Listen to this episode on your phone!
Dr. Michael Wu is a passionate data scientist, thought leader, and strategist. He has served as the Chief Scientist at Lithium over the past decade, where he focuses on developing predictive and prescriptive algorithms to extract insights from social big data. His research spans many areas, including customer experience, CRM, online influence, gamification, digital transformation, AI, etc. His R&D won him the recognition as an Influential Leader by CRM Magazine along with Mark Zuckerberg and other industry giants.
Michael has served as a Department of Energy (DOE) fellow at the Los Alamos National Lab, conducting research in face recognition and was awarded 4 years of full fellowship under the Computational Science Graduate Fellowship. Prior to going into the industry, Michael received his triple major undergraduate degree in Applied Math, Physics, and Molecular & Cell Biology; and his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley’s Biophysics program, where he used machine learning to model visual processing within the human brain.
Michael believes in knowledge dissemination and speaks internationally at universities, conferences, and companies. His experience and insights have inspired many global enterprises and are made accessible through “The Science of Social,” and “The Science of Social 2”—two of his books.
As usual with our guests, there is no regular day. He might be doing something really technical, spending tens of hours looking at data and using statistical algorithms to uncover information. Other days might start at 4 am to fly for a meeting with a customer, by the time he’s back it might be already 9 pm. Sometimes he is also writing or having interviews such as this one! He also does design work for projects. It is very varied, that makes it interesting for him!
Michael is a data scientist even before this became a term. He’s been trying to model how the brain processes visual information, using big data, since his Ph.D. In Lithium, he’s been applying these data science techniques to understand people’s behavior better and started to build models to predict how people would behave in the future. The question that came up after for him was if you know what people will do next, can you actually modify that next step for them to something more beneficial for the person or the brand? That’s when he realized this is something called gamification! For him, it is about using game thinking to change people’s behavior. Big data is what we used to call experience! Even without machine learning or deep learning, we use the data in our head to make decisions.
Over the years Michael has compiled what he’s coined as the tenets of gamification and he has 10 (you can find some of them in Lithium’s blog here but if you want the full ordered list you probably want to go to one of his workshops). One of them was, initially, counterintuitive: “the better gamification works, the faster it needs to change.” Normally we’re told that “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it”, however for gamification, it can be a death trap. Because we learn and adapt, when using a system with gamification, for example, to engage consumers using marketing and it is working great. If you stop there, the users will end up getting tired faster, since the more they play the faster they will get bored of performing those actions. So if the initiative is very successful and people are really engaged, the faster you need to think of the next steps to make sure you can sustain the engagement! This is something you have to take into account even in education, where even something super engaging is going on, if it is really successful then there is a faster need for “what’s next!”
The process he uses starts with the user’s (or player’s) behavior that you would like to change. He argues that the objective and the behavior are two very different things and that the second one tends to be overlooked. For example, if you want to have engaged students, what does that mean? That includes many things, like arriving on time, asking questions, doing homework, answering questions from the teacher, helping colleagues and others. He calls this granular behavior, so you can cover as much as possible, this can be exhibited by just a very small set of your students. The first thing is to list them all out and the next is to look for a way to measure each of these, which is followed by a way to implement measurements. If you can’t measure it, then you can’t change it! Occasionally, there is something you cannot measure, like being nice to other colleagues, so you can look for a proxy, for example, how many times has this student helped other students. Then you actually feed this back to them by introducing the fun and the game mechanics and ideas.
Michael’s favorite game is “The Legend of Zelda.” He would like to listen to professor B.J. Fogg in Professor Game! He’s been a mentor for Michael in many ways. His model to change people’s behavior using the confluence of motivation, ability and trigger. When you have those three at the same time, you can reliably change behavior. A book that he would recommend to the Engagers is Dan Ariely’s “Predictably Irrational” because we think that we are rational but he argues that is not the case!
His superpower in gamification is math and data, machine learning in general. It’s what he’s been doing since his Ph.D. His final advice is to follow your passion. Ultimately, if you follow your passion it will turn out great, at least that was the case for Michael! By following it, you also start learning other things that allow you to continue on that path.