Prototyping on your people

I’m not a fan of the term “dogfooding”, but it names the concept I’m talking about here. Building something with your own coworkers as the test audience is incredibly powerful. It enables you to engage a mountain of intuition and experience as you think about what your coworkers will like. That lets you go much faster and make smarter product-level decisions.

When to get out of the armchair

As a product manager, your job is to have an opinion about the way the future can and should look, and to steer your company’s resources such that you wind up there.

That means you have to do a lot of thinking about the future and the ways things could be. You’ll do much of that from the armchair — that is, in imagination and conversation, without collecting data from the real world.

But sometimes you’ll come to a question that you can’t answer from the armchair. For example, that sweet new game you’ve just dreamt up — will it be fun? At a certain point, the only way to get more information is to start creating and testing.

Armchair time is cheap. Developer time is expensive. So you want to get as much value out of your armchair as possible. But you don’t want to stay in there too long chasing insights that can only be won the hard way.

So how do you know when it’s time to get up out of the armchair and go build some stuff?

I think the most important thing is simply to recognize that some questions can be answered from the armchair, and some can’t. It turns out it isn’t hard to figure out which type any particular question is. So what you need to do is explicitly frame the questions that are in front of you, and of each one, ask yourself whether it can be answered from the armchair or not.

If you’re doing it right, many questions should appear — in fact, you should be overwhelmed by the fractalizing explosion of questions. That’s fine. Sit with that. Write them down. Sketch their relationships. Soon you’ll have a feel for the landscape, and you’ll know which questions need to be answered first. You’ll look at the sub-questions of those, and the sub-questions of those. You’ll methodically work your way through them. And all the while, you’ll constantly be noting whether each question is one that can be answered from the armchair, or is one that cannot.

By doing this you’ll be able to cash in on cheap armchair time where it’s useful, but when the question can’t be answered from the armchair you’ll do the right thing and either move on or go create.

Great social products create affordances for connection

A few weeks ago my team did a quarterly team bonding offsite. We went go kart racing. We bonded, and we observed something interesting. The go kart place does a great job of keeping score on the track. Each rider is assigned to a car number, and each car is tracked every time it crosses the finish line. This means the operators can produce a scoreboard showing every lap time for every racer. They can show aggregate metrics like the average lap time for a particular racer, or the fastest lap time for a racer. They can accurately track who’s fastest racer. If they wanted to, they could put racers onto teams and calculate scoring between them.

The track keeps all this data, and smartly, when a group finishes a session, they give each racer a printout containing a bunch of this data. This printout is genius.

It’s an excellent affordance for connection. It gave us tons of stuff to talk about. We were comparing top lap times, average lap times, racing order. We were comparing ourselves to top racers from other groups that week at the track. We were complimenting each other on our strengths. We were jovially jibing one another for our suckinesses.

All of these interactions promoted a feeling of connection between us. And for humans, connecion is enormously motivating and rewarding.

If you think using a certain product will help you to be ‘in’, connected, part of the tribe, you’ll feel a strong pull to use the product. If the product is successful — if using it creates experiences in which you feel connected, valued, respected, helpful — then you’ll want to use the product more.

Successful social products create affordances for connection.

Engagement element: team competition

I’ve been amazed at how much engagement is generated when you put people onto teams and have them compete against other teams in a time-limited competition.

What makes this work so well? What are the conditions that help? Here’s a structure I’ve used. This structure is so effective, in fact, that when we implemented it for a company-wide internal play test, the biggest problems we were facing were burnout-related. People engaged so heavily that it wasn’t sustainable. So we actually had to think about how to slow them down.

  • It’s important to build your teams with people who feel aligned in some way. You want to get that tribal feeling going.
  • It’s also important that those team members have contact with one another. Every moment of contact is a chance for them to talk about this thing they have in common, which can activate an inactive player, reactivate someone who’s gone dormant, and heat up someone who’s already active.
  • The standings in the competition should be made public. Supply lots of data so there’s lots for people to look at and talk about. Storylines will be generated.
  • If possible, have the teams compete against other teams that they naturally have some rivalry with or at least separation from. Again, the tribalism thing.
  • Put a prize on the competition. It doesn’t have to be much. But players need an answer for themselves and for their interlocutors when the question “why are you doing this?” is raised.
  • Consider making the prize — or one of them — a donation to charity. This will help to fill in that “why do this” question with an answer that has an altruistic feel.
  • Let the competitors select the charity, and do it at the start of the competition. When you publish standings, take lots of opportunities to show the charity with each competitor. This will allow the chairty to become part of their identity.
  • Make it time limited. This gets you a lot of intensity and FOMO.

The best pizza slice in San Francisco

I grew up in a pizza family. My grandfather founded a deep dish pizza  restaurant in Chicago in the 70’s, and my aunts and uncles and cousins have since grown it into a 25-store chain. Free pizza forever for me.

But my favorite pizza in San Francisco isn’t deep dish —even though Little Star is awesome. My absolute favorite pizza slice in San Francisco is at Arizmendi. It’s a co-op bakery with a few locations in SF and East Bay.

