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Offering a “compelling user experience” is now the Holy Grail when it comes to making successful digital products and services. Indeed, an endless supply of books, blogs and tweets testifies to its importance from a wide range of perspectives—from ethnography to app development to business ROI.

But what, exactly, is a “compelling experience”? And how do you know if your product or service provides it?

Simply put, compelling user experiences elicit strongly positive emotions. And the best user experiences evoke these emotions during product use or service delivery as well as after the fact. In other words, we have positive feelings about these experiences as both means and ends.

The means.  Products and services succeed when they help users get into a positive state of “flow” and actively engage with the solution. At the risk of going Zen, flow is that feeling of focus and enjoyment where time slips away and you become one with the activity. Video game developers are extremely effective at harnessing this feeling, and the term “gamification” really means leveraging the principles of flow to achieve the same effect.

Not coincidentally, three key conditions necessary for a state of flow are fundamental to the design of a successful game or “gamified” user interface:

1. A clear goal–you know what you can do, and how to do it.

2. Immediate feedback–crucial for for learning and developing confidence.

3. A sense of user control. Things that are simple, intuitive and pleasant to do are easier to remember, contributing to a sense of control. As user skill increases, the level of challenge can increase to further reinforce this sense.

And ends.  A digital product or service can elicit positive emotion by delivering not just the actual objective benefit, but also the subjective feeling associated with the broader benefit—typically after the action is carried out. For example, a security system not only keeps intruders out of your home, but makes you feel confident in the knowledge that you have made your family and belongings secure.

Emotion plays a large factor in all aspects of the consumer experience—from expressing needs, through forming initial impressions and making purchase decisions to using and recommending solutions. This framework offers a helpful reminder to product designers and marketers alike to keep both the means and ends in mind.

Two recent news items about climate change illustrate the need to take consumer psychology into account when designing digital products and services. This principle is especially true for those with abstract and/or long-term benefits.

We’re all climate-change idiots.”

The first item, a New York Times editorial, makes this bold claim in the headline: “We’re All Climate-Change Idiots.” Editorial writer Beth Gardiner argues that people are just not psychologically equipped to deal with such abstract, pervasive danger, no matter how real or grave the threat.  “You almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology,” she quotes Anthony Leiserowitz as saying. As the director of the Yale Project on Climate Change, Leiserowitz is in good position to know.

Gardiner lays out some specific psychological underpinnings that prevent us from effectively assessing and addressing climate change. These include our preference for simplicity over complexity, a knack for paying attention to irrelevant information, and a general disdain for delayed gratification. And of course, there’s our habit of valuing information that reinforces our existing beliefs while dismissing competing views. (Sound familiar? If you’re a product developer or a marketer, you take many of these factors into account every day.)

She then offers some suggestions for working with (or around) our psychological quirks, citing our need for things that are easy, immediate, and help us keep up with our peers. Digital solutions mentioned include default double-sided printing, real-time energy monitoring displays, and publishing energy usage norms among one’s neighborhood or network.

How Facebook could change the game for sustainability

The second piece, “How Facebook could change the game for sustainability,” reveals how the social media giant is working to exploit the power of social norms through apps designed to work within Facebook.

In the article, GigaOm writer Katie Fehrenbacher focuses on an interview she conducted with Bill Weihl, Facebook’s manager of energy efficiency and sustainability. Weihl says a sustainability app can be more powerful within a social media context because it’s “much more personal and seems likely to help people pay attention more and make a change.”

Facebook’s first such app, developed by Opower, lets users compare their energy usage to friends and to national averages. Currently in beta with 16 utilities, the Opower app ultimately will let users compete with each other in a game to minimize their energy use.

Will Facebook “crack the code” for behavior change when it comes to promoting sustainability?

Even with a healthy dose of skepticism, I think Facebook is onto something here, especially if it adheres to the principles laid out by Leiserowitz and others in the emerging field of climate psychology. The key of course, is to ensure the app capitalizes on our natural habits rather than requiring us to adopt new ones.

