Main | December 26, 2004 - January 1, 2005 »

Do you know your users' brains?

I hadn't planned on giving the same care and editing to blog entries as I would to an article, so I reckon I won't always recognize that the way I put something sounds...bad. So I apologize to those I insulted with my "clue" post. But if you're offended or insulted by that entry, you probably won't want to read anything else I have to say ("If some people don't hate your product it's medicore"). This blog is written primarily for the people who are co-authoring or developing other books in one of our brain-based book series, as well as a way to let our readers know more about what we're trying to do to them ; ) and what's coming next. Everyone else is invited, of course, but don't say I didn't warn you. This is intended for the folks who know us (and who aren't insulted or offended by our positions), because I think it will take something away from the spirit of it if I have to, say, establish credibility for each topic by putting in a huge amount of background material and long bios about who we are and why we're talking about this in each post.

If you're interested in getting to know us, stick around and read some of the earlier things we've written here and elsewhere, and we'll do our best to be honest about where we stand, where we believe we do know things and where we know we're just makin' stuff up.

But for the record, I'm part of the over-35 group that might want (or even need) to pay attention to anything that might reveal "clues" to how the brains of their younger users work. Nothing I can do will truly rewire my brain to see how a twenty-year old sees, so I'm forced to tease out whatever useful bits I can by continuing to look at the world in which that younger brain exists. And since I'm determined to craft materials (originally games, now books/learning) that make their brains as happy as possible, that's a crucial job for me.

(And we use the word "user" consciously, despite complaints about that word. I'll say more about that some other time.)

I'm a geek, not a fashion expert. This isn't about the importance of being trendy and fashionable-- it's about knowing how your younger audience perceives the world. And since pop culture both drives and is a reflection of how they perceive it, it's one component definitely worth paying attention to. True, fads and fasions come and go, but dismissing them out of hand could be a mistake because some reflect a more subtle (but powerful) shift, and it's those core brain/perception differences we care about.

For example--the obvious one is the way in which younger brains have been wired up in a world of visual media that's dramatically different from the one in which baby boomers grew up. Virtually everything has changed, most especially the increasingly faster rate of cuts in film/TV/commercials combined with the use/overuse of digital tools to add spinning flying 3-D effects to everything. When so many things move, move quickly, and move simultaneously, that produces changes in the brain. It quite literally becomes
wired differently.
(A few of the other books that address some of this include JC Herz's book and Digital Game-Based Learning.)

Combine that level of visual assault (some of us might call it) with the widespread, mainstream use of digital tools (think of how many today can't imagine a world without digital photo editing, and pretty soon--without digital video editing), the emphasis on graphic design in everything from skateboard art to tagging, and you have a brain with a heightened visual sensitivity/sensibility. What would have been considered the domain of artists and creative types is more and more mainstream (and crosses both genders). Yes, more younger guys care more about the graphic design on their t-shirts right now than in the past, and yes you could view that as a passing fad. But while the design and style likely are a fad, the increased appreciation of design is NOT.

And some of the research in the books I mentioned (and other papers) points to significant ways in which this matters to our books--for example, while a fifty-year old is more likely to evaluate the relationship between pictures and words in a typical book as: "the pictures are there to support or enhance the text", some studies have shown that a twenty-year old is more likely to reverse that equation: "the text is there simply to back the pictures." Putting the pictures at the front and center. Now, this isn't the time to debate whether This Is A Good Thing. I get enough nasty email from people who believe that encouraging a reduction in word-reading is a bad thing.

That's not for me to decide... all brains are far more tuned for images than words (we had waaaaaaaaay more years evolving to respond to images, especially changing images, than the new kid on the block--text). Pictures are simply WAY more efficient for communicating a wide range of concepts, ideas, procedures, etc. (not everything, of course). Yes it often is as simple as "a picture is worth a thousand words". And while that's true for almost any brain, the younger more graphically-sensitive brains has less tolerance for dealing just with words, when pictures are... faster, better at communicating, and usually more interesting.
(I KNOW this is way over generalizing--so all disclaimers apply about how there are many different exceptions to all this).

