E-Book Readers and Big Data

The July article, “Your E-Book is Reading You,” published in the Wall Street Journal, is an excellent example of how marketers can use big data to learn more about what consumers are doing, thus tailoring what they offer the public.

“Barnes & Noble has determined, through analyzing Nook data, that nonfiction books tend to be read in fits and starts, while novels are generally read straight through, and that nonfiction books, particularly long ones, tend to get dropped earlier. Science-fiction, romance and crime-fiction fans often read more books more quickly than readers of literary fiction do, and finish most of the books they start. Readers of literary fiction quit books more often and tend skip around between books.”

While it’s clear that a primary objective of B&N (or any other company operating in this space) is to make more money by learning about consumer reading behavior, I see plenty of opportunity for this data to be beneficial to individual users, too.  The article states that B&N reviews data in terms of groups of readers, not individuals, though it’s not clear whether they do so for consumer privacy or other reasons.  Personally, were I offered the ability to view statistics and information about my own reading habits, I would happily opt in to a program as long as my data couldn’t be shared for the wrong reasons or without my permission.  Here’s why.

1 – The software and devices have the ability to track how quickly I read.  That’s interesting information to me.  Assume an average reading pace was established for me, and I was reading a particular piece more slowly than normal.  Perhaps that’s because the material is difficult to digest.  I might really like to have new features enabled in the piece I’m reading, such as links to other related explanatory materials – word definitions, wikipedia entries, whatever.  I can imagine this having educational applications, as well.  iPad popularity has exploded in public education.  Imagine content designed with features that could help educators track the skill level of readers and tailor assistance and interventions based on detailed data profiles for students.

2 – I am an avid reader, and though I don’t read on my iPad or Kindle all that often, I might increase the time I spend on those devices if I felt I’d get legitimately strong recommendations for further reading.  Amazon is in an obvious position to capitalize on this, and you might argue they already do so via their primary e-commerce website.  But imagine how much more relevant their recommendations might be if they could analyze data from within a book (the lines or phrases I highlight, the bookmarks I place, etc.), and not just based on the titles I’ve purchased with them.

3 – Similar to my point about recommending related or similar reading, there are other recommendations that could be relevant to specific kinds of readers.  For instance, if I read multiple books by a particular author, I might want to know if that author is going to be speaking at a conference or signing books in my area.  If I tend towards academic reading, I might want to know about related courses offered by local or online universities.

4 – Often we are measured for job opportunities based on degrees and job experience, and not much more.  If I invested significant time reading and learning about topics that might be relevant to my career, or even a career change, imagine the benefit of being able to integrate information about what I’ve read into my LinkedIn profile.  I can currently link to my GoodReads page if I want to, or incorporate an Amazon reading list – but these lists don’t show I’ve actually read any of the material.

There are probably plenty of additional ideas around how this data could be used not only for a seller’s benefit, but for a consumer’s benefit, and I believe success with Big Data is going to be “bigger” when both parties are served.

Clever Features: Gmail

As I described in an earlier post, a product designer’s ability to anticipate user actions can result in the kinds of features that help a product to stand out from the crowd, or just plain make users happy.  Some of the best designs build features and interactions that are so smooth the user doesn’t even realize what’s in front of them.  Others pop out at you, like the brilliant Gmail attachment reminder prompt.

I send attachments via email all the time, and often I either get wrapped up in writing the email, or get distracted by something for a few minutes, and come back to finish and send it.  Inevitably, I forget to attach the file I’ve said I’m sending to whomever the recipient is.  Gmail has a great reminder feature that works by doing a quick scan of the body of your email.  If you’ve said ‘attach’ or some variation of that word, but didn’t attach a file, Gmail prompts you to ask if you mean to send the message without an attachment.

This is a really simple, yet really brilliant feature.  It represents holistic thinking about what a user does (or rather, doesn’t do), when interacting with an email program.  I have no inside knowledge as to how Google designs its features, but if I were to think of this feature in general agile development terms, I think it’s the type of requirement that would come of some in-depth discussions about user types.  I’ve said before that companies need to go beyond the ‘As a user, I want to …. ‘ user story, and instead dream up all the possible personality types they can.  In this case, had someone defined a “busy user dealing with regular interruptions,” or “forgetful user that writes really long emails,” they may have come up with this concept.  Of course, thinking about what people don’t do can be conceptually more difficult than thinking about the core use cases a program has, but it’s in coming at problems sideways or with some different perspective that features like this are thought up.

Book Review: Drive

In the book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink methodically describes what many of us have intuitively known for some time about motivation.  There is a difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and the kind of motivation that companies use has an impact on our long-term job satisfaction.  The main premise of the book is that extrinsic motivators, or “carrots,” may increase motivation in the immediate term, but can have two significant negative impacts.  First, when people are offered cash or some other short-term incentives to achieve something, it narrows their focus to the specific goal set before them, and often results in less creative or robust solutions.  They are so concerned about reaching the goal that they become myopic in their thinking.  Second, when some bonus is tied to an immediate goal, we seem to subconsciously classify the work as undesirable.  If it were desirable in and of itself, we wouldn’t need a bonus to do the work.  Studies cited in Drive illustrate how people that are intrinsically motivated to do a task can lose that motivation when rewards are associated with the work – even if they enjoyed the work before the rewards were tied to it.

While the research overwhelmingly shows that short term rewards effectively destroy motivation and productivity for many kinds of tasks, it also explains that a “carrots and sticks” approach to motivation does work when the tasks are rather mundane and don’t require thinking.  Short term rewards worked well in the Industrial Age, when much of the work employees were asked to do was manual and followed a predefined pattern that one simply had to learn and execute.  The difference?  This work was never intrinsically rewarding to begin with, so there is little risk that the rewards will harm motivation.

Pink suggests that today’s businesses deal with financial compensation by offering enough to take base compensation off the table, so to speak.  When employees feel fairly compensated, they will pursue work because they want to, not because they are given additional rewards for doing so.  Since the economy tanked a few years ago, though, many companies have been able to under-compensate employees.  Layoffs were common, and employees accepted pay cuts out of fear of losing their jobs altogether.  This puts many businesses in a particularly difficult position as the economy begins to recover.  Not only do they need to look hard at bringing compensation back up to where it was previously, but they also need to deal with the damage that under-compensation caused.

Pink also describes what does motivate us in Drive, such as autonomy, responsibility, room to experiment, fail, and learn, and verbal appreciation.  In Silicon Valley, cutting edge technology companies have long been known for what some view as extravagant perks for employees.  Google is famous for feeding its employees and providing massage therapists, among other things.  Many companies have created “play spaces,” with ping-pong tables, video game systems, pool tables, and more.  Automattic, the company that gave us WordPress, has a no limit vacation policy, employs people largely from their homes, and regularly assembles the whole team for meetings in various places all over the world.  Other large Bay Area employers have on-site gyms, dry cleaning and laundry services, and employ hair stylists so that employees can take care of their errands while they work.

Many employers still offer none of these types of benefits, but I would submit that the companies that do clearly illustrate their understanding of the fact that our view of motivation needs to change.  They recognize that they employ whole people that have varied needs and desires, one of which is to feel valued on a broad level.  I don’t know many people that would turn down more cash for the work they do.  However, I do know many people that would choose a job that pays an average, but fair, salary and offers them a place to grow while demonstrating an authentic desire to contribute to their happiness over a job that pays a bit more, but doesn’t seem to care about how its employees feel, or what truly motivates them.