge impact on the amount of quote unquote cheating that is being attempted.

Joe: [00:23:50] Yeah that’s a really good point about putting in checks and balances and warnings. Would you ever, you know, tell someone who’s thinking about implementing some kind of gamification practice into their product to not do it because people are going to game it somehow, or what would your recommendation be to them?

Greg: [00:24:07] You know, it’s a really interesting question. I deal with most of the major publishing houses, a lot of other startups and people in this industry, and the topic has come up a few times. And some people say that they just didn’t think that they were gonna get the benefit out of it. Others basically are babes in woods where they probably knowingly to some extent are being gamed but they’re okay with it. You know, in our world, we wanted to build a trustworthy set of metrics. And so we spend a significant amount of money every year verifying and validating our download counts because we want them to be trusted. We want them to be used by a lot of people in a lot of different circumstances. So for us, the benefits far exceed the cost. So I guess I would say, don’t be afraid of somebody trying to game your gamification system or somebody trying to cheat your metrics. I mean, that’s unfortunately just part of of the life that we live in right now online. What I would say, though, is just to do an honest assessment of what are the values you’re going to get out of it and what are the costs you’re willing to bear to get those benefits?

Greg: [00:25:20] For us, it’s been incredibly valuable. We have most of the major universities, many of the major publications, and other people around the world using our metrics for evaluation and other purposes. And that’s because they trust them. But we knew that going in. We knew going in that we needed to provide a system that could be trusted. So if you want vanity metrics, then open the doors and let the horses out and enjoy them. But if you want something that people are going to use, actually use, in their work world, then you have to spend a little bit of time and effort to make sure that they are trustworthy.

Joe: [00:25:58] Great. Great point.

Sean: [00:25:59] Yeah I would argue that if you’re at that point, that means that they’re working. So if you have to put antifraud measures in, like you guys did, that means they’re actually working for something. Because if I remember some of the anecdotes when we were doing studies and analyzing how your systems were being used, I remember some authors were putting their SSRN statistics on their resumes, right?

Greg: [00:26:25] Sean, we actually still to this day have authors write in and say, “can you print out my author page and sign it and send it to me?”.

Sean: [00:26:35] Exactly.

[00:26:36] We have the including it in their tenure and promotion packages. We have them including it in their dissertation conversations. We have them using it all over the place. So it’s definitely used and found valuable by a lot of people in a lot of different markets.

Sean: [00:26:56] Yeah. There were also some calculators that ranked colleges and universities that were using your statistics in their analysis, right.

Greg: [00:27:05] Well, within SSRN, what we have is a number of papers, some of them early on, some of them more recent, but a lot of the papers tried to give context for these. And so they would look at US News and World Reports or some of the more popular rankings of departments and compare SRRN rankings to them, see how they were relatively closely correlated, and then try to understand why there were differences. Did a top scholar move from one school to another? Did the school open up a new center or a new area of research that was pretty hot right now, so that was creating some buzz or or getting them to do some new cool stuff. So again, it’s definitely been used and compared in a lot of different ways. And to us, that just meant we had to work harder, we had to make sure that the quality of what we were putting out there was was even better, because more and more people came to value it. I think the point you made a minute ago about if it’s not worth anything then nobody cheats at it is a pretty darn good one.

Sean: [00:28:18] Thinking about, you know, gamification and making a product more fun or easy to use for a user versus coersion, because a lot of people when they think gamification they think, “oh it’s manipulative” or “it’s going to make me do something that I maybe didn’t want to do.” How do you tow that line and think about that as you implement, you know, certain ways to get people to take action that you think is going to benefit them?

Greg: [00:28:42] Well you know, I guess to my mind you need to take a step back. My younger son plays Fortnite which is a popular online game right now and he plays it with his friends.

Joe: [00:28:58] I know it well.

Greg: [00:28:59] And Fortnite is a good game, right. It’s just a really good game. If it wasn’t a good game, then nobody would be playing it. So all of the points, all of the badges, all the leaderboards in the world, only work if they’re on top of something that is good. If SSRN was a terrible platform, if we didn’t have any content, if the content that we had was junk, then all the gamification in the world wouldn’t matter, right.

[00:29:37] When I hear people say that, I come back and I say, “Well I think you’re missing the point,” right. There’s no gamification system that I’ve ever seen that makes me do something I don’t want to do. I mean it makes it into a game, right. And I’d rather play a game than not play a game. And so if the gamification makes what I’m doing a little bit more interesting, a little bit more fun, and motivates me to try a little bit harder, then I’m all for it. But I just don’t see any gamification systems out there that are going to force somebody to do something that they don’t want to do. So to me, it’s making it a little bit more fun. And then as the platform, we then have the responsibility to make sure that what we’re putting out as metrics we stand behind.

