Thursday, October 08, 2015

Estimating and minimizing consumer worry

The process of selling in general, and web commerce in particular, is often described or charted as a funnel. Prospective customers are poured in at one end, and a fewer number of paying customers come out at the other. The other prospects spill out through other holes or over the side of the funnel and don't bring you any revenue. The fraction of customers left, converted from prospects to customers, is called the conversion rate. As prospects proceed from initial interest to final sale, from initial entry page to clicking the final "I Agree" button, more and more of them become discouraged by various worries which beset the consumer. They drop out. The remaining prospects, those who have not dropped off, have been converted into customers or into an audience for your advertisers.

There are a variety of factors that cause drop-off, which vary from business to business. A common cause is forms.  Simplifying forms often greatly increases conversion rates.  For example, in one study cutting the number of lines on a form in half increase conversions by a third. As one web designer put it: "[i]s every field you're asking the visitor to submit absolutely necessary?  Can you trim the fat and make the process simpler?"

Besides the sheer tediousness and time consumed in filling out forms, rational consumers also worry about the potentials for privacy violation and identity theft from the information most e-commerce sites currently require them to divulge: physical and e-mail addresses, phone numbers used for cross-site behavioral tracking, insecure credit card numbers, and more.

The tinfoil-wallet crowd is now mainstream

Instances of regret that one has filled out a form, only to have one's trust violated -- or pride among the sophisticated that they refused to fill out such a form -- are on the rise.

The worst worry culprit is usually the step you most want your customers to complete -- paying you. "[T]he credit card form likely has the highest abandonment rate of any other part of the sign-up process." [Source].

If you don't require payments, you are probably funding your service through advertisements. Those also cause worries. Ads typically distract and delay from the content users are after, provide a low quality of entertainment or information, and are too often offensive. And sophisticated users are worried about the tracking that tends to go with ads. Ad blocking grew nearly tenfold between 2009 and 2014.

Replacing ads and identity-based payments with payments that don't require identity, such as bitcoin, can greatly reduce these worries, lowering the barriers and hesitations that currently prevent consumers from paying for your service.

But there remains a big worry that no payment system can reduce.  Consumers worry about whether they are getting their money's worth -- the mental transaction cost problem (see also this paper). If e-commerce were as worry-free as some of it could be, your customers would neither have to fill out forms, nor be bothered by ads, nor have to worry about repeated charges for content or services of variable value. They would be able to just insert a few digital coins into your online vending machine and then not have to worry about losing your service for another year. Eliminate forms and eliminate repeated payments -- both are key to worry-minimized e-commerce.

Many bitcoin startups are making the grave mistake of replacing one set of worries with another. The ability of cryptocurrency systems to facilitate small payments tempts many companies to nickel-and-dime their customers with pay-per-click micropayments and other such excruciating schemes. Don't follow the many lemmings who have already jumped off that cliff. Stick to long-term subscriptions for content (or other services of variable value) and pay-per-unit for fungible units of consistent value (as in phone minutes).  That way customers aren't saddled with having to constantly re-evaluate the amount and worthiness of recurring charges. The costs to your customers of having to finance a years' worth of low-cost subscription to a reputable brand is almost always far less than the mental transaction costs of recurring charges for content or services of variable value. The ideal worry-free commerce is to "stick the coin into the machine" once, and then never have to pay again for an entire year. A vending machine for subscriptions. Reduce your customers' worries across the board: eliminate forms and eliminate recurring charges.

Ideal worry-minimization can only be closely approached in some purely online forms of commerce, such as video streaming, remote storage, privacy services, and the like. The more physical and offline contract performances are -- a common example being physical delivery -- the more location, various kinds of identity (legal, social network, etc.) may need to come into play, adding, often greatly and necessarily, to the worry overhead, the mental transaction costs, of your relationship with your consumers.

I have previously called this worry-minimized commerce by a narrower label, "form-minimized commerce."  The complexity of the forms you make your users fill is indicative of the worries you are causing them, and thus the barriers you are putting up between your prospects and their decisions to purchase your services.

When you are a consumer, the tediousness of the forms you are filling out is not only a direct cost of your time, and your ability to enjoy that time, it is on top of that a decent proxy measure of the odds of your identity being stolen and of your privacy otherwise being violated. The fewer forms you fill out, the more the tediousness, worries, and risks in your life caused by interacting with the world's institutions will drop in proportion.