When I say "better at communicating", the issue is about transferring the mental model in YOUR head into the head of the other person. Trying to get the thought bubble over their head to match what's in yours is always a challenge, but it takes far more skill (and more time) to do that with words than with pictures. There is simply less chance of error for making your point with pictures than words, in many cases. (Again, I'm definitely NOT talking about literature... that's different. Because good writing is from people who DO know how to evoke a specific picture in the reader's head, or better yet, to set things up in such a way that the reader creates his own picture, but one that's guaranteed to further the experience of the story...)

If I didn't suck as a writer, I probably would have tried to write the best technical book I could, using words as my primary tool. But lacking all talent and experience for it, I didn't have that luxury. But now that we've gotten the feedback (we have over 100,000 copies of our books out there in the past two years, with an extremely vocal group of readers), we know we are on the right track. We didn't invent anything we use... we're simply applying the research that says if you're brain could talk, it would yell MORE PICTURES PLEASE!.

Again, when we're just talking about the importance of visuals, there are two key points here:

1) ALL brains are tuned for visuals, and virtually everyone, of any age, can (under the right circumstances of course) learn many types of information and knowledge much more quickly through visuals.

2) Younger brains--and by younger I DO NOT MEAN THE LENGTH OF TIME THE BRAIN HAS BEEN AROUND; I mean the brain that was developed in the more visually-rich environment--have a stronger sensitivity and preference for visuals.

So what are the implications? It's obviously not as simple as just "add graphics" to whatever your product or service is. But it is an orientation. In our case, we did just that. We took a computer programming text book and added visuals to increase understanding, retention, and attention (three different things, requiring three different types of visuals), because that's what brains want. We drastically changed the text-to-picture ratio, and we believe that just doing that alone would have made the big difference.

We incorporated more than a dozen other brain-based components into the books, but we believe the use of visuals is the most important. And our visuals aren't even very good and it STILL made a huge improvement for people. But not all people... we never forget that lots of people hate these books (and those who hate it come from all age groups, although we definitely see the hate-the-format people skewed toward those who've simply had a lot more experience learning from traditional text books). And I should add that some people appreciate the visuals, but hate the book for other reasons; the format has a lot of other components I'll talk about in other posts. But more people love these books than love any of the other directly competing books, so that's a crucial data point for us.

Now, the visual/graphic side is just ONE aspect of your user's brain... (and I haven't even touched on how aesthetics and the emotional appeal is an important component. Some of the folks that talk about this, love them or hate them, are Don Norman and Virgina Postrel..)

There's a lot more to our users' brains, and I'll be talking about the other aspects... the lessons learned from game designers, hollywood, psychologists, more from the neurobiologists, etc.

For now (and I'm talking to those of you who are writing books for our series ; ) my driving goal is to pay attention to how the brains of my learners/users work and especially, what they need, want, and respond to.

Posted by Kathy on December 25, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

If you're over 35, do you have a clue?

How well do you know your younger audience? If you're under 35, perhaps pretty well. You share a common trait--having grown up in a world where video games are pervasive. If you're over 35, though, it gets tricky. (And of course those aren't hard boundaries, but they're a good starting point.) If you're over 35, and you do ANYTHING that could possibly be related to those *under* 35, you might want to make reading Got Game a new year's resolution.

The main thrust of the book is the ways in which those *not* of the gamer generation tend to GREATLY underestimate the size and impact of the gamers. You might not agree with all of their conclusions, but it's a fascinating book, and one that some of our over-35 editors have read and finally said, "Oh! I get it now!" about our books.

Here's our own little quiz to see if you still have a clue : ) (just answer a simple yes or no to each)

1) Do you know that "scratching" (the art known by many as "turntabilism") is to today's high schoolers what taking up the guitar was 20 years ago? That to a teenager, it's just another musical instrument (albeit a really cool one)? You're almost as likely today to find a group of college kids getting together to jam with their turnables and mixers as with their guitars and drums. Do you know the difference between rap and hip-hop?

