The Core Interaction: What Platforms and Marketplaces can learn from Super Mario Bros.

| March 27, 2014 | 17 Comments

This essay is part of the ongoing series on The Fundamentals of Platform Thinking.

A good part of my childhood was spent glued to the Telly playing Super Mario Bros. A generation that never swiped screens spent its childhood wielding joysticks and clicking on handheld controls.

Try as she might, my aunt never understood what the obsession was all about. “All you do is click that one button all day. What do you get out of it?”

That one statement captures the brilliance of game design. I may have the lofty goal of saving the princess, I may get a kick out of crossing multiple levels, I may collect points and lives on the way. But all I was doing was clicking a button that would help me jump and stomp the evil turtles wherever I could. As long as I clicked that button at the right time, I would continue to derive value out of the game.

More recently Flappy Bird had the whole world in outrage when it got pulled out of the app store. As a set of actions that players take, Flappy Bird is pretty similar to Super Mario Bros. One or two simple actions that keep delivering value as long as they are performed well.

That’s the brilliance of game design. A large goal can be broken down into a set of simple actions for the users to perform repeatedly to obtain value from the game and progress towards the goal.

Platforms are designed in a similar fashion. You may want to create an online constantly-evolving encyclopedia but you’ve got to break it down into a set of repeated actions that users can perform. You may want to create the world’s largest travel marketplace and throw hotels out of business but it’s got to boil down to a set of simple actions for the users.

 

THE CORE INTERACTION

Every platform has a Core Interaction, a set of actions that producers and consumers on your platform perform repeatedly to gain value out of the platform.

You need creators to upload videos on YouTube and viewers to view it and upvote/downvote it. It’s an engine where all three actions are required. Any of these breaks down and the platform may fail to continue creating and delivering value in the manner that it originally intended to.

Wikipedia sounds complex but is essentially about starting a new article stub, adding content, editing content, reversing edits and viewing content. The various Calls To Action on the platform boil down to one of these.

The Core Interaction is a set of actions that you need producers and consumers to engage in repeatedly in order to derive value out of your platform. 

There might be other actions that users perform, but the actions constituting the Core Interaction are the ones without which the platform would absolutely cease to exist.

 

THE ANATOMY OF THE CORE INTERACTION

So how do you design the core interaction?

Fortunately, the Core Interaction follows a common template across platforms. Most platforms have very similar actions being performed by producers and consumers.

Setting up a listing on a marketplace or adding content are examples of producer actions that occur repeatedly. Similarly, searching, consuming feeds and, in some cases, purchasing are consumer actions that may occur repeatedly. Additionally both producers and consumers may also engage in other actions like voting, rating etc.

All actions in the core interaction fall into one of the following buckets:

  1. Creation: In every interaction, there is at least one producer who creates value.
  2. Consumption: In every interaction, there is at least one consumer, who consumes value.
  3. Curation: To encourage good quality and quantity of value creation, as well as to ensure the right consumers consume it, you need some form of curation.

 

Let’s look at this with a few examples.

Creation Consumption Curation
YouTube (content platforms) Upload video Search, View video Upvote/Downvote, Report Abuse
Airbnb (services marketplaces) Create Listing Search, View Listing Rate Listing, Rate Lister, Report
Etsy (goods marketplaces) Create Listing Search, View Listing Rate Listing, Rate Lister, Report
Facebook (social networks) Create Status Update Consume Feed Like, Hide, Report, Unfriend
Wikipedia (collaboration) Create stub, Add/Edit content Search, View Article Reverse Edit
Play Store (developer platforms) Create and list apps Search, Download apps Rate apps
Paypal (payments) Offer transaction option Transact Report fraud

Irrespective of which type of platform we choose, we can distill it to a Core Interaction composed of these three types of actions.

The core interaction connects individual user actions with the overall purpose of the platform. 

You need all three actions: Creation, Curation and Consumption to repeatedly occur for the platform to work properly.

If a platform fails at encouraging Creation, it breaks down. Imagine Uber’s drivers not showing up, Google’s crawlers taking the day off or Etsy’s sellers abandoning the platform. The consumption side would have nothing to get out of the platform and the whole business would break down.

If a platform fails at encouraging Consumption, there’s a different problem. There’s a lot of value created without anyone interested in consuming. This, in turn, discourages further Creation and breaks down the platform.

Finally, a platform that fails to encourage Curation gets loaded with poor quality and fails to stay relevant, useful and engaging, in turn leading to a mass exodus of users.

Hence, while running a platform business, one needs to ensure that all three actions are repeatedly performed across all interactions.

I use the word ‘creation’ and ‘consumption’ from the perspective of the Core Value Unit. Note that the act of Consumption on Airbnb refers to consumption of the listing, not of the service. Across platforms, irrespective of what is exchanged, the creation and consumption of the Core Value Unit remains constant.

 

VALUE UNITS AND INTERACTIONS

Short Note: I started this series referring to the Seed, the unit of value that is created on the platform. For Youtube, it’s the video, for Airbnb, it’s the listing and for Paypal, it’s the payment option. I wasn’t convinced that the Seed was the best name and followed that up with a readers’ survey to rethink this term. Most of you voted for the term “Core Value Unit” and the Seed found a new name there. 

The actions of Creation, Consumption and Curation, and, indeed, the overall Core Interaction, are determined in relation to the Core Value Unit.

Masterslide.005

To design the Core Interaction, one needs to ask the following questions:

  1. For this platform, what is the Core Value Unit? What is the unit of information (and content) being created on the platform that defines value for its users?
  2. Who is the Producer?
  3. How does the Producer create the Core Value Unit?
  4. Who is the Consumer?
  5. How does the Consumer consume the Core Value Unit?
  6. How is the quality of the Core Value Unit determined?

So we start with the Core Value Unit, determine the producer and consumer in relationship to that and subsequently determine the actions that are performed in the Core Interaction.

 

CORE INTERACTION AND VALUE CREATION

We started by looking at Super Mario Bros. and the ability of a good game to create a complex outcome from a series of simple and intuitive user actions. Let’s flip the focus and view the Core Interaction from the platform’s perspective.

Imagine the evolution of a traditional business like a car manufacturer. The manufacturer lays out the process required to assemble and deliver a car. The manufacturer then designs the various actions required to get this process going and identifies which actions can be performed internally and which ones need partnering. Also, which ones need automation. Once the process starts working, the manufacturer hires a bunch of MBAs to crank out some excel sheets and optimize the process.

Pipes, traditional linear businesses, work by structuring a process and repeating it.

The same thing works here.

The core interaction is your formula for value creation, delivery and consumption.

An interaction, at its heart, involves value that is created and consumed on the platform. This cycle of value creation and consumption needs to be repeated for the platform to scale and repeatedly solve the problem it is meant to solve.

 

START WITH THE CORE

Identify your Core Value Unit. And design the Core Interaction around it. And as we observed in Essay #2, build the platform that enables the Core Interaction.

Rule of thumb: If you are a new platform and you’re designing for more than one core interaction, you’re toast!

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF DESIGNING THE CORE INTERACTION

We’re not in the business of building software! 

We’re in the business of enabling interactions! 

I’ve said this before on the blog and I will say it again. If there is one shift that is required of both startup developers as well as CXOs at large enterprises, it is this. All too often, we still view platform businesses as software businesses.

With network effects, the real value created on the platform isn’t the software. It is the value created in interactions enabled by the software. The value on 99Designs is created during the competitions, the value on oDesk is created during the actual sourcing and delivery of service by a service provider. And the value on YouTube is created by the videos that users upload, rate and watch.

If you’re building for network effects, you’re not building mere software anymore.

Platforms enable interactions among producers and consumers. As I mentioned in the second essay in this series, the design of a platform must be preceded by the design of the core interaction that it enables between producers and consumers. All too often, platforms fail because they create technology without taking into account the core interaction that is being enabled.

This is why the rest of this series starts right here; with the design of the core interaction!

TWEETABLE TAKEAWAYS

On a  networked platform, the Core Interaction is a set of actions that producers and consumers engage in repeatedly to derive value. Tweet

The core interaction on a platform connects individual user actions with the overall purpose of the platform. Tweet

Rule of thumb: If you are building a new platform and you’re designing for more than one core interaction, you’re toast! Tweet

 

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  • http://www.friv2ol.com/ Ngoc Anh

    Relax with the entertainment you here okay.

    Thank you. Wish you a very effective working days.

    Friv 10000

    Frip

  • http://platformed.info/ Sangeet Paul Choudary

    Thanks Asit! Yes, comments start off a new interaction with a creation mechanism.

  • asit

    Sangeet, Great post ( and series). Oozing with clarity and granularity. I guess “commenting” on a Facebook post would fall under “Creation”, which then creates a further cycle of consumption. I mention this because for FB , comments would perhaps outnumber Status posts.

  • http://platformed.info/ Sangeet Paul Choudary

    Great points all around. Let me work on combining the interaction 3Cs with what I shared here: http://platformed.info/google-crawlers-uber-drivers-and-instagram-selfies-platform-economy/

    That would really make all the necessary aspects first class citizens.

    Great points.

  • LectureMonkey

    Let me try and rephrase your model to make sure I understand:
    1. Creators create content
    2. Consumers use content
    2a. Consumers have interest and intent
    3. Curators add meta data to content

    `Discovery is the match making between the content meta data and user interest intent. Since 2a isn’t explicit in the 3 Cs it seemed to that something was missing from the model which I called discovery. I guess you could add interestintent just as well – but I think that would still need to be a first class citizen when planning a platformmarketplace

  • http://platformed.info/ Sangeet Paul Choudary

    That’s interesting. I completely agree that discoverability is key but my head is been on any changes to the unit falling under curation and any changes to consumer intent falling under discovery. E.g. Hashtagging something is the creator curating the tweet. Search requests, consumption data, location etc. are consumption-related intent data powering discovery.

    The way I see it, you need data about the unit and data about the user for the match to happen. Data about the unit gets added through curation whether it is the creator adding data to get it discovered or the consumer voting it up to help it get discovered. Data about the user’s intent is the other element in discovery and I try to capture that under the Consumption head.

    Hence, Discovery gets derived from the 3 Cs.

    I’d love to hear if you think differently. This is helping me push my thinking on this. Great points.

  • LectureMonkey

    OK – I understand that , but for me discovery is not only a part of consumption – but rather a central part at the heart of of every core interaction. For example, seeds have to be created in a way that makes them easily discoverable (e.g. twitter hashtags), curation is a way to aid discovery (e.g. retweeting). That is why I think there is value making discovery a first class citizen, not just part of consumption.

  • http://platformed.info/ Sangeet Paul Choudary

    Great point! I actually club Discovery with Consumption since the two go hand in hand. Curation is an independent act as is Creation but Discovery, as I see it, is always a lead-in to Consumption. But very good point there.

  • http://platformed.info/ Sangeet Paul Choudary

    Ashish, Good point! I will cover this in detail in the days ahead when I talk about activating new producers on the platform. The answer isn’t simple or straightforward but there usually is a key action that separates active producers from the rest and the goal is to lead all new producers to that action. More to come in a subsequent post in this series.

  • Ashish Saihgal

    Sangeet, I’d like to broach upon – Who is the producer? The way I see it is – Why is (s)he a producer? We know curation motivates a producer to keep producing? But what is it that encourages a producer to start producing whatever-it-is? I believe key to building a successful platform is the ability to identify this initial connect especially when dealing with goods/services that are not tangible. I’d like to know about your wisdom on this.

  • LectureMonkey

    Sangeet, Really good post – it really simplifies the differentiation between platform and software.
    Doesn’t Discovery (or Matchmaking) need to be right up there with Creation, Consumption, Curation as part of “Core Interaction”? Just like the 3Cs, support for Discovery needs to be baked into the platform from the start.

  • http://platformed.info/ Sangeet Paul Choudary

    Thanks James! I did try using the word kernel but it confused people. They felt it referred to the centre of the platform and was some sort of core technology instead of centre of the interaction.

    The next few posts will build off this.

  • http://blog.kwiqly.com/ James Ferguson @kWIQly

    Regards “seed” and “core-value unit” – Is kernel the word you are looking for ?
    Really good post – makes me think about how we may need to round out our platform

  • http://platformed.info/ Sangeet Paul Choudary

    Thanks Brandi! I’m glad that insight helped. It’s one of the core insights of Platform Thinking and probably the most important one.

    I couldn’t repeat this often enough.

    We’re not building software, we’re enabling interactions. That completely changes what you focus on.

  • http://nichediver.com/ Brandi Young

    Sangeet, I am really looking forward to what you have to say about the design of the core interaction. Though we didn’t use this terminology in our Clarity call, you mentioned that my core interaction had to be DEAD SIMPLE to perform and you explained why.

    That advice really changed the way I was looking at what I was building. It was the first time I had considered that my “product” was way more than the code I was writing.

    I appreciate your insight. Thanks for sharing it.

  • http://platformed.info/ Sangeet Paul Choudary

    Aaron,

    I think you’re going into the definition of consumption in classical economics where consumption of goods and services is tied to consumer spending.

    All points on my framework are from the perspective of information production and consumption, not from the perspective of production and consumption of goods and services. Even if you see the Etsy and Airbnb examples above, the object consumed that I refer to is the listing, not the good or service. In that light, I don’t see much of a difference.

    On another note, ‘media consumption’ is a very common term where the person listening to the radio or watching the TV is supposed to be consuming information.

    Happy to discuss further if you disagree.

  • Aaron

    The only problem here is that the word “consumption” is fundamentally wrong for many examples. Consumption takes place on Uber and eBay but not on YouTube nor on Wikipedia. Videos are not consumed, readers do not consume. Applying this word grossly to all media even where it totally fails is a fundamental problem that skews people’s perspectives