Joe: [00:30:30] Reputation and trust.

Sean: [00:30:31] Yeah I think that’s the key is the factual side of it. Like these are just facts that you’re using in the game, so to speak, and the more evidence that you can put behind their truth, the more support you have, the more powerful it is. And your example is a great one because that’s really an example of an industry that’s been disrupted. Arguably a lot of it by the gamification, itself by the motivation mechanics that you guys deployed.

Greg: [00:31:01] You know, so I use the word responsibility, right. And I think that links to the comment that I made earlier in our conversation about trust, right. And so you need to actually be thoughtful about it. You need to bear the responsibility to put out good quality metrics. But you also need to be responsible to think about what you’re doing. You know, many of us have had detailed, lengthy discussions about the Matthew effect, right, you know, where somebody who’s on a top list is going to be getting more downloads becuase they’re on a top downloaded list, right. And so we had to be thinking about, “what impact does that have?” And so we came up with some different measures, and people would roll off that after a certain number of days, or it would take this requirement to be on there because it was classified here or there. So we had to have those responsibility conversations about, you know, what were we going to rank? How were we going to rank it? What were the rules that we were going to use? And be very very transparent about them. It’s hard to get that right the first time, but if you’re honest with yourselves and you allow other people to give you feedback about it, then I think you can get to a system that actually works great for your communities. But it has to bear responsibility. You can’t just throw this stuff out there and hope that it’s going to work. It needs to be actively managed and managed on an ongoing basis.

Joe: [00:32:18] So thinking about that, you know, being thoughtful about it and making sure it doesn’t have an adverse effect that wasn’t expected, do you guys ever tests these kinds of features before you release them just to make sure?

Greg: [00:32:32] Hahaha, we AB test the hell out of everything. I know more about statistically significant factors than I care to. But yeah, I think that we’ve become fans of the Silicon Valley Product Group and their approach to product market fit and their approach to iterative process, not just iterative design or iterative agile programming, but really truly the whole thing needs to be agile and iterative. And so we test, we run a lot of experiments to try to figure out how these things fit together. Very lightweight experiments, you know where you click the button and it leads nowhere, but we now know how many people are interested in clicking the button.

Greg: [00:33:22] So yeah, we AB test the heck out of things, and we do that because it’s so easy when you’re moving fast to make a mistake. And it’s so easy when you’re moving fast to not even realize what you don’t know and what you’re not even thinking about. So baby stepping these things through with what seems at times like excruciating detail and “why the heck can’t we just jump to the end?” But, you know, we spent a lot of time running a waterfall process. And I know how badly that doesn’t work; that the small timing frustrations at different points along the path are irrelevant compared to what we ultimately achieve. So yeah, we do a lot of small micro experiments and AB test a lot of the things along the process. And we think it’s become a much much better system because of it.

Sean: [00:34:15] So let’s talk about tactics a little bit. So you guys chose the tournament, so it’s really the big first began gamification thing. You had downloads for a while, but it really wasn’t until you introduced the rankings, or the tournaments before you started as what I remember as the hockey stick. You know, when the traction really started to go up. The really cool tactic was the top tens, the e-mails, and we call those triggers, right. So the triggering people to come back and take a look at their paper, their abstract page, maybe update it, maybe upload other papers. I remember when we implemented the top tens, the e-mails that would go out telling people what list they’re showing up on and their ranking, that it drove all kinds of interesting behaviors. Want to talk about that a little bit?

Greg: [00:35:03] One of the things that I love is gaining perspective and it’s easy for me, you know, where we have papers that have tens of thousands of downloads, to be presenting at a conference and have somebody come up to me and say, “I just got that email from you and I really appreciate that it really helps motivate me going forward.” And you know, I’ll catch the name, and I’ll go and check it out. And the e-mail that would have been sent may have been one for for two dozen downloads, but it really mattered to that person, right. In other words, if you look at the communities and the environment that we’ve worked for the last twenty years, it’s been an environment where you would spend six months to six years maybe, working on a research paper, submit it into a black hole, and have that process, have you be waiting for the feedback. Right now, you submit a paper to SSRN, it’s available. You can make it immediately available, we process it within a matter of minutes or hours, and the world can go and download it. And you then immediately get feedback of how many downloads you got. So the point about these notifications, these triggers, as you’re referring to them, Sean, is an interesting one.