2) Are you aware that knitting is considered hip?

3) Have you visited an Urban Outfitters store, or read the magazine "Ready Made" in the last six to nine months?

4) Have you visited the pop culture section of a Virgin Megastore in the last six to nine months?

5) Do you know that today's high school graduate is unlikely to fully understand the phrase, "into computers"? (Because for most, that's not very different from saying, "into telephones". In other words, the computer is simply a tool/appliance that everyone just HAS as a part of their life. You use it to do the other things you ARE into... chatting, blogging, creating digital music and videos, etc.)

6) Do you know that many high schools in the US teach video editing? Some even using the same tools (Final Cut) used to edit Oscar-winning films like Cold Mountain? Do you know that most high schoolers can name more film directors than their parents can?

7) Do you know that even kids who do NOT play video games are still affected by the culture of the gamer generation?

8) Do you know that the typical high schooler has a much greater visual sensitivity/sensibility than high schoolers of even 15 years ago? (For example, do you know that some of the best graphic art today is found on the back of skateboards and snowboards?)

9) Related to #8, did you know Spike Jonze started his filmmaking career making skateboard movies? And that Spike Jonze co-founded "Girl Skateboards"? Do you know who Spike Jonze IS?

10) Did you know that the coolest Christmas tree you can have right now is... retro aluminum? (And that having a *real* tree is definitely Not Cool, unless you keep it alive by planting it).

If you cannot answer "yes" to most of these, you can start by taking action on #3 and #4. And if your local high school has a video editing class, see if they'll let you sit in one afternoon. These are not your father's "home movies".

And if you're interested in renting out some extremely hip teens (although if you're caught *referring* to them as hip then you OBVIOUSLY don't get it, they'll be quick to tell you), I have a couple I'll be happy to send your way. No charge. They'll reveal their Big Secrets like, "Why I took a photo of a drunk sock monkey." Drunksockmonkey

Posted by Kathy on December 24, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Are your users passionate?

Do your users LOVE your product or service? Do you have fans? We'd love to hear your stories for both the tutorial we're giving at ETech, based on our Foo Camp talks (see Caterina's notes)) and the book we're working on. We're particularly interested in stories from people who've generated passionate users by developing products or services (or support materials AROUND their products or services) that get people involved, engaged, and thinking about THEMSELVES as a result of your product or service. In other words, we want to hear stories about customers who tell you how your product or service has made THEM cool/special/smart/whatever rather than than stories where customers tell you how great YOU are.

Our core approach to "creating passionate users" is based on one simple concept:
It doesn't matter what your users think of YOU. It's not about you. All that matters is what they think and feel about themselves as a result of interacting with your product, service, website, etc.

We want examples from things other than the obvious big ones (Apple, Harley Davidson, etc.) such as:

* SmugMug
(Gives people a way to make their pictures look great, and share them with others...)

* Type Pad
(If you're reading this, it's obvious you know what Type Pad has done for making people have an "I Rule!" feeling.)

* iStockPhoto and the Art of the Start cover contest
(You just have to see how people have used iStockPhoto art to do amazing things, including the cover submissions for Guy Kawasaki's latest book).

* Nickel Creek
(As with many other bands and artists of all kinds, fans of Nickel Creek feel "special"... somehow superior for being a key supporter of such a talented group of hard-to-pin-down young musicians. If you've seen the movie High Fidelity, you know how far you can take the "I'm more indie than thou" attitude, and fostering that among fans is a great way to inspire passionate users...).

You can post comments here if you like, although I'd prefer to get them in email (see the email link).
Cheers and thanks!

And oh yeah, if you're still working on generating passionate users, we'll all be talking a lot more in this blog about ways to help make that happen. In fact, we'd love to have a few stories for the book of folks who walked through the process successfully, so if you're interested, you can follow along over the next three months with this blog as we go through some of the steps.