In the end, perhaps the real idiots are the ones who keep fighting an uphill battle with human nature, or worse—do nothing at all.

By now you’re probably aware of last week’s Kickstarter success story, Ouya, the Android-based gaming console. The project racked up the biggest first day ever on the crowdfunding site and a few days into meeting its fundraising goal of $950,000 became only one of eight projects to top a million dollars. At the time of this writing, the project has cleared just over $5 million, with 22 days left to solicit backers. As even the chronically jaded Darth Vader might say, “Impressive. Most impressive.”

Why all the love? Ouya represents everything indie gamers and developers have been pining for since, well, the advent of open-source gaming. It has two main virtues:

It’s relatively inexpensive, a.k.a., cheap. The console promises to be a boon for gamers weary of shelling out several hundred dollars for hardware and accessories, paying $60 a pop for premium titles and getting nickel-and-dimed for online multiplayer action. Ouya is expected to retail for only $99 and many of its titles are likely to be free-to-play (F2P) or at least have a significant F2P component. This could mean F2P gaming in the living room on a grand scale.

It’s developer-friendly. The potential consumer benefits of an open source console are clear: more titles and more unique titles. The relative ease of programming for the Ouya should guarantee a continuous flow of new games and encourage developers to take design risks that would be financially impossible in titles intended for one of the big three consoles. Ouya represents a chance to shift the public spotlight from fancy graphics toward ideas.

Good ideas, though, are only a necessary, not a sufficient condition for success. If a good idea alone was enough, we’d be carrying Apple Newtons instead of iPhones. Solid execution is crucial. Here are the three most important questions the brains behind Ouya have to answer to realize indie gamers’ dreams:

1. Which games will drive console sales at launch? The usual Android shovelware and ports of franchise entries like Angry Birds won’t cut it. The living room experience is fundamentally different than the mobile experience. Consumers turn on their TVs for immersive entertainment. Which titles will offer the equivalent of a AAA cable program or blockbuster movie? Without a winning library of games at launch, the console might as well be a cleverly-designed cardboard box.

2. What’s the distribution strategy? A console based solely on downloadable content doesn’t offer much to brick-and-mortar retailers in the way of ancillary sales. Why would Walmart bother with a $99 product (presumably, with a small profit margin) when it doesn’t have the chance to sell games for it? Absent a strong retail presence then, how does Ouya compete effectively? Even Amazon doesn’t rely entirely on its website to hawk the Kindle. Its retail partnerships have been essential in raising awareness and facilitating impulse buys of the device.

3. What are the compelling social components? Part of what distinguishes console from mobile play is the ease of playing with others. It’s not clear to what extent Ouya will allow for either in-person or online multiplayer action. But the social aspect shouldn’t be underestimated, especially when the console is likely to appeal primarily to hardcore indie gamers, a natural affinity group.

Basically, the makers of Ouya need to figure out how they’re going to convince consumers the console does more than blow up Doodle Jump to TV-sized dimensions. How effectively they do that will determine the course of this crush-worthy experiment.

Given the kerfuffle over the Paycheck Fairness Act and the booth babes at E3, I got to thinking about the evolving role of women in society and of course, how technology has played a part in that journey.

So enjoy this trip back through time. You may be surprised at how far back women’s contributions to technology go, and at how few women are in tech leadership positions in industry today.

Events and stats cited are for the U.S. only, and of course, are far from comprehensive. But together they tell a story of a continued steady female presence in the technical realm, both as creator and consumer. Now, with females on par with males when it comes to using digital technology, perhaps parity in terms of developing tomorrow’s technology is just around the corner.

A Short History of Women & Technology

(click to view enlarged image)

Recently in this blog, I asserted that the time has never been better to advance the cause of interoperability.

Now, some may  argue that tech device manufacturers have precious little incentive to promote an open, “plug and play” world. Apple’s closed ecosystem is the winning paradigm to date and on the service side, digital rights management (DRM) continues to be a major barrier to “anytime, anywhere” access to desired content.

But even the biggest companies won’t offer every possible device or service that customers may want to link up. Here are more reasons I think the walls will (eventually) come down:

Pressure from advertisers. Advertisers want consumers to have access to content no matter what device they’re using and increasingly, the eyeballs are moving to a myriad of mobile devices. Follow the money…

Consumer expectations. Ubiquitous connectivity is now expected given widespread Wi-Fi access, a plethora of intuitive user interfaces and the popularity of various content providers, e.g., Netflix, Pandora, Steam, etc. Consumer increasingly broadcast their expectations in this area via social media. They want to know why their smartphone can’t control their TV. Smart tech companies are listening.

Energy management. Energy providers and the Department of Energy want consumer devices to easily (and cheaply) connect to the grid to reduce energy consumption and our dependence on fossil fuels. Initiatives include making it easier connect thermostats, appliances and the like to energy management systems via SEP 2.0, “Plug and Play” Solar, and wireless electric vehicle charging.

Home automation for the masses. Major telcos, security companies and hardware makers are all in the home automation market now. This means connectivity can go way beyond communication and entertainment for the average consumer. Ease of set-up and maintenance are the key hurdles to consumer acceptance and satisfaction. Seamless interoperability is the answer.

Hybrid networking. Development of hybrid gateways that handle any wired or wireless protocol and supporting standards like IEEE 1905.1 are gaining traction.

Startups. Startups are less invested in maintaining the status quo, and many are developing innovative ways to breach the void between devices. Electric Imp, anyone? This new device lets you connect anything to anything, wirelessly, and provides a unified software experience for managing it all.

Investors. Ultimately, innovations that promise to radically reduce complexity and costs, and open the floodgates of demand, will be embraced by the investment community. Move over, Facebook.

A recent Microsoft patent filing suggests individualizing Xbox 360 (or, more likely, Xbox 720) game settings could be as easy as grabbing a controller. According to Engadget, the patent describes a controller with sensors that detect your identity. Based on your unique hand pressure pattern, the controller delivers content according to your personal preferences. This feature would be especially handy for gaming sessions at a friend’s house. Just bring your touch-sensitive controller along and ta-da, your friend’s console knows your setting preferences as well as your own.

If, as rumor suggests, the next-gen version of the Xbox is more akin to a home server, it’s easy to imagine Microsoft extending this functionality to other kinds of personalized content, potentially, through facial recognition via Kinect. How cool would it be if your Xbox 720 recognized you on coming home from work and automatically configured your environment to your needs, say, adjusting your lights and temperature? Unfortunately, the unit can’t be expected to help settle family disputes about who gets to control the thermostat.

Earlier this month, President Obama signed a bill that allows the general public to invest in startup companies over the Internet via crowdfunding services like Kickstarter. Prior to this law, early investments in private companies were restricted to qualified institutions (namely, investment banks) and wealthy individuals. The Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act permits average citizens to invest in—and profit from—startups in the same manner as traditional investors. (To be sure, U.S. securities law does provide for investments from so-called “non-qualified investors,” however, the process for offering these opportunities is fraught with legal complexity and considerable expense.)

Although Kickstarter characterizes contributions to the projects it hosts as patronage rather than investment capital (and reportedly doesn’t intend to change its model), passage of the JOBS Act has brought increased attention to the crowdfunding phenomenon. So it was with great interest that I read a recent report in GamesIndustry International which broke down the costs associated with funding one particular Kickstarter project, the indie game Star Command from Warballoon. The article shows that crowdfunding doesn’t obviate the need for solid upfront budgeting.

