I’m a fan of Beeminder. But I’m a long-time behavioural economics nerd who’s worked on my own productivity systems. I’m pretty much the longest hanging fruit Beeminder could get.
Unfortunately, Beeminder isn’t the kind of thing I could recommend to my aunt. People like her are going to see the mathematical notation in the background of the intro video, frequent use of terms like “akrasia” and “data nerdery” in the blog posts, and forums dominated by techie types and immediately feel like Beeminder isn’t for them.
I’ve seen dreeves argue (e.g. in https://blog.beeminder.com/typebee/) that Beeminder is likely to only appeal to a small percentage of the population. Perhaps that is the case for how it is right now. But I’m not sure that’s an inherent limitation. I think that the basic principle behind Beeminder could be appreciated by the average person. I think if I were to try to explain it to a general audience, my pitch would be something like:
“It’s a daily habit tracker, but with a couple of twists. Firstly, you can “bank” your results, so you could e.g do twice as much today in order to take a break tomorrow. Secondly, if you fail, you’re faced with ever-increasing fines, in order to motivate you to keep up the habit”.
Maybe that doesn’t quite capture the totality of what Beeminder is. But I think it’s pretty close, and more importantly I think it’s easier to grasp than talking about graphs and yellow brick roads. Furthermore, it strikes me as something that a broader segment of the population could potentially be interested in. (Consider Weight Watchers, a billion dollar company).
So what are some practical steps that Beeminder could make to broaden its appeal? Here’s some ideas:
Tell a better story
I like the metaphor of fine = bee-sting. Unfortunately, bees aren’t really anywhere to be seen in your goal-tracking. Instead, you derail… from your yellow brick road… what?
This might seem a bit nitpicky. But I think that if you’re the kind of data nerd that Beeminder currently targets, you’re probably also the kind of person that’s more interested in numbers than stories. However, a large fraction of the population is the opposite.
Just changing a few words around would be a start. “Derail” is the most obvious culprit - it has nothing to do with either bees or roads. Perhaps it could be changed to “crash” or “fall off” if you’re keeping the road metaphor, or (my preference), you’re “stung” by the bee.
Redesign the graphs
The graphs and surrounding interface are pretty sterile-looking, like something out of Excel. Fine if you’re the sort of person who regularly uses Excel or similar programs, but intimidating and aesthetically unappealing otherwise.
A small change would be just adding a bit of colour, so it’s no longer a mostly white graph on a white background.
A larger change could involve adding pictures - maybe there’s a cartoon bee or hive on the graph somewhere. Maybe a bee moves closer to you each day, giving a visual representation of its “sting”.
A significant change could involve conceptualising Beeminder as almost like an RPG. Dates and data are abstracted away, instead your sole objective becomes something like “stay away from the bee”. Entering “good” data helps you run away from the bee, otherwise the bee gets closer. This variant might not even display graphs as we know it in the default version, instead only showing the distance to the bee, with users needing to manually select the ability to view the full graphs.
Significant changes would, of course, be time-consuming to implement, and run the risk of coming across as corny and alienating existing users. But one big advantage is that it could maintain the existing good incentives that Beeminder provides with a more accessible and entertaining interface. It no longer becomes necessary for people to understand much about the underlying process, only that’s it’s a “game” that “just works”.
(If you’d ask “Habitica exists, so why turn Beeminder into an RPG?”, my answer would be a) I think Beeminder’s system is superior to Habitica and b) I’m not really suggesting turning Beeminder into an actual RPG, i.e. with something like items and quests being a central component, only that you could abstract away some of the core aspects in an RPG-like manner).
A greater emphasis on community?
My understanding of Weight Watchers is that the community element is a large reason for its success. I’m now thinking that it might actually be the most important element in behaviour change (see this article for more).
Yes, you can add supporters to goals, and this forum exists. Still, I’d guess that Beeminding is a largely solitary affair for most people. And as unlikely as it is for one, I especially can’t picture a group of non-technical middle-aged women signing up for Beeminder to lose weight together.
I added a question mark to this point because it seems like a hard problem and I’m not sure how much top-down efforts in cultivating community can actually work. Perhaps some kind of recruitment bonus (like free premium features) could be a start.