Monday, August 27, 2007

Keeping everyone happy (almost)

Back in May, 2006 when we introduced the ability for people to create and manage their own prediction markets, we knew we had a challenge on our hands. Outside of a couple successful outliers in the public domain, a prediction market had traditionally been a fairly difficult concept to grasp in and of itself for the pure layman. Now we were trying to provide the ability for people to ask any question they wanted without intervention from economists, academics, or consultants. Ask anyone who has built software or any consumer product for that matter what their biggest challenge is, and often times it's making things easy and understandable. And even with all the lip service to usability, most times they fail, e.g. enterprise software, smart phones, Windows. :)

Over a year and a few thousand user-created markets later, we are still living that challenge. Most people find it very easy to create a market. They are, in fact, surprised at how easy it is and we appreciate the subsequent fan mail. But as with any application that is widely used, you quickly learn what people are not understanding as they go through a process. You also learn the patterns that arise of the types of markets people run, the requests people have, and hopefully react to them in a productive way.

Conventional wisdom (and user requests) often says/asks to keep adding more functionality. This might be good for your marketing so you can have a huge list of features, but soon you have something that is no longer very usable and a shrinking percentage of your user population is happy with your application. New users are especially bewildered. Instead, we've tried to take the approach of simultaneously having a very high bar of introducing new features in the publisher while actively trying to remove options when we notice usage patterns.

For example, the most widely run market type on both our public marketplace and our client's marketplaces is a simple yes/no question. "Will X happen?" In previous iterations, this market type was created the same way that a question with many answers was created, like: "Who will win the Super Bowl this year?" Thus most people's natural inclination was to ask the question and create two stocks: one for "yes" and one representing "no." The problem with this, however is the way trading works in Inkling, a trader would find themselves in a situation of being asked to go long or short on "no." Having a short position in "no" is like saying "yes," so this was kind of redundant and pretty confusing for traders.

Instead of simply adding a bunch more help text in the latest iteration of our publisher, when we ask our users as the very first step to publishing a market what kind of question they are asking, we explicitly name a "yes/no" type question. Then we automatically set up a single stock for them to trade in and don't allow them to create any more stocks. Removing the flexibility that once existed will surely draw a few emails from folks wanting to do something slightly different for a yes/no question, but in this case we'd rather have people running this type of market correctly. And for the vast majority of people, it's now much quicker and easier to set up this type of market.

This is only one of many changes we've made recently to the market publisher. Let us know what you think and we'll try to successfully keep up the perpetual balance between more functionality and usability.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Roger Cohen on MediaPredict in the New York Times

Roger Cohen the international affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune and international writer at large for the New York Times discusses the "wisdom of crowds" today in an op-ed piece. He highlights Digg and MediaPredict as two examples of this phenomena at work. Media Predict is powered by Inkling, so we of course are very happy for them when they are cited. :)

Here's the article (behind the wall of the New York Times unfortunately):

Friday, August 03, 2007

Interview with a million dollar man

Our public marketplace leaderboard recently had its first million inkle trader take his place as #1. We've interacted with this person on several occasions as he's very good about providing us feedback, alerting us to dead markets, etc. and also runs some markets, but we thought it would be interesting to ask him a few questions and share with you his answers so everyone can hear a bit more about the "man behind the million" and have insight in to what it's like to be the big fish.

1) When did you start using the Inkling public marketplace?
Early November, 2006.

2) How did you find us?
I've known "Char" (blogger's note: Char is #5 on our leaderboard) for about ten years, since we met at a summer camp for
Unschooling teenagers. We've got a fairly tight nit group of old friends from there, quite a few of whom have Inkling accounts. There were 4 of us on the top weekly traders list one week, it was pretty cool. Anyway, Char harassed me for a few months til I got an account, and then started grumbling a few months later when I passed him. :-D

3) Are you an active stock trader in real life?
Truth be told it never occurred to me till recently, mostly because I've never had enough money to invest any, let alone do it where there's any risk. Playing around on Inkling has certainly made me think about it, but I'm not sure I'd be any match for the pros since my biggest advantage is probably just paying more attention than the average Inklinger. When real money is on the line people tend to check their portfolios a little more often. Also, on Inkling I can buy or sell based on a price set by the last person who traded that market. In real-money markets, you have to buy or sell based on what somebody else will actually take or give, which certainly limits the chances for making a mint because nobody else is paying attention.