Warballoon sought $20,000 on Kickstarter for its iOS and Android title and netted roughly $36,000. Sounds like a rousing success, right? Well, not so fast. Here’s how that amount got whittled down in short order to $11,000 for actual game development:

$2,000     pledges failed to materialize

$3,000     fees to Kickstarter and Amazon’s portion of PayPal transactions

$10,000   prizes or rewards for contributors—posters, t-shirts and shipping

$6,000     game music

$1,000     poster design

$1,000     iPads for testing

$3,000     PAX East conference

$4,000     legal fees for incorporation and related documents

$2,000     taxes (contributions must be declared as income)

$4,000     incidentals and daily expenses

There are a couple of collapsed line items worth highlighting. One is that Warballoon “lost” $17,000 out of the gate to a combination of pledge reversals, transaction fees, prize fulfillment and taxes. Startups looking to get in on the crowdsourcing action should budget carefully to ensure they set a fundraising target that accounts for these expenses. If Warballoon had raised only its original goal of $20,000 then around 75% of the total would’ve been exhausted before the team got to product development (assuming proportionately fewer pledge reversals and a slightly lower tax bill).

The line items associated with game development—music, iPads for testing, and incidentals—come to $11,000 or about 32% of the $34,000 in pledges that were actually collected. I don’t know how that figure compares to other, similar Kickstarter projects. But if I were a patron, I’d expect a higher percentage of the monies to go toward direct project costs. The legal fees associated with incorporation and such should properly be considered startup costs. Incorporation filings and associated operating agreements are a basic cost of doing business. I’d be highly reluctant to contribute to a company that hadn’t already taken this step.

Fundraising platforms like Kickstarter are wonderful avenues for startups with a marketable or otherwise appealing idea. Recently, Double Fine made international news by raising over $1 million in a single day for a new multiplatform adventure title. The company ended up with nearly $3.5 million against an initial goal of only $800,000. That’s powerful evidence for the viability of the crowdfunding model. Just don’t let the excitement around a new project blind you to the necessity of diligent advance budgeting.

For years, consumers have been sold unlimited internet plans in both the wired and wireless worlds. “Eat as much as you want,” said the service providers.

But the era of unlimited data is fast coming to a close with the advent of streamed video. Networks are groaning under the weight of bandwidth-heavy movies, YouTube clips, live sports broadcasts and oh so much more.

In response, service providers are setting monthly limits on how much data consumers can use. They’re especially keen to clamp down on the notorious 1% who consume disproportionately large amounts of data.

The broader problem lies in consumers’ lack of understanding the hard realities of data consumption. The majority not only doesn’t know much about data consumption, but doesn’t really care, either.

In the name of education, service providers have published dry FAQs and tutorials. These learning aids could do the job—if consumers were willing to suffer through them. But as even the most dedicated student will attest, these kinds of mechanisms are marginally effective at teaching innately interesting topics, let alone something like data consumption.

Fortunately for us, the good people at NYTimes.com have injected a little humor into the issue in the form of a short-n-breezy quiz. Don’t be fooled by its light tone or brevity, though. This quiz is a real brainteaser. At the risk of sounding immodest, I consider myself well-versed on the topic, and I scored six of eight.  A sharp colleague scored four of eight.

The quiz demonstrates the virtues of “gamifying” an otherwise dull subject and hopefully, can serve as a model to companies looking to educate the broader public on decidedly staid but important technology-related issues.

About a decade ago, Zanthus contributed to a proposed research project on family communications for a now-defunct cross-industry digital home consortium. One part of the study would have focused on a new product concept for emotional communication. This device, dubbed a “mood-fob,” was envisioned to behave like a gussied-up version of that counterculture fashion statement, the mood ring. It would glow in various colors, each of which represented a distinct emotional state. Every family member would have a mood-fob that was continuously synced with the others.

Whenever a family member wanted to communicate her mood to someone, all she had to do was select a recipient and hold her own device. The recipient’s mood-fob would then glow in the color corresponding to the sender’s emotion. If the two family members touched their mood-fobs at the same time, the devices would pulse sympathetically. (The pulse could be considered the electronic equivalent of the hypnotic purr emitted by the Tribbles featured in the original Star Trek series.)

