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Incentives and Behavior: Consider the Mayor

Are you considering an incentive system for your online community or application? There's been an overwhelming amount of attention paid lately to the ways that providing incentives—points, badges or trophies—to users can influence their behaviors and contributions. If you're already sold, then pay careful attention to NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg's efforts to incentivize positive behaviors amongst the city's poorest residents:

An unusual and much-heralded program that gave poor families cash to encourage good behavior and self-sufficiency has so far had only modest effects on their lives and economic situation, according to an analysis the Bloomberg administration released on Tuesday.
In the book, we caution against intermixing market and social norms (or providing external incentives in lieu of leveraging people's already-present intrinsic motivations) and it would be easy to point to NYC's experience as supporting that stance. Easy, but—perhaps—not entirely fair. As the Times article points out, the program has at least been partially succesful at lifting some citizens out of poverty.

It's interesting to note that one of the program's earliest failings, however, was its complexity. There were also problems of trust, comprehension and user education:

“I think people were confused, and there was some amount of distrust,” Ms. Brandenburg said. “For some people it sounded too good to be true. It took a while to explain to people what the offer was.”

Ms. Gibbs said many families had been perplexed by the guidelines that were laid out for them. Cash payments were eventually eliminated for actions like getting a library card and follow-up visits with a doctor.

“Too many things, too many details, more to manage in the lives of burdened, busy households,” Ms. Gibbs said, standing next to the mayor on Tuesday. “Big lesson for the future? Got to make it a lot more simple.”

These are all classic user experience problems that you, too, will wrestle with should you decide to provide incentives to influence behavior. (Hat-tip to Sam Ladner for the article-pointer.)

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