Greg: [00:36:27] One, we wanted to show acknowledgement and appreciation for somebody being part of the SSRN platform. But two, you know we’re all really really busy. And I don’t have time to go and check every single thing I’d like to check every day. So this notification that says, “hey you’re one of the top downloaded authors,” has real value. It makes it more efficient for me to be made aware of that, and then I go back and I can check in I can see, “oh, why did this paper have this downloads to that abstract view ratio versus this other one?” And I start to think about how I’m connected to my research, about how I’m allowing others to be connected to my research. Because of this trigger, it helped me be made aware of something that’s of interest to me. But, you know, I just may be too busy to go back and check.

Sean: [00:37:17] And on the flipside of that, there’s other tactics that you chose over the years not to deploy. Things like giving people special statuses or maybe badges like Foursquare or Yelp where you level up and you get different badges. You guys never deployed anything like that. Can you talk about that a little bit, maybe why?

Greg: [00:37:41] You know, we did have a lot of conversations about it. We’re actually right now looking at acknowledging certain papers based on non metric related information. So the last year and a half or so we’ve been giving away awards with the Wharton School of Business and we’re trying to figure out a way to to show those papers in the system with a badge. But those are not metric-related badges. The reason that we shyed away from, you know, this power user this greater level user, is that we wanted SSRN to be a level playing field. We’ve always felt that it didn’t matter whether you were at Harvard Business School or Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York that your research deserved to stand on its own two feet. So instead of trying to figure out how one researcher is better than another or how one user was better than another or higher ranked or whatever the case may be, we avoided that because we wanted it to be a level playing field.

Greg: [00:38:48] We wanted everybody to have the chance to share their ideas and let the research shine through, not necessarily an individual, but let the research show that this was important stuff. So we didn’t want to try to possibly muck that up by adding a set of badges to individuals. We thought that could be problematic more than helpful.

Sean: [00:39:14] Great. So it sounds like, you know, from everything I’ve seen online, whether it’s from Malcolm Gladwell or other very influential people that I follow that they use SSRN. Have you seen the industry change at all because of SSRN and what you guys have done? Or what kind of influence have you seen your product have in the world?

Greg: [00:39:34] You know, if I was arrogant I’d say that we’re making a really huge impact all over the place. I don’t think I’m quite that arrogant. I guess what I would say is that we’ve been heads down on making really good quality research available for free as early in the process as possible. So we started last year with allowing research to put up ideas. You know, what are you working on? Are you looking for collaboration? Are you looking for funding? Do you have some data that you want to work with somebody to create a research paper around? How early can we get in this process?

Greg: [00:40:13] The other thing that we’ve been focusing on is working with some of the greatest branded journals in the world to get their content out early. So we’ve been working with Cell Press, and we just announced last week we’re working with The Lancet. So in biology and in medicine, we’re now working with some of the top brands to bring their research out earlier, which I think will continue to enhance the impact of the research that we’re looking for. I remember several years ago, well ten-plus years ago now, when I first found out that the U.S. Supreme Court referenced an SSRN working paper in their proceedings. And it was a game changer for me. It really helped me realize that, you know, some of the most impactful things happening in the world, Supreme Court decisions, are being influenced by research in SSRN. And it’s that early research that’s helping Supreme Court justices make better decisions. I mean, that’s that’s pretty damn cool. And so from that point forward, we just have been striving to make more high quality research available as early as possible in the process, as easily accessible, as freely and broadly disseminated as possible, because that’s what really matters.

Greg: [00:41:44] So yeah, the Gladwell thing is awesome. It’s just spectacular. We’re so proud. The team is so happy about that. And every time we get referenced in a major publication anywhere in the world we’re very very happy about that. We always want to celebrate those successes, those milestones where we’ve been acknowledged or recognized for the hard work that everybody here has been doing for a long time. But from the moment that we first got recognized by the Supreme Court, from that point forward we realized how important what we were doing was and that we needed to be focused on that and not just getting you know acknowledgements and awards.

Joe: [00:42:23] Yeah thanks for mentioning that. That’s something that we talk with our teams about, and you know for all the other product managers out there and people in software development, celebrate the wins. You know, the milestones, the recognition, celebrate that becauase, you know, we’re usually working so hard just to get products out there. But when they actually have an impact, make sure to celebrate it. It helps motivate your team.

Greg: [00:42:44] Joe, I couldn’t agree with you more. I think it’s one of the biggest most important things. You know, we use an OKR process here and some people looked at like I had three heads, but we have a refrigerator full of beer and at 4 o’clock on a Friday, each of the different teams who were working on one of the key results celebrate their key actions for the week. And you crack open a beer and it’s all a step forward. But that celebration, the cadence of celebration I think is missing in a lot of companies, and we don’t do it perfectly here at SSRN, I would be lying if I said we did, but the cadence of celebration I think is a really important factor in letting a team enjoy their hard work.

Sean: [00:43:37] A meticulous sidetrack: so you travel more than anybody I know. And one of the biggest industries for gamification is obviously the airline industry. Talk about your experience with that, with airline points and what works, what you think doesn’t work, what could be improved there.

