Send via SMS

Saturday, March 18, 2006

How to tap the collective before we're Borg

If you had to choose the biggest ineffiency in the world, what would it be?

My current vote would be the poor distribution of arguably our most valuable resource: our experience.

Think of any decision you have to make soon, crucial or trivial, and there are hundreds of millions of people that have already made it. Every second, someone somewhere is choosing a soft drink, a TV show, a car, a profession, a spouse. Yet, their knowledge and opinions are mostly locked up in their heads, languishing unused and depreciating into hazy memory.

The idea of aggregating and sharing this collective intelligence is a staple of sci-fi. Futurists have long salivated at the idea of networking our individual brains into a massive neural net. Of course, neuroscience will need a bit more time to work out the kinks.

Is there a good solution in the meantime? The internet is the best yet, but most efforts to aggregate knowledge - the current buzzword is "wisdom of crowds" - have been mediocre:

Epinions: users write reviews and used to be paid for every read, but the system was gamed too much. Now there is little incentive to contribute and the content is stagnant.

Yelp: an Epinions-like site within a social network (founded by former PayPal colleagues) where users get recommendations from friends. There's extra value in reviews from trusted sources but sadly there isn't much content yet - most of my queries returned few reviews.

They face a double barrier: getting people to sign-up and invite friends, then getting friends to write reviews. I thought there would be a synergy there, that users would be more likely to write reviews for friends, but it so far hasn't spurred the growth I expected. Bessemmer Ventures is still bullish.

Wikipedia: the most successful knowledge-sharing site to date. Any user can contribute and moderators control quality. However, the site is more knowledge than opinions and not geared toward buying decisions.

Why is there no solid opinion aggregator? I think no site has yet done the following:

Make feedback frictionless: it's still too much of a pain to share opinions. Users of Epinions have to visit the site, begin rating with four text fields, sign-up with another four fields, choose two more radio buttons, then preview comments - that's five pages and twelve decisions for one little opinion. Yelp requires even more: seven pages and seventeen decisions before I stopped counting. This causes sites to overrepresent extreme opinions that skew the results - especially negatively - because those users are willing to endure the friction.

A better model would be eBay's simple numeric system (+1 / 0 / -1) or Netflix's one-click star system (though both still require sign-up). This reduces the system's precision and depth, but I think the volume of opinions grow enough to justify that.

Allow time-of-trial ratings: users should be able to share opinions when they are freshest and this is often soon after a trial experience (though this may taint objectivity, especially on something complex or emotional like a car). Otherwise, opinions can be cloudy or tainted by third parties.

Kaiser Permanente gets it right with their Opinionmeter feedback kiosks. The kiosks are placed near the exits, ask two simple questions, and use an intuitive button interface.

Of course kiosks aren't always practical. One fantastical alternative would be a credit card that allows a buyer to change the last digit at the point-of-sale to rate the purchase - e.g. 1234 1234 1234 123X, where X could be a numeric rating (1-5). This would require some safeguards to protect privacy and prevent merchant tampering, but if feasible, the system could easily aggregate a massive amount of opinions, deliver them for free to consumers, and earn nicely scalable revenue by charging businesses for advertising or in-depth consumer feedback. Of course, this system would only work for products and services tried before purchase, like restaurants.

Give compelling incentive: Epinions used to pay opinion writers by page view, but the system was gamed (I wonder if some anti-fraud PayPal folks could create a more foolproof solution). Yelp offers the fuzzy reward of helping friends, but I don't think that's enough. Marketing contests that reward a few users or points programs that reward heavy users may help, but an ideal solution would incentivize every opinion, especially useful ones. What if every positive review gave a 10% discount on another product from the same company, while a negative review did the same for a competing product?

These are not easy problems, but markets less juicy and more complex than aggregating opinions have been tapped. Why has this problem gone unsolved so long?

P.S. For a solid feedback system, check out Slashdot's comment moderation. The interface could be better but the concepts are well thought-out.

American Inventor shows execution is everything

American Inventor, ABC's spin-off of American Idol for inventors, had the right ingredients: engaging personalities, emotional investment, and a core concept (evaluating ideas) that every viewing demographic can enjoy. I was skeptical of the show's storyline potential - iterations of a product seem could get dull - but with Idol's Simon Cowell producing, I hoped the show would be well-done and maybe inspire a mainsream wave of interest in inventing.

I lasted thirty minutes before I had to click off (I later endured the rest with the grace of Tivo). How could a seasoned team of producers make so many mistakes? Here's a rundown:

(note: Make has a full recap of the show with screenshots)

1. Painfully transparent manipulation. Few things offend like blatant manipulation and Inventor unforunately nailed that cold with consistently hokey backdrop music and more crying than a Kleenex commercial. The overkill was especially strange considering Inventor's likely core audience - pragmatic, technical, and business types with low tolerance for BS. Haven't all the incarnations of Extreme Makeover and Bachelor saturated the sap market?

2. Too little substance. As inventor judge Doug Hall said, when you have substance, sell substance. Inventor has compelling substance - inventions - which can be shown and judged quickly. Yet Inventor's two-hour premiere featured only twenty inventions - one invention every six minutes - with more than half the time spent on the inventors themselves. The inventor's background and motivation is important to build drama and a relationship with viewers, but more than half the show is too much for a show about ideas. Inventor should model Queer Eye, which gets this right with many snippets of funny advice, mixed frugally with dramatic segments about the advisee's story.

3. Insight lite. The show's biggest missed opportunity was failing to teach while entertaining. A main appeal of Queer Eye is its didactic peppering of good advice with humor. Inventor could have engaged viewers with insights in several fields (marketing, engineering, finance), but judges instead dismissed ideas with empty critiques like "I don't see it" or "it's not good enough". (Businessman Peter Jones had one rare tip, noting that a consumed product generates repeated purchases.)

4. Inconsistent judging. I'm sure even hardy VCs would get a little bleary after hundreds of two-minute pitches but the judges were inconsistent. The fully-packaged snow globes were unanimously approved while the polished morality video for kids was nixed as too developed. Two contestants were openly approved not for their product but their personality, yet the most impressive inventor of the show, a charismatic and articulate 14-year-old, was voted off because his portable air conditioner for dogs was marginal.

5. Unclear criteria. The show never clearly stated how ideas would be judged. The judges occasionally said innovation and business potential were important but these were not fully explained - does innovation mean the idea can't be on the market, previously patented, or just known to the judges? Does unit sales, dollar sales, or profit matter most? Do liability or barriers to entry matter? How much does presentation? This may seem nit-picky but without clear criteria, the judging seemed sloppy and random.

It's frustrating to see a good idea executed so poorly, an all-too-familiar problem in reality.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Hello, world

Here we are. :)