While such a proxy measure does not account in particular for the wide variety of information that can be disclosed, nor that some kinds of information (social security numbers) are more risky to divulge than others (throw-away email addresses), nor for the wide variety of risks in identity theft and privacy violation that are consequent, nevertheless consumers necessarily must bring to bear such sweeping rules-of-thumb in order to satisfactorily navigate the bizarre complexities of the digital world.  And when your users are using, whether consciously or implicitly, such estimates, you the service provider and the product designer must use them too.

Add to the forms your customers must fill out the repeated charges you make your customers make, and we get a rough proxy measure of the worry that you are causing your consumers:
Index of worry = number of lines of forms +  number of repeated charges for content or services of variable value
If you are funded through ads rather than consumer payments, you can substitute for the repeated charges the proportion of screen space covered by your ads, or any other reasonable estimate of the delay and distraction the ads on your pages cause.

The index of worry allows you to estimate and minimize the worries you are causing your users, and as a result to minimize the drop-off in your sales funnel and maximize the number of users coming back for more -- and willing to view your ads or pay for the privilege.

Friday, July 03, 2015

The Greek financial mess; and some ways Bitcoin might help

Many years of government debt buildup in Greece has ultimately resulted, in the last few days, in a political and financial maelstrom.  The political maelstrom includes demonstrations in the run up to a referendum on obscure debt-restructuring provisions to be held this Sunday (July 5th). This article focuses on  financial problems and some potential practical steps that can be taken to mitigate them. The imposition of capital controls is a disaster for a modern trade-driven economy, a catastrophe which however digital technology, and in particular the digital currency bitcoin (which given the Greek environment usually must involve direct use of the Bitcoin blockchain), has the potential to mitigate.  This article will explore some of the severe practical problems that capital controls are causing Greek individuals and businesses, and suggest some potential bitcoin solutions, many of which could also be applied to other countries with some similar financial problems and controls such as Argentina and Venezuela.  These aren't solutions that can be applied in time to help with the current 6 days of capital controls, but could substantially help some Greeks and some aspects of the Greek economy if some version of these controls is continued for months or years.

At root the Greek financial problem is that the Greek government has spent more, compared to the GDP generated by its economy, than the vast majority of other governments.  It has borrowed copious sums to do so, falling ever deeper into debt.  Here is its payment schedule:

And you thought your student loan debt was bad

The only place the Greek government has left to go for money to fund its ongoing expenditures and pay these debts is Greek banks.  Fearing capital controls and "haircuts" (government confiscation of certain fractions of bank deposits), many Greeks in recent months have, quite rationally, started withdrawing money out of their banks and sending it overseas.  More trusting Greeks kept their savings in their banks, with the result that, with the imposition of capital controls last Monday, they have been locked out of their savings, and plans for "haircuts" of 30% or more have been reported (If somebody lopped off 30% of your head, you’d have more than a haircut).

When capital controls were first rumored and then announced on Sunday, vast lines formed at ATMs as Greeks rushed to rescue what little of their life savings that they could:

ATM line, Thessaloniki

ATM line, Larissa City

On Tuesday, the Greek government defaulted on its scheduled debt payment to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Under capital controls, ATM withdrawals from Greek bank accounts are now limited to 60 euros a day.  Debit cards can still be used for payments within the country, but the money simply gets transferred from one frozen bank account to another.  As a result many businesses no longer accept debit cards, and many more are demanding a substantial premium price (in  at least one business, double) for debit cards (transferred bank balances) versus hard cash.  There is a growing shortage of such cash; as a result some stores are paying their suppliers in private "scrip", which can be used by the supplier's workers to purchase goods from the issuing store. (more on this below).

Use of credit and debit cards to pay out of the country is banned and effectively blocked, resulting in a near-complete freeze-out of Greeks from Internet commerce. This restriction, along with the controls resulting in Greeks being excluded from the pan-European money settlement system, means that Greek businesses can't pay for imports.  Many shipments into the country have been halted as a result. (The government plan is to create a whitelist of politically approved cases in which such payments for imports will be unblocked).

A crucial feature of store-issued scrip is that it literally circulates through a complete closed cycle: store --> supplier --> workers --> store.  Such specific cycles are a pattern that is commonly found when currencies are primitive or newly emerging, and every Bitcoin marketer and evangelist should be familiar with them.

The kula ring, two specific cycles (counter-circulating cycles of shell money) allowing exchange of seasonal goods in the precolonial South Pacific

It doesn’t help much to sell bitcoin to isolated individuals: as a mere store of value its volatility is much greater than most existing currencies; as an investment it only makes sense as a tiny high-risk fraction of one's portfolio.  Bitcoin does have some political-affinity and status value in developed countries; by contrast in many developing countries and in countries under financial crisis such as Greece, there are urgent needs bitcoin potentially can address.  In terms of these needs Bitcoin is mainly useful as a way to send money across borders for investment in more stable assets overseas, and to substitute for cash or other substitute currencies in a money-starved environment.

To have value as a medium of exchange, bitcoin must be taken up by a community of people who already frequently trade with each other,  and who have a strong need to use it in these trades. It is especially important to market to the links in the cycle that have the strongest negotiating leverage with the others (in the case of Greek the Greek store scrip cycle, the store and its larger suppliers).  The link in the cycle with the greatest incentives to switch to bitcoin here are likely the store's suppliers, because they don’t fully trust the store, nor the underlying currency, euro or post-euro, that is the “O” in an IOU, but are participating in the scrip because, sans bitcoin, they have no other choice.

In bitcoin specific cycles create other cost savings.  Almost everywhere they economize on the increasingly high KYC/AML (know your customer/anti-money-laundering) costs of going through a fiat-bitcoin exchange.  What's more, in a capital controls environment like Greece specific cycles avoid the capital controls that would be imposed on a Greek-based fiat-bitcoin exchange, and avoid the need nearly all Greek customers using out-of-country exchanges would have to futilely try to tap into their frozen bank accounts in order to purchase bitcoin. Bitcoin will not, contrary to some feverish news reporting, help Greeks get money out of their frozen bank accounts.

But bitcoin does have great potential to help in less obvious ways: for one thing, as a superior (not vulnerable to trust in an issuing store, and in any currency underlying an IOU) substitute for the emerging store scrips.  For another, it could help greatly with the severe cross-border commerce issues that are emerging.  Exporters, including freelancers working over the Internet, can bring bitcoin into the country, thereby avoiding earning wages that get deposited to frozen bank accounts (per Greek lore, be wary of a cave with many tracks coming in but few coming out). Importers can pay for goods with bitcoin while other electronic payment channels (European money settlements, Paypal, and credit & debit cards when paying foreign businesses, etc.) remain frozen. Again specific cycles must be set up: isolated marketing to just exporters or importers will be far less effective than organizing existing supply chains that involve both.

There are likely many other, mostly highly non-obvious, niches in which bitcoin, and other cryptocurrencies, and smart contract platforms could play a quite valuable role in capital-controlled and other financially handicapped countries.

Bitcoin is not easy to learn, either conceptually or in setting up businesses and individuals with the software (and preferably also the secure hardware) to accept it. This is especially the case in a capital controls climate where the traditional bitcoin exchanges and retail payment companies, with their consumer-friendly front ends, as they normally operate in developed countries, likely can't effectively operate. To take advantage of bitcoin many Greeks will have to use the Bitcoin blockchain directly. So it's too late for bitcoin to help much with the current 6 days of bank closure,  but once the learning curves have been surmounted, the participants in specific cycles educated, bitcoin has great potential to address likely many ongoing problems with capital control, in Greece as long as they continue in various forms, and in many other parts of the world where such financial restrictions designed for a pre-digital era have been imposed.

[Update: various minor edits: the first version was rather rough, sorry :-)]

Monday, May 25, 2015

Small-game fallacies

A small-game fallacy occurs when game theorists, economists, or others trying to apply game-theoretic or microeconomic techniques to real-world problems, posit a simple, and thus cognizable, interaction, under a very limited and precise set of rules, whereas real-world analogous situations take place within longer-term and vastly more complicated games with many more players: "the games of life".  Interactions between small games and large games infect most works of game theory, and much of microeconomics, often rendering such analyses useless or worse than useless as a guide for how the "players" will behave in real circumstances. These fallacies tend to be particularly egregious when "economic imperialists" try to apply the techniques of economics to domains beyond the traditional efficient-markets domain of economics, attempting to bring economic theory to bear to describe law, politics, security protocols, or a wide variety of other institutions that behave very differently from efficient markets. However as we shall see, small-game fallacies can sometimes arise even in the analysis of some very market-like institutions, such as "prediction markets."

Most studies in experimental economics suffer from small-game/large-game effects. Unless these experiments are very securely anonymized, in a way the players actually trust, and in a way the players have learned to adapt to, overriding their moral instincts -- an extremely rare circumstance, despite many efforts to achieve this -- large-game effects quickly creep in, rendering the results often very misleading, sometimes practically the opposite of the actual behavior of people in analogous real-life situations. A common example: it may be narrowly rational and in accord with theory to "cheat", "betray", or otherwise play a narrowly selfish game, but if the players may be interacting with each other after the experimenters' game is over, the perceived or actual reputational effects in the larger "games of life", ongoing between the players in subsequent weeks or years, may easily exceed the meager rewards doled out by the experimenters to act selfishly in the small game. Even if the players can somehow be convinced that they will remain complete strangers to each other indefinitely into the future, our moral instincts generally evolved to play larger "games of life", not one-off games, nor anonymous games, nor games with pseudonyms of strictly limited duration, with the result that behaving according to theory must be learned: our default behavior is very different. (This explains, why, for example, economics students typically play in a more narrowly self-interested way, i.e. more according to the simple theories of economics, than other kinds of students).

Small-game/large-game effects are not limited to reputational incentives to play nicer: moral instincts and motivations learned in larger games also include tribal unity against perceived opponents, revenge, implied or actual threats of future coercion, and other effects causing much behavior to be worse than selfish, and these too can spill over between the larger and smaller games (when, for example, teams from rival schools or nations are pitted against each other in economic experiments). Moral instincts, though quite real, should not be construed as necessarily or even usually being actually morally superior to various kinds of learned morals, whether learned in economics class or in the schools of religion or philosophy.

Small-game/large-game problems can also occur in auditing, when audits look at a particular system and fail to take into account interactions that can occur outside their system of financial controls, rendering the net interactions very different from what simply auditing the particular system would suggest. A common fraud is for trades to be made outside the scope of the audit, "off the books", rendering the books themselves very misleading as to the overall net state of affairs.

Similarly, small-game/large-game problems often arise when software or security architects focus on an economics methodology, focusing on the interactions occurring within the defined architecture and failing to properly take into account (often because it is prohibitively difficult to do so) the wide variety of possible acts occurring outside the system and the resulting changes, often radical, to incentives within the system. For example, the incentive compatibility of certain interactions within an architecture can quickly disappear or reverse when opposite trades can be made outside the system (such as hedging or even more-than-offsetting a position that by itself would otherwise create a very different incentive within the system), or when larger political or otherwise coercive motivations and threats occur outside the analyzed incentive system, changing the incentives of players acting within the system in unpredictable ways. Security protocols always consist of at least two layers: a "dry layer" that can be analyzed by the objective mathematics of computer science, and a "wet layer" that consists of the often unpredictable net large-game motivations of the protocols' users.  These should not be confused, nor should the false precision of mathematical economic theories be confused with the objective accuracy of computer science theories, which are based on the mathematics of computer architecture and algorithms and hold regardless of users' incentives and motivations.

A related error is the pure-information fallacy: treating an economic institution purely as an information system, accounting only for market-proximate incentives to contribute information via trading decisions, while neglecting how that market necessarily also changes players' incentives to act outside of that market. For example, a currently popular view of proposition bets, the "prediction markets" view, often treats prop bets or idea futures as purely information-distribution mechanisms, with the only incentives supposed as the benign incentive to profit by adding useful information to the market. This fails to take into account the incentives such markets create to act differently outside the market.  A "prediction market" is always also one that changes incentives outside that market: a prediction market automatically creates parallel incentives to bring about the predicted event. For example a prediction market on a certain person's death is also an assassination market. Which is why a pre-Gulf-War-II DARPA-sponsored experimental "prediction market" included a prop bet on Saddam Hussein's death, but excluded such trading on any other, more politically correct world leaders. A sufficiently large market predicting an individual's death is also, necessarily, an assassination market, and similarly other "prediction" markets are also act markets, changing incentives to act outside that market to bring about the predicted events.