The world’s (i.e., your) BIGGEST PROBLEM

The world’s (i.e., your) BIGGEST PROBLEM

Antibiotic resistance is the greatest threat to our way of life.

Explained through Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen

Van Valen (an evolutionary biologist) borrowed the Red Queen from Lewis Carroll in 1973 to describe the relationship between parasites and hosts. In Through the Looking-Glass, the Red Queen famously says to Alice,

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

As Van Valen applied it to humans, we are in an evolutionary arms race with other organisms in our environment; we must constantly keep running (evolving our offense and defense) and become extinct if we stop running because everything in our environment will out evolve us.

Extrapolating on this – it’s a mistake and overly simplistic to think that because it would take many millions of years for any existing organism to evolve past our current state of complexity, that we will only become extinct if we mismanage our environment. Superiority does not need to be transferred in an ecosystem, for one species to threaten another. Species within an ecosystem co-evolve – that is they adapt based on changes in other species. For us the other that threatens humans is bacteria and parasites.

How we stay ahead of faster evolving, single celled organisms

Sexual reproduction actually is a result of this co-evolution. More complex organisms (us) needed ways to change genetic makeup more quickly than simpler organisms in our environment (e.g., viruses and bacteria). This is because in your lifetime, the bacteria in your gut will evolve – it will go through more generations than the entire human species has. By changing your offsprings’ genetic makeup through sexual reproduction (as opposed to asexual reproduction), you’re ensuring that they have different protein locks on their cells than you do, so your bacteria, which adapted to attack your system during your lifetime, is less suited for attacking your offspring.

And finally THE PROBLEM

“We’ve reached the end of antibiotics, period.”

— Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, CDC

Antibiotics masked the Red Queen’s Race for 70 years; we won against bacteria in our ecosystems EVERY SINGLE TIME. Antibiotics more than anything have increased stability, allowed for dense urban centers to thrive and changed the equation such that populations could explode.

Now MRSA, TB, gonorrhea, and e.coli are among the list of bacteria (I’m only naming the ones that my readers will recognize – the list is much longer) that have emerging strains that are completely antibiotic resistant. We’ve heard about partial antibiotic resistance for at least a decade, but this is full resistance. We are unprepared, R&D has not and is not being allocated to antibiotics (antibiotics, which are not taken recurringly, are not profitable compared to things like blood pressure medications). Additionally our cities have become even more populous, and our lifestyle choices were conditioned in an era where there was often a quick-fix antibiotic.

We will all have to adapt to a different set of choices. What is the cost/benefit of chemotherapy if your weakened immune system doesn’t have antibiotics that can back it up? Will your choice of neighborhood or city be affected by population density?


Email – the problem, its impact and the future

Email – the problem, its impact and the future

This post is from January 11, 2014

Email is awful. It tries to do too much:

  • Work communication
  • Distribution lists
  • E-commerce confirms
  • Calendar invites
  • Casual conversations
  • Keeping in touch
  • Notes to self
  • Planning and logistics
  • File sharing

Each of the above has a different level of urgency, length and level of detail. But all are transmitted via the same carrier, email. We are left on our own to determine who to include, how to write the subject and what to put in the body, knowing full well that the different people to which we send these emails have expectations for the platform that differ greatly from ours! As the extreme example, I remember a McKinsey Director who didn’t carry a computer and had his assistant manually print out all of his emails; communicating with him was a challenge! It’s no wonder that so many emails are never sent, missed, ignored or receive reactions not intended by the sender.

Lucky for us though, email is on the decline. A recent study at Purdue University tracked college students for a semester and found that they used email for only six minutes a day. Even though no one email killer exists, this article will cover how email affects our brains and why many smaller and more specific platforms have gradually relieved email of many use cases.


The steep psychological cost of email’s flaws

Email’s failure is a problem of design. Email is efficient for machines and networks – in fact it was a truly innovative technology in 1993, but the creators failed to understand psychology. Logic trumped human behavior and Human-Centered Design, and we’ve been living with the problem ever since.