A number of variations of the mood-fob were considered, including a version for romantic partners at a distance, and a stuffed animal version for young children so traveling parents could wish them goodnight without saying a word. Regardless of the form these devices took, however, the focus was on delivering a simple, intuitive means of letting others know you were thinking about them if you couldn’t tell them in person.

The same principle seems to be the animating force behind Pair, a new iPhone app which offers an exclusive social network for two. The app is aimed at romantic partners looking for a quick, private way to communicate. Pair allows couples to share texts, to-do lists and calendars. The most publicized feature, however, is the thumbkiss. When two users slide their thumbs over their individual iPhone screens so their thumbs line up, their screens turn red and their phones vibrate. It’s instant one-touch affection.

Even though Pair doesn’t have any immediate plans to monetize the app, the idea has caught on with investors. After just two months, Pair has secured close to $1.5 million in financing that would value the company at about $10 million. What’s attractive about Pair isn’t necessarily the app as it currently stands, but the company’s apparent commitment to using technology to serve definitively human ends. An innovative technology company dedicated to helping consumers share their emotions is usually a worthwhile bet.

It’s been a few weeks since I returned from a gathering of top-tier product developers and marketers assembled to advance the cause of the digital home. The Digital Home Forum, offered by the Continental Automated Building Association’s (CABA) Connected Home Council, takes place every six months or so. (Full disclosure: CABA is a long-standing client of Zanthus.)

This session featured an especially high number of “big picture” topics, chief among them, how to improve “interoperability.” That’s tech shorthand for the technology-neutral exchange of information among devices. Discussions of interoperability revolved around how to connect gadgets, content and services to create widely-distributed market opportunities. Think of the ease-of-communication among Apple products without being locked into the company’s devices or associated protocols. Sure, broad interoperability is a decades-old dream, but IMHO the timing has never been better for a genuine breakthrough.

The spirit of invention was certainly alive at the forum, where various manifestations of interoperability were shared. Some of the most memorable include:

The “Facebook of devices. (Thanks for that handy moniker, IBM.) Beyond the “Internet of Things”—where you can control and monitor everything over the Internet—expect your devices to “friend” each other (with your permission of course), with the goal of delivering an enhanced, seamless user experience. Just think, when your electric car, electric meter, window coverings and thermostat can share status updates with each other, you can start selling energy instead of just consuming it.

Connected communities. The next step up is when your digital ecosystem starts communicating beyond you and your home to include your personal network, your neighborhood, and even your causes. With “conscious consumerism” growing, especially among the young, industry watchers say new digital lifestyle incentive programs and services become feasible. For example, you could generate donations to your cause of choice by signing up for a demand response program with your electric utility, which could then adjust your home’s thermostat for short durations during peak consumption periods. A nice win-win in a world that can’t afford to continue down the path where the average US household now uses three times the amount of power as it did in 1950.

Privacy is not dead. It’s not that people don’t want information shared about them under any circumstances—it’s that they want control over the process. Consumers understand that data is already being collected about them, and they want in on the deal. It could be cash or other incentives. If the price of continued independent living is agreeing to have “connected slippers” that notify your family you didn’t get up today, well then you might be OK with that.

The “God box.” The magic uber-protocol conversion thing, secure yet open, that makes it technically feasible to connect any kind of consumer device, service or content with any other. Using any communications protocol. Even when hardware gets upgraded or changes. As efforts to promote interoperability like DLNA and the new IEEE 1905.1 standard roll out, the dream continues. DRM and patents allowing, of course.

This CABA Connected Home Council Forum was one of the more energized confabs in recent memory. In fact, one presenter actually had to ask the audience to keep the chatter down! I took that as a sign that renewed cross-industry pollination is on the way. If interoperability is to gain traction, forums like this will play a key role, where industry players are encouraged to see the value in collaboration.