Friday, July 8, 2011

How do IT pros learn, and do they have game?

I'm working on a start-up idea to make educational computer games for adult professionals.  I've worked in Information Technology for my whole career, so that seems like a natural topic to begin with.  IT professionals are necessarily computer savvy, and they'll be using these skills at a keyboard, so why not learn them there, too?

While talking to the various smart people in my life, I discovered that I didn't have hard data to defend some of my core assumptions about this business model:
  1. Do IT people really play video games, or is that just a stereotype?
  2. What would make a professional trust a video game as a teacher?
  3. How would games stack up against competing learning methods (e.g., books, classes, and the all-knowing Google)?
I've found some excellent research about what IT pros choose to learn, and the demographics of video gamers, and I'm deeply indebted to those sources.  So I've decided to share the fruits of my research, too.

You can download a spreadsheet of my results, but I'll call out some highlights here:

Who was surveyed?
I sent the survey out to 65 of my trusted LinkedIn colleagues, along with a personalized introduction.  I got 33 responses (which I consider a staggeringly great response rate).  I wasn't critically interested in typical demographic information (age, sex, location), but here's what I do know:  Everyone on this list does business in the US (with a concentration in California), in the Information Technology industry, and speaks fluent English.  14 of those invited were women, but I didn't ask gender in the survey, so I can only assume that about 20% of respondents are also female.  88% of respondents had been in the industry for more than 10 years.

I also posted the same survey on Hacker News.  That audience provided 31 additional responses, and added some more responses from students and junior-level professionals.  I don't have any demographic info on the Hacker News readership, but since it only contains English language articles and heavily covers Silicon Valley start-up culture, I'd guess it has similar makeup to my LinkedIn circle.

Interestingly, the two groups responded very similarly.  Unless otherwise noted, the percentages in the rest of the article are aggregate, although everything's broken out in the Excel file.

How do we learn?

In a word, pragmatically.  The two most preferred ways to learn a new skill were "on-the-job" (70%) and "Google it" (64%).  In a separate question, the most respondents (70%) answered that being able to "use what I learn immediately" was a key influence in what they choose to learn at all. 

Books (50%), in-person classes (36%) and following a course of study like a degree or certificate (30%) all received luke-warm responses in the face of shorter, more immediate approaches.

On-line classes (13%) were the least popular method of learning, and "recruiters are looking for it" (16%) was the least popular motivation.

Do we game?
Yes, we do!  72% of respondents play video and computer games regularly ("a few times a month" or more).   83% of respondents already have some experience with educational games.

What gets people to buy?
The largest purchase influencers were friends' recommendations (61%);  the availability of a free, playable demo (63%); and covering material the student was "already planning on learning" (63%).

And don't count out the fun!  64% of respondents choose what to learn based on fun, and 52% said even educational games have to look fun to close the sale.  The Hacker News group even prefers "fun to learn" (77%) over "can use immediately" (70%)!

What are they willing to pay? 
You could spin the data as "many people (45%) would be willing to spend $50 or more."  But you could also read the data as "no one believes that an educational game will be the dollar-value equivalent of an in-person class."    Based on some other poll data from my current employer (that I'm not at liberty to share, sorry) I think this is related to in-person classes being perceived as a prestige service.  I enjoyed the movie The Matrix a lot more than the opera Lucia di Lammermoor, but movie tickets are "mass market" and operas are "prestige"... so Opera San Jose got a lot more of my money than Keanu Reeves did.

What did I learn?

It looks like part of the path to success is making games that could be viral.  Friends' opinions were an important purchase influencer (the highest among people who received the survey through their LinkedIn social network), and even early adopters will be looking for a free, playable demo.  Having a way that players can brag about what they've learned, and a way for our trial to ride along on that tweet or wall post, looks like a great way to build a sales funnel.

It also looks like I'm better off producing games of modest scope and modest price; things you could buy on your lunch break and use what you learned that afternoon.  Larger courses could be broken into individually sold "episodes," which is increasingly common in video games.

What do I wish I'd asked?

I'm surprised that so few people were motivated to learn a new skill to improve their appearance to recruiters (Q3).  When I only had the LinkedIn batch of responses, I assumed it was because that group had lots of experience and a proven contact network.  The Hacker News crowd has (on average) less experience; maybe they disdain recruiters because that audience has a strong entrepreneur/startup flavor to it?  This missed expectation rattles me so much, I'd actually like to find a third (even less experienced?) population to survey.

I wish I'd asked for details about people's experience with educational games.  Was it positive?  Was it recent?  Is an experience with Oregon Trail 20 years ago really going to help you decide how to spend your time and money as an adult?

I didn't ask, in question 7, whether people would be interested in a free (ad-supported) or freemium (e.g., Farmville) pricing models. I excluded these options intentionally; I don't think these games will ever attract enough players for those models to be profitable.  Still, given that the multiple-choice answers people picked for Q7 skewed so low, a morbid part of me wonders how much lower it would have gone, if given cheaper options.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Mail Merge and the Dystopian Future

My wife was asked to be a bridesmaid at the wedding of our couple-friends, A and E.  She gets to throw the California edition of their bridal shower -- the cool coed one with all their west coast friends, instead of the "traditional" one with the mothers in the midwest.  Of course, throwing a party means sending invitations, and this shindig is just fancy enough to earn real paper invites.

Being proud owners of a computer, we figured mail merge in MS Office would be the best way to address the envelopes.  Labor saving devices, for the win!

It was then that I discovered: doing a mail merge is a sneak peek into the dystopian future.

For one thing, I think the home printer is the modern embodiment of the ancient nightmare of the Golem: a clay mannequin that hyper-literally follows directions even beyond it's creator's intent. It doesn't surprise me that a printer is short on self-knowledge; for $80 I don't exactly expect Caprica Six. Still, it seems like a 21st century gadget shouldn't eat my fancy stationery, apply self destructive force, or squirt ink all over its paper-handling surfaces.

The entire phenomenon of paper jams stems from the printer lacking the sensory organs to inform wiser decisions that its motors could already follow: back up, slow down, apply a little more friction.  I don't have a lot of perception of my inner workings, either, but I've got plenty of nerves in my fingertips, out where I do my work.

It gets scary when you apply this cautionary tale to dangerous robots.  Will self-driving cars be able to feel the tire shudder of an alignment problem?  The smell of burning oil?  The sight of smoke billowing from under the hood?  (On an unrelated note, does anyone want to buy my 1989 Mercedes 560SL?  Cheap!)  Doesn't my shredder find it a little suspicious when I fight back as it digests my tie?  I can hear the motor struggling to keep strangling me!

The second glimpse into the abyss came from the software half of the equation.  This isn't going to be a big party, we were only addressing 30ish envelopes.  Still, in that small pool of data, we had one person without an address, one significant other without a last name (who entertainingly printed as "Mr. Steve"), and two cases of hidden whitespace after first names.  A is actually a very conscientious and detail oriented person, so the three wasted envelopes aren't a reflection on her, they're typical of every database in my experience.  Data entry isn't fun or glamorous, and choosing tools like Excel that don't impose a structure on our data means that this happens all the time.

How will crummy data contribute to the end of the world?  Well, there's the ID making scene in Idiocracy.  The episode of King of the Hill where the bureaucrats mark Hank's license "Female."  The software bug that killed three people with radiation overdoses.  When imperfect people give imperfect data to overly confident machines, the machines can make bad decisions quickly, backed by hulking robot strength.

There you have it: This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a printer.