Email causes anxiety. Modern humans process a volume of data that is hundreds of times greater than that which our brains evolved to handle. This data overload swamps our amygdala, convincing our primitive brain (the amygdala is part of the limbic system, which dates back to early mammals) that we are under threat – fast data streams usually signified danger for our ancestors. Though certainly our only danger is information overload, email regularly triggers our fight-or-flight response. This response then prevents us from acting on any decision reached by the neocortex – suddenly our brains have subconsciously, but intentionally, cut off higher level thought processes. Daniel Goleman coined the term ‘Amygdala hijack’ to describe this process in his book on emotional intelligence. As this process pertains to email, the exact centers that we need to understand the diversity of the modern inbox are shut down by our inboxes!

What we want in our communication platforms

Platforms need to cue behavior – we want platforms that focus our cognitive load. This doesn’t have to be a linear set of choices and rewards, but can be free expression bounded by very limited but deliberate rules – think Twitter with its 140 character limit, Pinterest’s method of pinning, or Snapchat’s limited but central photo capabilities.

The addictive uncertainty of email – there are scary parallels between the psychological response of going through your inbox and pulling a slot machine – remains in these newer platforms. On Twitter and Pinterest, try not to scroll, and on Snapchat try not to view an unopened snap. But gone is the anxiety of how to process and create information on these platforms. The platforms simplify choices and cue how we should behave. We’re not spending as much effort thinking about group formation (who to include) and how to communicate (length and content are more standardized).

The future of email

I predict that there will be no one ‘great’ email killer, at least given current technology. Referring back to the list at the beginning of this piece, email does too much to be replaced by one platform. Any one platform that tries to replace email will suffer from the same disadvantages and cause the same psychological toll as email does today. Instead, we will continue to see beautifully designed, very specific applications steal away individual responsibilities from email. While this means that we will manage an increasing number of channels in our electronic communication, each channel will have a very specific use, and we will behave on that channel differently than we interact with other apps and channels.

The future will be increasingly filled by apps and platforms that take advantage of design principles and features like pattern recognition, beauty/delight, appropriate compulsion loops, limited choice and status creation. The future is bright!

Yahoo’s Atrocious Mobile Presence

This post is from September 17, 2013

After a summer in mobile gaming, I looked at Yahoo through the lens of the company’s mobile data:

Kleiner Perkin’s 117 slide ‘State of the Internet’ presentation should be reduced to one statement — mobile is taking over the world. With a limited screen size and a flat operating system (as opposed to a computer, which has a nested file structure), the smartphone also presents the ultimate challenge for companies and developers. To meet this challenge, Yahoo has followed Google and others, making mobile success the top priority.


Users (you and me) tend to discover mobile apps one of four ways. We:

  1. Look at the app store’s top apps
  2. Search for programs that we already use on our computers
  3. View advertisements (search, Facebook, embedded in our apps)
  4. Hear via word of mouth

The first method (the app store) is the holy grail, because it’s free, can provide incredible scale and brings new users into the developer’s user base. To get the most downloads in this manner (from people happening across the app in the store), companies can either cross their fingers and hope that Apple features their product, or work the remaining three channels to maximize app store rankings.

Developers then try to make money off of their users, this is called ‘monetization’. There are three ways that developers monetize their apps:

  1. Freemium — offering a free basic service and charging for a premium version of the app
  2. Advertising — both selling ads to 3rd parties and cross-promoting their own products (monetization through cross-promotion is more difficult to explain, but is there)
  3. In-app purchases — selling additional content inside the app. This can be new features, expansions, upgrades, or decreased waiting time


Big companies (Yahoo) play an interesting role in the mobile economy. They have incredible assets — user networks (advertising reach), existing utility features (email, search, etc.) and deep pockets, but suffer from poor innovation and responsiveness.

