Hugo Liu is Chief Scientist at, and a taste researcher at MIT Media Lab, where he earned his PhD in 2006. is a blog about taste science, product design, and internet life.
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How "Master-Newbie" Altruism Keeps Users Engaged

Developers of social platforms hope to engage users through basic game mechanics like points, levels, and leaderboards. While these features can create initial draw, they don't often lead to sustainable engagement.  This is because points, levels, and leaderboards treat users as a homogenous group of competitors who relate in a basic way. In contrast, successful social platforms support heterogenous user groups who relate in rich and complementary ways.

The most important group distinction is the one between high-level users ("masters") and low-level users ("newbies"). Master users are loyal, avid, and accomplished users -- the heart and soul of a community. Newbies represent growth. A thriving platform must successfully engage both. But how?

In my experience, one of the best ways to create sustainable engagement around a social platform is to empower master users to perform altruistic acts for newbies.

If Chanel Were a Product Designer

Much like in fashion, the internet has few innovators and many imitators.  It isn't that innovators create new features and imitators copy them.  Because everything is remix.  What separates the two groups, as in fashion, is a difference in taste level.  Innovators design products that feel elegant and editorial, while imitators' products are poorly executed - a mashup of features that don't hang well together.  In the fashion world, one legendary innovator possessed good taste beyond compare.  Defined by her taste level, the fashion house she founded has stood as a paragon of luxury for a hundred years.  

Her name is Coco Chanel.  Most people know her as a fashion designer.  Less widely appreciated is the fact that Coco Chanel herself was a philosopher of taste.

Night of the Living Unread

Not many people think of email as a game.  After all, games are meant to be fun. Email, on the other hand, is laborious and stressful and makes you stop breathing.  But email has at least one game-like quality - the thrill of victory when you defeat your inbox, achieving Inbox Zero.  It's like slaying a dragon, man.  If you think that's hyperbolic, consider Merlin Mann's preface to Inbox Zero - a veritable player's guide to email: "It’s about how to reclaim your email, your attention, and your life."

Email is a game of numbers where progress is measured by a single statistic - the count of unread messages. Whereas we're pleased to see many stats (points, followers, @mentions) count up, we battle desperately to keep the number of unreads in single digits.  As email became ubiquitous, the unread indicator became iconic.  Web and mobile apps adopted it for their app-specific inboxes.  More recently, the arms race toward gamification has emboldened app designers to try the unread indicator in ever more aggressive contexts.  Unread tweets.  Unread system notifications. Unread recent activity?  Things have gotten out of hand.

As with all design patterns, the unread indicator can be used well, and it can be overdone.  The rest of this post discusses some key considerations surrounding the indicator's use.

The Need to Complete


Video games offer a possibility rarely had in real life - the satisfaction of being truly madly deeply 100% complete.

Beating Grand Theft Auto IV will take two weeks.  But then again, the main story line is only 68% of the game.  To reach 100% complete, you'll have to finish umpteen side quests, like chasing down 200 pigeons, and meeting random pedestrians.  It can take hundreds of hours. And the prize for getting 100% complete?  Well, there isn't one really.

In fact, 100% completions rarely lead to big juicy rewards. At most it helps unlock an easter egg. 

Game-like Mechanics: The Tutorial

Product people in consumer internet have game envy.  Everything should be as fun and engaging as Super Mario Kart.  This agenda is emboldened by the success of Foursquare - the half-app, half- alternate reality game.  Game mechanics such as points, leaderboards, badges, and mayorships are what make Foursquare more engaging, addictive, and successful than all the other location apps.

Now other apps are eager to jump on the game mechanics bandwagon.  Badges, for example, are suddenly cropping up everywhere.  But in some cases, their use feels contrived, or even worse, users begin to feel manipulated.  It's important to realize that explicit game mechanics may not be appropriate for all apps.

Instead, consider incorporating game-like mechanics to engage users.  These are design patterns that come from videogame theory, but importantly, they aren't overtly videogame-y.  Since they don't cry out: "I'm from a video game," game-like mechanics may be suitable for a broader range of apps.

5 Usability Flaws in iPhone OS 4

"Clutter and confusion are not attributes of information, they are failures of design." -Edward Tufte

By the end of May 2010, Apple exceeded Microsoft by market capitalization to become the largest tech company in the world. Cue sinister music.  Are they now too big to fail (at design)?

I am a dyed in the wool Apple devotee who daily asks himself questions like "What would Jony Ive think of this UI?"  So maybe I've been spoiled by Apple's long streak of design genius.  Or maybe I've gotten pickier with my pixels.  But I was disappointed to encounter several usability flaws in iPhone's OS 4 update.

It's tempting to just point out the flaws and excoriate Apple for losing its way.  But usability design is tough enough. It doesn't call for back-seat driving.  So I've cooked up simple design fixes and workarounds.  There are, of course, more elegant solutions out there and I hope you'll chime in with your ideas in the comments section.

1. ZOMG Folders are Cluttery!  Imagine if all the desk drawers and organizers in your house were completely transparent.  You might go crazy staring down your stuff.  That is how I feel about the appearance of folders. 

Curation as a Metaphor to Live By

Internet-y people use the term 'curation' to mean the process of finding, filtering and organizing digital artifacts according to one's tastes. If you've ever filled out a social network profile, hearted a track on, or rated a movie on netflix, then congrats, you've unlocked the Curator Badge!

Two weeks ago, Silicon Valley Insider pronounced with great fanfare that Content is No Longer King: Curation is King! "King Content is dead! Long live King Curation!" you can hear the Interwebizens Liking from their Second Life villas. This got me excited too, albeit for a different reason -- I love words and their agency. I love that the metaphor of curation is being embraced by the internet.

How "Master-Newbie" Altruism Keeps Users Engaged
15 dec 2011
If Chanel Were a Product Designer
09 mar 2011
Night of the Living Unread
15 dec 2010
The Need to Complete
16 nov 2010
Game-like Mechanics: The Tutorial
09 nov 2010
5 Usability Flaws in iPhone OS 4
21 jul 2010
Curation as a Metaphor to Live By
07 jul 2010
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