Greg: [00:43:57] Well, you know, I think I do travel an insane amount.

Sean: [00:44:02] Insane is a very conservative word for the amount of travel that you do.

Greg: [00:44:08] Hundreds of thousands of miles a year. I travel a lot. So I think that it’s in three kind of, tiers. I think that there’s people like, you know, like my children who travel a lot, but they’re about price, right. How do I get the cheapest flight? Because I’m going take two or three trips a year, and money is much more important because I’m not going to be able to accumulate points at a level that that that’s going to make any real difference. So the gamification for them is irrelevant. You have people like me who are at the other end of the spectrum who travel a tremendous amount, who, you know, have a high-level status on a multiple different systems. And so for me, because I’m traveling so much, the convenience becomes a driving factor. Now I will say that I am shocked by the difference between traveling with status on a particular airline or to a particular hotel and traveling without status on a particular airline or to a particular hotel. So there’s a huge difference in the quality of the experience. But for on this end of the spectrum, convenience starts to become a factor because I’m gone so much that I don’t have days to try to manipulate around or try to do things.

Greg: [00:45:38] But this big, fat middle section, this middle tier is really really interesting. And so I travel with a bunch of people who are in that middle tier, and these are people who have, you know, generally status on an airline and status with a hotel chain. And the amount that they are willing to modify their schedules to make it work for their gamification is really interesting sometimes. Now the gamifications there are not just points on a ranking, those are, you know, free nights and free flights and it may make a difference between you and your family going away or not going away. But, I mean they have figured out to an incredible degree how to motivate and change people’s behavior. And I know people that will get up an extra half hour early in New York or London to take the tube or the subway to stay at a branded hotel that much further out because it gets them points. So I think that in those situations, the gamification is not just about status. You know, nobody says to me, “oh my gosh, Greg, you’re this status or that status.” I think in those situations, the gamification maybe is a bit more towards I was going to say the rewards, but maybe the perceived rewards. You know, I don’t know that they’re always worth what they are perceived to be, but the perceived rewards are very influential in that middle tier of travelers.

Sean: [00:47:23] You obviously think about that stuff a lot.

Greg: [00:47:26] I’ve spent a lot of time on planes.

Sean: [00:47:29] So you’ve been extremely generous here Greg Bowness a lot of time I really appreciate it. So Greg, one last closing question here. What’s the last business book you read that you thought was valuable, and why?

Greg: [00:47:43] As you know Sean, I consume a lot of content. I listen to a lot of audiobooks while I’m working out or running or whenever, and so I do consume a lot of content. So it’s really kind of a funny question. So I don’t know if you’d consider it necessarily a business book, but I’m a huge Steven Pinker fan. I think that he digests and plays with research and a really interesting way. So some of his latest stuff has really been great. The new Dan Pink book When, I’m a huge Dan Pink and Malcolm Gladwell fan obviously. The books that I’m going to answer your question with, I’m going to give you two. The new version of Inspired, about the Silicon Valley Product Group, really starts to attack some of the issues that we’ve been talking about in this conversation. And, “how do we start to think about things differently?” And, “how do we start to break apart the processes?” and not just think about gamification as good or bad, but how does it fit into your world. How does it fit into your product and into what you’re trying to get accomplished so that you actually accomplish something beyond just having rankings?

Greg: [00:48:49] And then the other one which probably is one that you wouldn’t necessarily think about is, Going Clear. It’s by Lawrence Wright and it talks about Scientology and it talks about a business being created in and around a religion and a set of practices that are mind-boggling that an organization could continue to exist with those practices. And again, you know, not whether or not you are a fan or not a fan of Scientology or religion or whatever, but the thought process about how people buy into purpose, right. This whole concept of motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose; that they buy into purpose, just reminded me of what I say all the time here at SSRN, is that that if I’m spending less than eighty percent of my time helping the team understand the purpose of what we’re doing, then I’ve messed up. I’ve done a bad job about training or hiring or leaving them alone or whatever. So it really helped me remind me why I believe I’m here doing the role that I’m doing which is to help people understand the purpose of SSRN and why we do what we do.

Sean: [00:50:20] Great answer. Thanks Greg.

Joe: [00:50:22] Greg, thanks for joining us today. This was very insightful and we hope you, the audience, learned something about gamification and how to think about your communities, your ecosystems, and your users.

Sean: [00:50:34] So if you have any questions, concerns, comments, ideas, anything you’d like to share. We’d love to hear from our audience on Apple podcast, on Google Play, on Reach out. Send us an email phone call or you want to give us your ideas. Thanks. Thanks for listening.

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