Posted by Kathy on December 23, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Computer book author's manifesto.

Since this is my first real overall blog, I thought I'd link to some back story that's been posted elsewhere, most recently: A computer book author's manifesto. And my Java blog at


Posted by Kathy on December 23, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

If some people don't HATE your product, it's mediocre.

That notion is shared by lots of folks including Don Norman, and we've taken it to heart, given how many people hate (with a passion) our books. But if you take the safe path, your chances of breaking through the market clutter is almost zero. There's simply too much competition for virtually *everything* today--and with so many choices of products, services, whatever, making a dent requires something dramatic. Dramatically different. No, not just different, but different in the ways that matter to the user.

Seth Godin has a comment (I think from the Purple Cow book) that goes something like this, "Today, being safe is risky, and being risky is safe." (I might have mangled that, but that's the idea.)

So we had a choice with our first book series (the Head First books): do we play it safe and write a good, solid, decent programming book that the widest range of readers can appreciate, or do we completely abandon the conventions in favor of something that many would HATE, but that would be a dramatically better experience for others? If we played it safe, we knew we'd have to kick and scream and claw (and the publisher would have to spend a fortune on marketing) to take even a tiny piece of the market already well-served by at least a dozen well-respected, technically excellent books. But if we took the unsafe path, we risked getting viciously BASHED in public (just *imagining* what Slashdot would do to us was made me ill) and losing whatever minor reputation we'd built with javaranch. But really, we had almost nothing to lose. It was O'Reilly that really took the Big Risk (more on that story in another post), since they DID have a reputation at stake... a reputation crafted over many years and with thousands of books.

So we thought about it for around five seconds and decided to go for it ; ) We took Seth's advice and chose the risky-is-actually-safer road by questioning nearly every assumption about The Way Things Are Supposed To Be. Instead, we asked, "If there were no constraints other than the ones imposed by the 2D page/book format, what could we do to help people learn better, faster, deeper?" We knew a lot about how to answer that question (from years of research and experience working on it), but we also knew that some people would hate it. REALLY hate it. We just crossed our fingers (as did O'Reilly, thanks mainly to Tim's personal pleasure at being disruptive) and hoped that just a few more people would LOVE it than hate it, and that the people who really loved it would care enough to spread the word.

And thankfully, that's what happened. Several things surprised us though:

1) More people loved it than we expected. Head First Java went immediately to the top of the Java bestseller list in the US (across both online and brick-and-mortar stores, according to Bookscan), was a finalist for a Jolt Cola/Software Development award, and was chosen a Top Ten Computer Books of 2003 by Amazon), and stayed on top for 18 months until it was replaced by our Head First Servlets book (which was selected as an Amazon Top Ten Computer Books of 2004). The other two Head First books became instant bestsellers in their categories as well. We could not possibly care more about what our learners have to go through to learn this stuff, and that caring and extra effort (these books are much more difficult and time-consuming to build) is making a difference.

2) Of the people who hate it, the most vocal have been other computer book authors. We chalked this up at first to a simple Who Moved My Cheese thing, but later realized it isn't that simple. We now believe that a lot of it has to do with defining what a "book" is... and that most of the computer book authors were writers, and many of them damn good ones, who saw our books as a degradation in writing, a kind of "pandering to the MTV generation". In many ways, that's *exactly* what our books are. But we don't consider ourselves writers and we don't consider our users to be readers. We consider them learners. And that means our job is not to write but to help them learn. Another issue is that many folks believe that it is just unprofessional to put such "silly" things in a technical book, and that it shows disrespect for both the learner and the professional topic. We violently disagree, of course, because everything we do in the books has a very specific purpose based on reaching the brain, and we're very passionate ourselves about both the topics and the act of delivering them, but that's a more involved topic I'll look at later.

3) Of those who started out hating it, some later found it to be "an acquired taste", and some of our initial vocal haters later became vocal supporters.