These big companies can easily surface apps with their cash and advertising networks. Yahoo in particular owns an advertising network that makes a couple hundred million ad impressions annually (every time an ad is displayed, that’s one impression). This reach is incredibly valuable because only opportunity cost limits the extent to which Yahoo can pump advertisements about its own apps to viewers — any company trying to execute on mobile would kill for this scale (except Google).

Even with this reach, big companies have difficulty innovating at the rate of small companies, so tend to win in mobile by offering utility services (Gmail, Skype, YouTube, Maps). Yahoo’s problem is that its utilities are in decline, with less than favorable demographics.

So how is Yahoo doing with mobile?


Yahoo Fantasy Baseball — trend negative — the annual high water mark occurs each year on April 1st, and with each year, you can see that the download rank deteriorates faster and faster. Also downloads during the off-season (October through January) get markedly worse every year:

Yahoo Fantasy Baseball — download rank compared to all sports apps

Yahoo Fantasy Football — trend unclear — downloads look strong coming into this season, with July 2013 outperforming July 2012, though a conclusive win eludes this app, as off-season (January through May) downloads deteriorated significantly year over year. Another directional pointer is the app’s relative position. A look at the top download charts showed the NFL and ESPN Fantasy Football apps in the top5, and Yahoo Fantasy Football just outside the top20 (first week of September):

Yahoo Fantasy Football — download rank compared to all sports apps

Yahoo Mail — trend negative — The app cracked the top50 on only four days in 2013, all of which were in Q1. The app now hovers between the top100 and top150. To contrast, Gmail has ranked in the top50 consistently for the past four months:

Yahoo Mail — download rank compared to all apps

Yahoo app — trend negative — This app fell of the cliff in 2013. I almost want to start making excuses for performance, such as this app must no longer is a critical part of Yahoo’s designed user flow:

Yahoo — download rank compared to all apps

Flickr — trend unclear — Yahoo saved this property from years of slow death in 2013, but the results since have been mixed. The fact is that it’s really just too soon to judge the success of the May announcement on storage space (link here), but the app seems to fall unless Yahoo releases and promotes a new version. The version released at the end of August is already outside of the top250, so I’m skeptical.

Flickr — download rank compared to all apps

Tumblr — trend positive — Tumblr is the lone truly bright spot in Yahoo’s mobile lineup. The app maintains between the top50 and top100, which generates over 10k downloads per day (you need 23k downloads per day to crack the top50 of the free list). The app is no longer ascending the charts, but given the type of app, the current rank is a very respectable point to stabilize around:

Tumblr — download rank compared to all apps

So given this largely negative mobile performance, why am I hesitant to disparage Yahoo’s current stock performance? Read on for my last work about Yahoo:


Alibaba (link here)

Please follow me on Twitter @coffeeDweeb

Note: I analyzed iOS rankings for this post. iOS is considered the gold standard for two reasons (1) all of the top developers play in iOS first, so if you want to see how you stack up, you look here (2) iOS monetizes much better than Android, so look where the money is. That said — I quickly checked out Yahoo’s Android rankings, and found a much more constant picture — there is no high growth anywhere, but at least Yahoo is holding ground. While the data from Android is less negative than the iOS picture, it certainly doesn’t justify the bullishness around YHOO — only Alibaba does that!

Success, Failure & Learning — A Mobile Game Design Breakdown of Battle Nations

This post is from September 7, 2013

Battle Nations peaked at #9 on the iOS top grossing charts, remained in the top 50 for over a year, and deserves to be considered an incredibly successful build from Z2Live’s earlier game, Trade Nations. However, the game lacked the longevity of Modern War and Clash of Clans. In this post I’ll show how Z2Live’s failure to create complementary core loops kept the game from blockbuster status, while not overlooking the brilliant and successful features in content design and delivery.


Battle Nations is a role playing combat strategy game, where the player takes the role of an army captain for the Empire. The storyline begins with the player assuming control of a new outpost where, while pursuing the long-term goal of finding uranium, the player must battle Rebels, Raiders, various wild beasts and other players. Compared to most (if not all) other mobile games, Z2 invested heavily in storyline development and art, and the effort shows through deep characters and truly funny interactions.

The game is built on three core loops (‘loops’ are simple feedback cycles that keep a player engaged)

(1) Missions – the player undertakes tasks that are designed into the game’s storyline to earn gold, experience points, units and unit skill points. This is the primary way that the player interacts with the in-game characters, and a constant stream of diverse missions, both in content and complexity, keeps the player engaged much longer than similar PvE (Player vs. Environment, aka Computer) components do in other games. This loop accomplishes several goals for the game designers:

  • The loop never ends, so the player is continuously looking for new meaning and final completion
  • Missions enable the gradual introduction of new levels of complexity (e.g., from levels 6-11, the game gradually introduces the resources needed to keep the town running)
  • Deliberate design allows for greater complexity and ‘pinches’. The first pinch (‘first pinch’ is defined as the first time that the game designer intentionally tries to convert players to paying customers) occurs via a massive coordinated slow-down of building timers in a few simultaneous missions during level 4


(2) Harvest – Trade Nations brought a lot of features to work with here, and Battle Nations uses this previous work to deliver a wide variety of building types and task. Early buildings include housing, hospital, barracks, defense buildings, stone quarry, tool shop, resource depot, farm and bakery, and the Mission diversity drives the player to use all of these buildings. In this loop, players can spend premium currency (currency that you can only get by purchasing with real money) to buy buildings, buy units and for speed-ups (a feature that shortens the completion time for a specific task).


(3) Battle – there are two types of battle, PvP combat (Player vs. Player) and occupation. In the first, two online players meet on a specialized combat game board and engage in turn-based combat, with a goal of accumulating victory points that result in rewards at the end of the day. In the second type, a player occupies part of another player’s base to harvest resources from that player. Here’s the PvP combat loop:



Alright – with that overview out of the way, here’s the meat of my argument – the Battle Loop doesn’t force users to spend considerably more time in the other loops. Here’s why:

Players don’t need to spend time designing their outpost for optimal defense. Instead of spending hours reorganizing the outpost after losing too much during a few too many attacks, players make occupation easy and then ignore that part of the game. Because you can only occupy friends’ outposts, players collude to make parts of their base easy to occupy by their friends – the exact opposite outcome desired by the game designers. If that’s not bad enough – the PvP combat component actually affects city design even less – that part of the game uses a completely different gameboard.

PvP combat gameboard:


Outpost (city building) gameboard:


The battle loop doesn’t encourage players to log in frequently. Other games structure gameplay to incentivize login by allowing you to be attacked when logged out, but Battle Nations does the opposite – you can only engage in PvP combat when logged in! Also you have a flag that you can lower, so your outpost is not raided while away. This means that you can take long breaks from the game without worry of being attacked or losing resources, taking away one of the primary psychological drivers that pulls people back in.

Both aspects of the Battle loop (PvP combat and occupation) are often hacked. I mentioned already how collusion often occurs in the Occupation component, but also this affects PvP combat. Players will engage in reciprocal PvP combats where they alternately place formations that will maximize the points earned if the other player wins – allowing for totally rigged battles.


Non-complementary loops is Battle Nations biggest problem, but it’s not the game’s only problem. This next section covers other design problems within the Battle and Harvest Loops.

The battle loop doesn’t complete fast enough (too long of a feedback loop to be meaningful). It takes hours to get rewards from actions in the Battle Loop. In PvP combat players win Victory Points, which then accumulate and earn gold at the end of the day. In the occupation loop, the maximum payout comes from occupying another player’s outpost for four days, meaning that the total payout is spread out over four days. Both of these cycles are just too long for today’s early and mid-level users on mobile devices.

A player’s army takes two hours to return after PvP combat. While this is a decent monetization feature (some players will pay for a speed-up), it limits the frequency with which a player can engage in one of the game’s core loops. Other games use much shorter down time between battles to drive this same monetization (in Clash of Clans, you can train an entire new army in ~20 minutes)

Battles have too much downtime. The PvP combat feature is turn based, leaving players waiting for the player at the other end to make a decision, and this glacial pace of combat causes boredom.

