Smart Users

One of the most interesting things about games as a service and the new world of long tail video games is watching the interactions between developers and designers and the hardcore fans of a game. Pioneers in the space like Blizzard and Riot have taken their lumps and learned, often with a great deal of pain, what amount of communication works for them. Bungie, a more recent entrant into the space with their FPS / loot shooter Destiny, is once again taking a beating from their players because of the choices they're making with Destiny 2. The game's subreddit boasts more than half a million people who care enough about the game to subscribe to the forum, and by and large it seems they are *not* happy with the current direction of the game.

The interesting thing about the Destiny fanbase, and the hardcore players of just about any popular game these days, is that they're not short on ideas for how to improve things. There are plenty of hot takes, ad hominem attacks, and general shitposts, but there are also plenty of really well thought out, exhaustively researched, statistically-based threads analyzing everything from drop rates (how often you get cool new stuff) to power levels (how strong that stuff is relative to other stuff) and plenty more.

"Users don't know that they want" is an oft-repeated  axiom that has it's origins in the well-intentioned idea that users are experts in their problems but not in the solutions to those problems. Ideally, you are the expert, and you can synthesize the various problems, the poorly-formed lamentations, and the "how could you possible not realize that"s and spin them into some kind of product/design/engineering/service gold. Because you're smart. Because you have the benefit of a broad perspective and lot of inputs. Because you have the resources of an entire company (or just one really obsessed problem-solver) to bring to bear.

But here's the thing. Not all of your users are just bumbling around in the dark, yelling their frustrations into the void. Many of these folks aren't just passionate users and fans, they're also experts in their respective fields. In the world of video games or other consumer products that may not be super relevant. What does the hobbyist statistician know about your monetization model? What does the incredible artist understand about your development pipeline and all the debt lurking just beneath the surface? What does the plumber know about incentive systems and good feedback messaging? Maybe nothing. But they've spent hours and days of their lives with your product, and even if they aren't always exactly sure what keeps them coming back (especially if it's a B2B product and they don't have any say in the matter) they almost certainly know what makes them wish they never had to look at it again. They know what they don't want. Briefly, a incomplete list of things users almost certainly do not want:

  • To be confused or made to feel stupid
  • To be talked down to
  • To have to repeat themselves
  • To have to pay for things (with money, time, or attention) more than once
  • To feel like they've lost, or never had, agency
  • For anything to be more taxing (in terms of clicks, pages, sub-tasks) than it absolutely has to be

There are probably more, and as always there are times when's it reasonable or even desirable to break the rules, but in general just treat your users with respect. Remember: they're using your product, so someone made a good decision somewhere!

Destiny's live team, led by the seemingly tireless Chris Barrett, has the unenviable task of trying to clean up the abysmal mess that the game's directors left in their wake. The game seems to have been a financial and critical success for Activision and the folks leading the studio on the launch did right by their stakeholders, the executives and shareholders. That long tail may be looking a little scary right now, though. They're a visionary group of folks who firmly believed they knew what players wanted better than they did, and in some ways they were almost certainly right. However, that insight paved the way for hubris and turned millions of users against them, either through vocal complains or, worst of all, simple quitting the game.

The later chapters of Destiny 2 are still being written, but the message is clear: ignore your users at your own peril.

Always Answer

Job hunting is soul crushing. Everyone knows it. Even when it's by choice, it can still be a very humbling experience. Many folks looking for work have it much harder than I do, with much longer odds, and I'm thankful that I have the luxury of holding out for a position that I'm really passionate about.

Being on the market has made me think about a few things with much more frequency and clarity, and it's made me more sensitive to certain behaviors, especially my own.

When looking for a new job, whether its the next step on the ladder or a complete career shift, it will almost certainly involve talking to a lot of people. Not necessarily interviews or formal communication, just general conversations. You'll bump into people and do the  "What are you up to?"  dance. You'll tap your network for referrals or reach out to old friends to rekindle relationships in your new found free time. And yes, eventually you'll have Very Important Messages to send to people that may be able to offer you a job. And you know what? You're really, really going to want all of those people to answer when you call on them.

Answers don't have to be long, and they don't necessarily have to be what the person wants to hear, but I've resolved to always, always answer. A few promises to myself:

Next time a client or coworker reaches out with a question, I'm going answer it as quickly as possible. If I don't know the answer that's ok, but I'll be quick about saying so. Bonus points for pointing them in the direction of someone who can help.