4) Of the folks who hate it, most (but certainly not all) are not in the target audience. In other words, they believe it's bad "for others", rather than evaluating it as someone actually trying to use it for its intended purpose. In other words, they believe they're speaking on behalf of the people who really ARE in the target audience. So we get a lot of comments like, "How can ANYONE learn from this crap?" from people who already know the topic.

5) A surprisingly vocal group hated it *not* because of its format, but because its very premise--making it easier to learn Java--was just BAD. Bad for the tech industry. Bad for the existing Java programmers. Bad because it would allow those who "don't even DESERVE to learn Java to start taking our jobs". We dismissed that as ridiculous at first, but then we heard that a few other authors of beginning Java books had experienced the same phenomenon. One well-known author of an excellent, but very advanced Java book, put it this way, "I guess it makes sense that your book would be successful now... all the SMART people already KNOW Java."

What did NOT surprise us was that the audience for the Head First books is skewed younger. People with brains wired up in the 60's and 70's are more likely to find our books [euphimism]unpleasant[/euphimism] than those wired up in the fast-cut visual sensibility world of Sesame Street/MTV/Video Games. This is not 100% (and let's just say that Bert and I grew up when Pac Man and Space Invaders were considered "stimulating media"), but we used the research that points to differences in brain wiring and visual perception between those raised on slower media and those raised on, well, the faster stuff. I'll talk more about those brain differences in other posts.

We couldn't possibly be more supportive now of the "be risky" and "embrace the hatred" model for launching a new product or service. Because let's face it--getting people to choose your excellent-but-mainstream product over all the other excellent-but-mainstream products that serve the user's needs is an uphill (if not impossible) battle today, and even if it's possible... who has the marketing budget?

So take a chance, and be brave. My skin isn't as thick as it needs to be... when people trash us, for good or lame reasons, it hurts. But it's worth it. We offered this series to two other publishers (more on that in another post) and they didn't just turn it down, but turned it down with impunity...laughing as in, "Oh, like THAT is going to work! Ha-ha-ha...". I was virtually fired from Sun for some of the ideas that proved to be most-liked by customers (in other words, Sun said, "Customers will hate this... shut up about it OR ELSE."). But thankfully for us, O'Reilly was more than willing to take a chance (although rumors abound that it caused quite an internal battle at O'Reilly--with Tim and Mike Loukides and Kyle Hart on one side, and many, many others suggesting that Head First books would seriously damange their reputation).

As my partner Bert likes to quote, "If you aren't living on the edge... you're taking up too much room." (Of course, we were lucky enough to have O'Reilly footing most of the bills for this *experiment*, but still...the first book took six months of pouring our heart into it, day and night, for both Bert and I). To all of our early adopters and vocal supporters, THANK-YOU! We owe you so much, and when you take the time to tell others -- and even better, to tell US -- what the books have meant to you, that makes it so worth it. Computer books are not a way to make a good living today because the tech book market is down so far today, but the emails from happy user/learner folks keeps us going.

Posted by Kathy on December 23, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Getting past the brain's crap filter.

Your brain didn't come with a manual. Brain_1And that sucks. Before we started the Head First series, my partner Bert and I spent years studying ways to get learning into someone's brain, and the more we learned about the brain, the scarier it got. Because in so many ways, Your Brain Is Not Your Friend. It thinks you're still living in a cave, and it's sole job is survival of *you* as a human, and survival of the species. And what IT thinks is important and what YOU think are... really different.

Learning a programming language, it turns out, isn't high on the brain's list of Things To Keep You Alive. You know this, of course, because you remember the feeling -- you're in college, finals are tomorrow, and you're cramming to within an inch of your life. But you find yourself reading the same page, maybe the same paragraph, over and over and over and over barely able to stay awake. The illegal dose of caffeine isn't working. But then the hot babe from the next dorm walks by and suddenly you're alert, coherent, energetic even. Your brain was doing a, "Hmmmmm... calculus or survival of the species... damn... tough choice!".

So we've been spending a lot of time thinking about how important it is to get past The Gatekeeper (the brain's crap filter). If the brain is trying to save your life by keeping out the OBVIOUSLY unimportant thing like tomorrow's final, then how do you *trick* the brain into thinking the boring, dry thing is as important as that tiger that ate your ancestors?

All the studies seem to show that the center of everything is your amygdala--the almond-shaped organ (actually one on each side of your brain) that responds to things that might pose a threat or help you in some crucial way (and it does some of this without your conscious awareness). If your amygdala were programmable, you'd tell it to PLEASE treat a grade less than C on tomorrow's exam as LIFE-THREATENING, and could you PLEASE pay attention and record this to long-term storage. But you can't. Or can you?

There *is* a way to program it, kind of. The inputs that tell your brain that something is important and worth recording are *feelings*. You pay attention, and record, that which you feel, because the brain is paying attention to the chemistry associated with emotions. When you see a tiger (in the wild, not a zoo), your brain recognizes the threat and chemicals surge. Your brain says, "This is REALLY important -- so remember EVERYTHING." If you've been in a car wreck, you might know the phenomenon where you remember *everything* including the background details like which song was playing. Because your brain did a complete snapshot of the whole damn scene, knowing that this was a Very Bad Thing, but not knowing which parts were important--so it said, "What the hell -- I'll just save it all."

(And I'll talk in a later blog about why your brain reacts differently to the tiger in the zoo than in the wild... it's another really cool thing the neurobiologists have learned).

So the question again is, "how do you get the brain to treat, say, learning Java as though it were potentially life-saving?" We use this in our books to try to help people learn more quickly and more deeply, and with a more lasting memory (because we write on difficult technical subjects, and some of our books are certification exam guides as well, where memory is crucial).

But then we started to reailze that it applies to marketing as well...that the principles we use to increase attention and memory for the purposes of learning are the same principles you need to do what marketing guru Seth Godin says is essential today to break through--Be Remarkable. If you want people to talk about your product or service, it better be something really worth talking about. And today--with conventional advertising on its last legs--it's harder than ever to break through and be heard. Your users (or potential users) are so overwhelmed with messages (99% crap) trying to compete for their attention, that their brains are working overtime trying to keep those messages OUT. Remember, the brain wants to conserve bandwidth for the really important things... snakes, spiders, the fact that fire is hot, that socially you need to do a little better so that you have a hope in hell of sleeping with... that sort of thing. Their brains are NOT scanning for an FAQ of how your product is technically superior or logically a better choice or... pretty much anything related to the features of whatever it is you're trying to sell.

So, that was the first thing we learned about the brain--how the crap filter really works and how to get past it. In later blogs, I'll go into a lot more detail about that. But we learned a lot more about how to get--and keep-someone's attention, some of which I taught at UCLA Extension in the mid 90's at the IBM New Media Lab (and used during my days as a game developer). We've been doing a lot of experimenting including during my time as a Java trainer/evangelist for Sun Microsystems, and later with the creation of the new series for O'Reilly. The books have all become overnight bestsellers in their category, and since we *know* we aren't very good writers, we're pretty sure it's because we spoke to the reader's BRAIN, not the reader himself. We believe that talking to your customer/client/user/prospect matters less than WHICH part of them you talk to.

Bert and I are working on a tutorial we're presenting at ETech on Creating Passionate Users based on a session we presented at the last two Foo Camps, and we've finally decided to work out the details in a blog. We'll use this space to work on our "Creating Passionate Users" tutorial (and we're also doing a book on this), as well as talk about new things in the Head First series and an interactive learning site we're working on. Our passion is the brain, but we'll talk about the core elements we believe you need to inspire customers/users including lessons learned from cognitive science, psychology, video/computer game design, entertainment (Hollywood), and yes, even advertising still has something to say (although advertising no longer works well, it still holds the key to some of the things that DO work... more later).

So... we don't know where this will go, but we'll do our best to give as much as we've been getting from the contributions of so many others on the web.

Posted by Kathy on December 22, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack