Liz Gannes

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In Lead-Up to Launch, Obvious-Backed Lift Leaves Gamification Behind

Lift, a personal betterment start-up funded and incubated by Twitter co-founder Evan Williams and Biz Stone’s Obvious, is nearing launch.

Lift co-founder Tony Stubblebine

Word of the company first came out last August, but since then the idea has changed quite a bit, co-founder Tony Stubblebine told me this week. The problem with earlier versions was a misguided foray into gamification, he said.

Lift’s purpose is still the same: It’s a mobile app to motivate people to reach their goals. And it’s still not out yet, so take all these early learnings with a grain of salt.

Where earlier versions had points, badges and levels, the prelaunch Lift has stripped all that away. Now it will be one part social — Lift community members make each other accountable and give each other positive reinforcement — and one part quantified self — users can see charts and graphs of their personal progress around health, education, happiness and productivity goals.

Everything in Lift is public to the community, so the goals tend not to be terribly personal — some popular ones are “eat breakfast,” “talk to a stranger,” “exercise,” “drink more water,” “do pushups” and “read.”

In recent testing, dropping gamification increased retention to 50 percent from 5 percent, Stubblebine said.

That’s only among a small elite group of early users, but it’s enough of a positive signal that Lift should be ready to launch in August, he said.

Originally, San Francisco-based Lift naturally gravitated toward gamification in the hopes that it could create a sort of “Zynga for good,” according to Stubblebine. But designing around gamification presented a few problems: It tempted complication in the product design, and it set up a rigid structure for people to succeed on preset terms, rather than allowing them to find their own motivation.

“If you build a game, you’re providing a fantasy,” Stubblebine said. “We basically replaced a fantasy with reality.”

The new Lift is an iPhone app that allows users to name their goals and join ones other people have started. Each time users meet a goal, they “check in” to it. Then, other people can give them “props.”

At least anecdotally, giving people information seems to be a far bigger driver of changed behavior than giving them points and badges.

Check out the above chart of Evan Williams’ quest on Lift to trim his incoming emails down to “inbox zero.” Seeing a chart of his inbox zero days starting the week of April 8 quickly motivated him to get to that point on a daily basis.


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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus