Greg Sabo

Goals as a Service

”I’m going to learn Rails this weekend.”

I’m amazed at how many of my Saturdays have started out with exactly this attitude. What I never realized is that it’s a bad attitude: it never helped me make significant progress towards learning RoR. I might have actually made some progress had I chosen a goal that was more reasonable.

Why are people so terrible at setting goals for themselves? I see a business opportunity here. Well-designed goals make for great products, and they can be monetized with software which helps users track their progress.

But first we need a new skill set. Products like this need to be developed by being mindful of their daily impact on users’ lives instead of the immediate gestalt responses to a visual user interface. These techniques have already been explored by proponents of “gamification”, albeit divisively. Skillfully authored goals are quickly becoming the most important way for people to change their own behavior with software.

One company doing this very right is Code School, which enhances its video tutorials with interactive exercises and clear progress indicators. Their badges are spaced at perfect intervals to suggest good stopping points, which help prevent burnout. These badges are used very effectively to entice the user to get back to work.

To illustrate, notice how my Code School profile prominently shows progress meters with the badges I’m working on. My Stack Overflow profile only shows completed objectives - it does less to give me the urge to participate. Code School’s fine-tuned goals are what really differentiates it as one of the best ways to learn web frameworks.

On the other hand, Weight Watchers seems to be missing the mark with their effort to create “Weight Watchers Online.” The name alone suggests that their product is completely outdated, and indeed is a confusing rabbit hole of content which evokes MSN where it should be reminding us more of Pinterest.

Weight Watchers has a remarkable Points system, and using the iPhone app should feel as much as possible like the sensation of physically manipulating points themselves - and little else. In this sense, the free app Lose It! is far more effective.

These examples are classic cases of strategic positioning, so there are clear opportunities for hundreds of other companies to provide these “Goals as a Service” in completely different domains. That is, if there are enough people out there who can come up with goals that don’t suck.

Check out the presentation Meaningful Play for some great insight on game design and how it applies to gamification.