Posts Tagged ‘morality’

February 24 2009

Incentives as surrogate values

by Hang

I was reading Paul Graham’s Startups in 13 sentences and came along this interesting piece of advice:

7. You make what you measure.

I learned this one from Joe Kraus. [3] Merely measuring something has an uncanny tendency to improve it. If you want to make your user numbers go up, put a big piece of paper on your wall and every day plot the number of users. You’ll be delighted when it goes up and disappointed when it goes down. Pretty soon you’ll start noticing what makes the number go up, and you’ll start to do more of that. Corollary: be careful what you measure.

It had been meshing with my thinking a lot about visualising valued work and community building. I think the same thing applies in both contexts, if you display each user’s post count under their username, then people are going to start posting a lot. If you implement a karma score, then people will try and do things that maximize karma. Not only exposing information about valued work important, not exposing information can also be an important design strategy. Unfortunately, for most online community organisers, there’s little thought about the effects of a feature, features are often turned on just because they’re there.

But chewing over this a little bit before going to sleep last night, I realised that inventives can be thought of as a context free instantiation of values. To have values means that you believe that certain actions are either right or wrong stemming from some base moral reasoning. What incentives do is it replaced that base moral reasoning with a much simpler system of rewards. In other words, you switch from doing something because it’s right to doing it because it’s good for you.

Because incentives are context free, they’re much easier to scale, both up and out. Every person you meet has their own rich tapestry of past experiences and beliefs which influence their value system but every person is going to get exactly +1 to their post count when they make a post.

However, the downside of an incentive system is that they never incentivize precisely what you want to reward and, whenever you get humans into the mix, you’re going to get gaming of the system. Incentives are also inflexible in the face of novelty compared to values because values stem from the motivation rather than the result of reasoning.

Values are more effective but harder to implement, incentives are easier but less subtle. One of the unique advantages that startups have is that they’re still small enough that they can make the effort to instill a strong value system and this is one of their unique competitive advantages. Some companies nowadays are starting to get the picture and have come out full force in the expression of their values but too many still try and ape large companies and hide behind a bland moral ambiguity. More startups need to realise their true values are a massive asset, not a liability and that they won’t have the luxury of having them for much longer.

January 27 2009

Make it right

by Hang

At some point in your professional career, you will make a mistake and you will do something that ends up causing serious inconvenience or harm to the people you are working for. In these circumstances, I see people default into one of two different attitude, make it right or make it go away.

Making it go away entails doing the least possible to get the person in front of you to stop complaining. Shift the blame, absolve responsibility, offer enough to restore the situation to the status quo.

Making it right entails doing enough that the person in front of you goes away satisfied and this is much more rarely seen.

The first step of making it right is owning up and it goes something like this:

You’re right, I’m sorry, I should have…

Each of these 3 components is essential. The “I should have” is important because it communicates to the other person that you understand the scope of the problem and what needs to be done to fix it. It allows both parties to come to an agreement over the extent of the grievance.

But too many people think that just owning up is enough to make it right. It’s not, owning up is cheap and just owning up by itself is merely an advanced form of making it go away. The next step is to remove the hurt.

You did something wrong, it’s not the end of the world but you did hurt someone. Merely restoring things back to the status quo does not remove the hurt. Instead, you need to transfer the hurt onto your shoulders and show that the consequences for your mistake hurt you more than it hurt them.

If your site had half an hour of downtime, don’t just give people half an hour of credit, give them 2 days of credit. If you make a mistake on your billing, don’t just refund the discrepancy, write off the entire section you billed them for. If you accidentally wipe all of their personal data from your servers, well, you’re pretty screwed, I have no idea what you should do.

The only way to remove the hurt is to show people that you’re equally as motivated as them for the hurt never to happen again. This is the only way you can restore trust in someone that you won’t be making the same mistake again.

This is great, you might be thinking. Making it right sounds like some noble, code of honor type shit which only an idiot would not want to follow. But making it right is also fucking hard as well. It requires an extraordinary level of effort to keep yourself at the standards that are imposed by making it right. I personally think that making it right is important enough to strive towards those standards but understand that it’s not something that can be undertaken lightly.

July 17 2008

The responsibility of a designer

by Hang

My cellphone dictionary doesn’t contain any profanity. Whenever I want to send a text message which contains swearing, I need to laboriously enter in the word letter by letter and it’s a pain in the ass. Once I get over the brief annoyance though, I can’t help my smile a little every time I do it because it’s just all so… quaint.


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