Next time a long-lost friend reaches out to reconnect, I'm going to take them up on it. I may not know what will come of it, but I know what it will mean to them.

Next time someone needs a favor, I'll think twice before blowing it off. Just like in sales, "no" is still the second best answer you can get when asking for something. At least they'll know where I stand, and they don't have to waste any more time on a dead end.

Next time my mom calls, I'm seriously really going to pick up the phone. Seriously. On second thought, I'm just going to call my mom right now. You should too. I'm sure she'd love to hear from you, and I bet she'll answer.




A while back, I stumbled across Stewart Butterfield's Rules of Business on Medium. At the time we were having a lot of conversations about company vision and values at O3 World, and it got me thinking about my own personal guiding principles. Over the course of a weekend and a few bourbons I put my own manifesto on paper. Here's where I ended up.


Then ask again.

There's plenty of writing out there about the 5 Whys methodology. As members of a solutions-oriented teams, we're all biased towards action. We see a problem, we have an idea for a solution, and we execute. That's cool, but a couple of extra minutes of front to peel back the onion a bit can often lead to deeper insights and make sure time isn't wasted solving the wrong problem altogether. My favorite why is usually "Why is this even a problem in the first place?"


But always show your work.

I owe this one to the two founders of O3. One has a strong bias for going with his gut, making decisions on instinct and appreciating the same thing in the people who work for him. Fortunately, his instincts are often dead on. The other is a more quantitative guy, and though he has a good gut as well, the easiest and most effective to make your case to him is with numbers.

The tricky thing about this one is that you have to show your work a lot in the beginning, but once you've proven your intuition is sound, you can often skate by without the proof to back up your claims. You have to actively resist this for your most important decisions. Do your diligence. Even if it isn't required, be ready to show the work.


Pay attention.

I love data, numbers. They're easy to deal with. They organize well. If you look hard enough, you can probably find numbers that tell you what you want to hear. People are different.

When I was doing biz dev, we'd sometimes find ourselves in a situation where the person on the other side rejected our proposal because of the final number. Look a little harder though, dig a little deeper, and it often became clear that the real sticking point wasn't the number, it was something related to the person - how the project (or price) would make them look to their boss, what it meant for their department headcount, etc. The same is true when doing validation or user testing exercises. Scour your engagement and conversion numbers, but make sure you keep an eye on the people themselves, too. They'll tell you more than the numbers ever could alone, and you should act on that knowledge quickly. Tim Cook has his own take on this.


Including yourself.

Which leads us to number four. This one I adopted straight from Butterfield's piece because it struck such a chord with me. It also builds on the other points above. Showing your work? That makes it easier for other people to understand your decision making process, which makes it easier to either move forward or deliver a valid critique. Paying attention to people and not just numbers makes it easier to facilitate progress and equip your team with the tools they need. This is a good guideline no matter the size of the issue, from wide reaching business strategy to UX decisions to how long that email you're writing should be.

Justin Handler, a project manager I had the great fortune to work with for a few years, was incredibly good at this and really proved the value over and over again. Get an emailed question you have the answer to? Respond immediately. Trying to set up a meeting? Send specific dates and times, not open ended requests. Team struggling with a specific issue? Move mountains to remove blockers and open the way. Specific task hanging over your head? Make your own life easier and just fucking do it.


And do it as quickly as possible.

The best teacher I've ever had was fond of telling me "the road to hell is paved with good intentions" ... usually right after I finished explaining how I really wanted to turn my assignment in on time, but aliens had kidnapped my dog who had eaten my homework. He was right, if not entirely original. People will judge you by what you do. For them, for the company, for yourself. If you commit to something, do it. 

The corollary here is that when you say you're going to do something, there's almost never a reason not to do it as quickly as possible. No one ever got fired for exceeding expectations. If you for some reason you really, truly can't follow through? Own up to it as quickly as possible, and be honest about it. Silence is worse than failure.

This is the one I struggle with the most, since I default to wanting to make everyone happy and say yes to everything, whether I have the time (or desire) or not. Taking on more and not following through, or not following through fast enough, can be more damaging than just saying no in the first place.


Write pretty.

Because dammit, what's the point of doing anything at all if you aren't going to do it well?