The win rate in PvP combat is too low to be satisfying. Because PvP combat is two online players facing each other, the win rate has to be 50%. Other games, where an online attacker faces an offline defender (e.g., Modern War), have designed win rates that are north of 60%, which is more suited to creating a rewarding experience and psychological response to keeping the player engaged.

Unit persistence causes a lot of problems with game balance and unit progressions. Military units are in fact only semi-persistent (look at Modern War for truly persistent units) in that if a unit dies in certain circumstances, you have to pay resources to heal the unit in the hospital, but you never have to buy a whole new unit. This still is enough to cause problems with unit progressions and balance (just scroll down the Battle Nations Facebook page).

The economy has too many currencies. In a recent interview, the project lead for Clash of Clans mentions how more than two currencies did not meaningfully improve the experience. Also, a quick look at the Facebook page for Battle Nations shows that even high level users have trouble understanding what each of the more than a dozen resources and currencies do in the game.


I would be remiss to overlook the outstanding features that I have learned from – after all, Battle Nations did quite well!

Premium content gifting is a terrific way to introduce players to premium units. Very early in gameplay, a player enters battle to find that he/she has additional premium units (e.g., a mortar team) to control, and after battle learns that these units are ‘reinforcements’ now part of the player’s army. At the time when they are received, these units are still locked in the barracks, so are a scarce resource. This wonderful feature has several positive effects on gameplay:

  • Early gameplay is more exciting with a wide array of troop types with different behavior in battle
  • The downside of battle is diminished – instead of units dying, the player actually gains units in initial battles
  • Because there is no other way to get these units until much later in the game, the player values these units more highly than they are actually worth

Except for the icon (even the new icon), the art style of this game is wonderful. While keeping a consistent color scheme and character dimensions, the artists focused on differentiating 2-3 key features for each military unit, such that players can easily decipher between different units. Also the game initiates the user early with the color palate and cartoon scaling, and keeps this consistent.

The storyline and dialogue is amazing (and engaging!). I mentioned the storyline investment earlier, but it really is one of the few inspiring and creative storylines in mobile gaming. There is consistently diverse humor, a strong female protagonist that has even appeal across genders and meaning deep into gameplay.

The entire Mission Loop is expertly tuned. PvE in most games feels repetitive very early in gameplay, however Battle Nations presents the player with such a wide range of activities (credit to Trade Nations) that every mission is new. Because of this diversity, Battle Nations is able to keep missions and PvE content relevant to players for much longer than competitors’ games are able to.

Thank you for reading! Again, if you enjoyed this post – I’m new to the Twitter game, so please follow me @coffeeDweeb

Note: Though I believe 100% my non-complementary loop argument, I was hesitant to take such a strong stance because (1) I understand that Z2 was constrained by needing to leverage existing technology (Trade Nations platform), and (2) I don’t want to diminish the creativity, passion or intelligence of the folks over at Z2 – I am in awe of what they have been able to build. Trade Nations, Battle Nations and the Metalstorm games all significantly raised the bar for competitors and pushed the industry forward. Though with Metalstorm (from a player’s perspective), I think they pinch users too early, way before the average player becomes invested.


This post is from December 12, 2012

THE PROBLEM: The internet is moving in the wrong direction:

  • Apps used to share information better. These once networked apps have now (d)evolved; they sit as silos. Because of this the user experience has suffered.
  • These walls were erected because each platform thinks that it (individually) can meet enough of a users’ needs, such that the user disengages with other networks. This treats networks as a zero sum game.

My questions:

  • Does managing for your largest competitors’ actions ever become destructive for your disruptive innovation?
  • Do these companies (e.g., Google, Facebook, Twitter) understand users’ needs?
  • Are people willing to engage with one platform in multiple ways? (e.g., the same person behaves differently on Twitter than on Gmail)
  • Can our brains handle all of this activity in one platform?

Link to article