Every day they start serving slices at 11am. They only have one kind of pizza every day. It’s always vegetarian, but never ordinary. Frequent toppings include corn, gorgonzola, tomatoes, feta, spinach, and squash, and it’ll often be painted with balsamic, pesto, or chipotle sauce.


The crust is crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, not unlike a toasted English muffin. The cheese and toppings are so good.

Why 18 percent of English speakers hate the word “moist”

I have a friend who gets super grossed out when she hears the word “moist” — she’ll cringe and tell you to stop saying it.

It turns out that 18% of English speakers share this reaction. We know that because some Oberlin psychologists did a study on it.

Apparently who are averse to the word often assume that their aversion stems from the way the word sounds — its phonological properties. But the research showed that the aversion is most strongly caused by the the words semantic properties: most especially, its association with disgusting bodily functions.

Interestingly, aversion to “moist” is more prevalent among younger people, more highly educated people, and females.

Clash of Clans product manager Michail Katkoff on retention

Michail Katkoff has PM’d two of the most successful mobile games of all time: Clash of Clans and Angry Birds. To get a sense of how successful Clash is, here are some stats.

  • A decent mobile game hits 10% retention at 30 days (source)
  • Clash of Clans hits 10% retention at 730 days (source at 14:09).
  • Clash of Clans brought in $1.3 BILLION in revenue last year (source).
  • As of this writing, September 15 2016, more than four years after its release date, Clash is still the number 5 highest-grossing game in the App Store.

So maybe this guy Michail knows a thing or two eh? Luckily, he has a great blog where you can take knowledge from his brain and put it in yours. Even more luckily, in this post I’m going to give you some highlights from posts that he’s written. You’re so god damned lucky.

Retention is king

Retention is the foundation for a successful F2P game. Players who keep coming back to the game several times a day, day after day and month after month enable the game as a service model. But creating that drive for players to keep returning is without a doubt the toughest challenge for a game team.

Retention is simply a games most important metric. Successful mid-core titles hold on to players for months, having them play over half a dozen daily sessions and spending well over an hour interacting with the app daily.

Players who set up and pursue goals will retain

In my mind, there’s no better way to retain players than to have them set up goals for themselves. Self-motivated players will be logging in numerous times per day just to achieve that goal. But to create a user base of self-driven players, the game team has to first make players want to become better by rewarding them for progress and punishing for falling behind.

With the desire to improve comes the desire to progress. And desire to progress is extremely powerful, as players will self-create sub-goals for themselves and work to optimize their gameplay. My opinion is that the desire to become better should always be the main goal for every player.

To reach these retention numbers, developers need to make sure players want to progress, then create paths to these goals with an interdependable game economy.

Make players want to be better and set up goals into the horizon. Then, either guide players to these goals via mission structure, or let them create their own sub-goals. Just make sure that every session takes them at least a bit closer to that goal they’ve set up.

Social features drive long-term retention

In my mind, social mechanics should be implemented first and foremost to improve retention.

[Social mechanics should] add to the gameplay, improve overall player experience and make the game feel more alive.

[In Clash of Clans] Resource collection and threat to be looted are the main drivers for short sessions for low-level users, while high-level users are driven back to the game with social features.

When players collaborate with each other in a game they are bound to compare each other’s progress. Comparing progress leads to two kinds of feelings. Firstly, those players who are clearly lagging behind will want to progress and catch those ahead of them. On the other hand, progressed players will feel good about themselves and won’t want to lose the feeling of being ahead and above.

Creating competition between players is another excellent way to have players compare their progress. The problem with competition designs in games is that most of the developers want to get players into the competition phase too early. The best way, in my opinion, is to have players first enjoying the game, then enable social mechanics by acquiring in-game friends, have them collaborate with these friends and only after that incentivize them to compete.

What I’m saying is that you should follow a very simple approach when it comes to social features. First start off by giving your players time to play the game by themselves. Let them learn and enjoy it and have fun, then allow them to turn social. Once they like the game and want their friends to play it as well, you can introduce social mechanics, that let players collaborate. Collaboration should benefit both of the players and occur in a game area where players can show off. Once players are collaborating you can start adding competitive element.

In the end it’s pretty much all about retention and social mechanics are an amazing way to improve especially long term retention.

Short, rewarding sessions allow habit formation

Overlong sessions length is the cardinal sin a mid-core game. As developers, we just tend to get carried away with these games because they are the type of games we love to play. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad about a long session. In fact, long play sessions are great indicators of players enjoying the game. But if every session demands several minutes of uninterrupted attention it tends to result in retention problems. If players don’t play the game several times during short brakes around a day, the game won’t turn into a habit. And it’s when you go from a fun game to a habit that you start seeing those incredible six-month retention numbers.

Short median session length is ideal to keep players engaged during the day. But in order to create that deep gameplay, which differentiates mid-core games, a game has to be able to keep players engaged for long sessions as well. Enable sessions where players can go deep into the game strategy, break their goals into sub-goals and most importantly, interact with other players.

Short, accessible and rewarding session should be the main goal.

All of the above quotes are taken from these three posts: