I'm a LW reader, two time CFAR alumnus, and rationalist entrepreneur.
Today I want to talk about something insidious: marketing studies.
Until recently I considered studies of this nature merely unfortunate, funny even. However, my recent experiences have caused me to realize the situation is much more serious than this. Product studies are the public's most frequent interaction with science. By tolerating (or worse, expecting) shitty science in commerce, we are undermining the public's perception of science as a whole.
The good news is this appears fixable. I think we can change how startups perform their studies immediately, and use that success to progressively expand.
Product studies have three features that break the assumptions of traditional science: (1) few if any follow up studies will be performed, (2) the scientists are in a position of moral hazard, and (3) the corporation seeking the study is in a position of moral hazard (for example, the filing cabinet bias becomes more of a "filing cabinet exploit" if you have low morals and the budget to perform 20 studies).
I believe we can address points 1 and 2 directly, and overcome point 3 by appealing to greed.
Here's what I'm proposing: we create a webapp that acts as a high quality (though less flexible) alternative to a Contract Research Organization. Since it's a webapp, the cost of doing these less flexible studies will approach the cost of the raw product to be tested. For most web companies, that's $0.
If we spend the time to design the standard protocols well, it's quite plausible any studies done using this webapp will be in the top 1% in terms of scientific rigor.
With the cost low, and the quality high, such a system might become the startup equivalent of citation needed. Once we have a significant number of startups using the system, and as we add support for more experiment types, we will hopefully attract progressively larger corporations.
Is anyone interested in helping? I will personally write the webapp and pay for the security audit if we can reach quorum on the initial protocols.
Companies who have expressed interested in using such a system if we build it:
- Complice (disclosure: the CEO, Malcolm, is a friend of mine)
- General Biotics (disclosure: the CEO, David, is me)
(I sent out my inquiries at 10pm yesterday, and every one of these companies got back to me by 3am. I don't believe "startups love this idea" is an overstatement.)
So the question is: how do we do this right?
Here are some initial features we should consider:
- Data will be collected by a webapp controlled by a trusted third party, and will only be editable by study participants.
- The results will be computed by software decided on before the data is collected.
- Studies will be published regardless of positive or negative results.
- Studies will have mandatory general-purpose safety questions. (web-only products likely exempt)
- Follow up studies will be mandatory for continued use of results in advertisements.
- All software/contracts/questions used will be open sourced (MIT) and creative commons licensed (CC BY), allowing for easier cross-product comparisons.
Any placebos used in the studies must be available for purchase as long as the results are used in advertising, allowing for trivial study replication.
Significant contributors will receive:
- Co-authorship on the published paper for the protocol.
- (Through the paper) an Erdos number of 2.
- The satisfaction of knowing you personally helped restore science's good name (hopefully).
I'm hoping that if a system like this catches on, we can get an "effective startups" movement going :)
So how do we do this right?
I am having trouble visualizing it. Could you tell a story that is a use case?
Thanks for pointing this out.
Let's use Beeminder as an example. When I emailed Daniel he said this: "we've talked with the CFAR founders in the past about setting up RCTs for measuring the effectiveness of beeminder itself and would love to have that see the light of day".
Which is a little open ended, so I'm going to arbitrarily decide that we'll study Beeminder for weight loss effectiveness.
Story* as follows:
Daniel goes to (our thing).com and registers a new study. He agrees to the terms, and tells us that this is a study which can impact health -- meaning that mandatory safety questions will be required. Once the trial is registered it is viewable publicly as "initiated".
He then takes whatever steps we decide on to locate participants. Those participants are randomly assigned to two groups: (1) act normal, and (2) use Beeminder to track exercise and food intake. Every day the participants are sent a text message with a URL where they can log that day's data. They do so.
After two weeks, the study completes and both Daniel and the world are greeted with the results. Daniel can now update Beeminder.com to say that Beeminder users lost XY pounds more than the control group... and when a rationalist sees such claims they can actually believe them.
These kind of studies suffer from the Hawthorne effect. It is better to assign the control group to do virtually anything instead of nothing. In this case I'd suggest to have them simply monitor their exercise and food intake without any magical line and/or punishment.
Thanks for the example. It leads me to questions:
This is an awesome idea. I had not considered this until you posted it. This sounds great.
I posted a link to this discussion on the Quantified Self forums.
To work well, I think it needs a good name. In terms of long term social dynamics, creating a meta-brand that helps smaller brands seems essential. Like when people initially see the "tested by X" logo they won't know what it means.
Assuming the web app works as intended, and assuming any significant fraction the population just stop believing any of the classes of claims that might be tested this way and lack the logo, then the process should gain more and more credibility over the course of months and years. The transition from an unknown l... (read more)
Apptimize (YC S13) is also interested. (disclosure: the CEO and CTO, Nancy and Jeremy, are friends of mine, and I worked there as a programmer).
If anyone else would like to be included, please reply here.
In the Reproducibility Initiative PloS, and a few partner came together to improve the quality of science.
I would suggest all the people listed as advisors in the Reproducibility Initiative whether there are interested in your project. PloS would be a good trusted third-party with an existing brand.
I think this could be moved to Main.
Nope. The cost of doing less flexible studies will be the cost of losing that flexibility. For companies which expect a particular result from a study this cost can be considerable.
Prior Art: http://genomera.com/
One issue that seems more likely to be problematic when the web application is being created and launched than later on, is whether the questions are well designed. There's a whole area of expertise that goes into creating scales that are reliable, valid, and discriminative. One possibility is to construct them from scratch from first principles, and then make them publicly available, but another possibility is to find the best of what exists already that is open sourced.
For general biotics and meal squares it seems like some measure of "not having ... (read more)
The Beeminder and HabitRPG links both point to less wrong blank pages.
This is a worthwhile initiative. All the very best to you.
I would advise that this data be maintained on a blockchain like data structure. It will be highly redundant and very difficult to corrupt, which I think is one of the primary concerns here.
Any updates on this?
Okay, sorry I've been away from the thread for a while. I spent the last half day hacking together a rough version of the data collection webapp. This seemed reasonable because I haven't heard any disagreement on that part of the project, and I hope that having some working code will excite us :)
The models are quite good and well tested at this point, but the interface is still a proof of concept. I'll have some more time tomorrow evening, which will hopefully be enough time to finish off the question rendering and SMS sending. I think with those two featu... (read more)
Could you please link to examples of the kind of marketing studies that you are talking about? I'd especially like to see examples of those that you consider good vs. those you consider bad.
This is an interesting project!
An obvious relevant model is Gwern's self experimentation on himself (http://www.gwern.net/Nootropics)
The key difference being, of course, that you are interested in group differences.
A key important step will be offering power calculations so that they sample size can be estimated prior to performing the test. (Also, so that post-hoc, you can understand how big an effect your study should have been able to detect.)
There are already some web apps that perform this, however. How will your app improve over those, or will you... (read more)