4) Do you run a lot of markets or just trade in other people's?
I do a lot more trading than running, mostly because it's easier. I have run a few markets though (which should be listed on my bio page if I've updated it properly) and I'd like to run more.

5) What is your day job?
I'm a Nursing student, half way through school. Inkling is one of the completely free hobbies I use when I have a passionate desire to Not Think About Pharmacology For A While. I used to be a Massage Therapist, but I didn't have the money to build a real practice so I was stuck with meaningless spa jobs, which wasn't really my thing. I'm hoping Nursing will give me the health science background, the steady income, and the undergrad credit I need to delve a lot farther into Alt Med.

6) You're the #1 trader right now - do you brag about this to your friends?
Only the ones with Inkling accounts. Mostly just Char (Hi, Char!). Nobody else really cares, and I respect that. :-D

7) What is one feature Inkling doesn't have you would like to see?
Hmmm.... A good exchange rate to US dollars? (Ha ha ha). I'd like to see a tighter system for market cash-out. I dig the user-made-market thing, but it gets old real fast when the manager doesn't cash out a market for a week or more after it's closed. On a similar note, I'd love to see people think through their closing times a little better. If the time of an event being predicted is known, the market should probably close just before that event starts, or part way through. A month earlier is usually pointless, and a day later after the basketball game or whatever is over is just free money for sleazy after-the-fact traitors like m... er... nice weather recently, isn't it?

8) Any inside trading strategies you'd like to share?
Well, first off I should admit that I've done my share of exploiting loopholes like markets that should have already been closed, but most of my earnings have been more dignified. When I started off, two things I learned quick were not to sell short and not to make long term investments. The details of how selling short works have changed a bit, so it might be a bit more plausible now, but when I started it could lock up all your assets pretty quick. The long term investment thing is just kind of obvious: when you don't have much capital, it's not a very interesting game to play if you put everything in a stock
that won't close out til summer of '08 and leave it there.

My main trick early on when I didn't have massive amounts of cash to toss around, was to play based on predicting what other people were going to buy or sell, rather than what I necessarily thought the end result would be. Then I cash myself out when my investment is showing decent gains. For instance, if a new market opens up at 50, and you think it belongs at 70, then buy it up to 60, and wait for somebody else to buy it up farther. As soon as it hits 70, who cares how it'll cash out in 3 months, sell and put the money somewhere else. You can make a lot of money just by noticing new markets or batshit traders
(who's mistakes are bound to be corrected (Hi, Obscure Politician Fans!)) before folks like me who never bother to trade less than 100 either way do. Just leave some room for the next guy to agree with you, and then cash out when they do.

Once I had a bit more money to throw around, I started doing a bit more long term stuff, and throwing my weight around more on stuff I was confident in (cause if I lose, who cares?). Also, more on the "trading tricks" end of things, I realized that with some capital available, there's a lot of money to be made on hording the last 5% on fairly certain markets. I tend to troll the "expiring soon" list for markets there's basically consensus on that are closing in a week or two and are sitting around $90-93, or $6-10. It takes a lot of capital, and you get really screwed if the market swings, but there's a couple thousand to be made buying from $90 to $98, and if you buy a couple weeks before the market cashes out, it's a pretty good return.

Lastly, and this one goes for anybody: Do some research. I've made several small pretend fortunes on markets I knew absolutely nothing about, just because nobody else did either, so once I searched a bit I was ahead of the game.