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Fine-grained treats = user happiness

Usertreats

What makes your user's brain happy? What makes your brain happy? British novelist Iris Murdoch said it best:

"One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats."

And the current issue of Scientific American Mind backs her up.

In an article called "Make Yourself Happy", author Maja Storch explains that personal happiness has two components: short-lived/immediate and long-term/habitual. "Short term pleasures create a stirring of emotions that psychologists refer to as positive affect", she says, "Most individuals underestimate the power this factor can have in both their private and professional lives." And my favorite:

"One extravagant annual company picnic does not create a healthy working environment; it takes many immediate, smaller happy moments to achieve this atmosphere."

So it looks like we're better off thinking about ways to delight our users and customers (and employees and family members!) with a steady stream of Good Things rather than, say, giving them one big reward.

I think most of us know this intuitively in our personal lives... most people seem to prefer a year's worth of repeat Small Special Moments to a year of nothing (or worse) followed by a fantastic birthday present (unless it's a 20" iMac G5 wrapped in a 22 ft. AirStream CCD, in which case the entire previous year can pretty much suck and everything will be fine.)

But so many companies seem to feel like they can make up for a lot of user pain as long as they do something spectacular every once in a great while--like offer a huge discount on a related product, or when your frequent flyer miles finally pay off and earn you a trip.

And it's not just a matter of regularly delivering small treats that users (family members/employees, etc.) expect, or the effect loses its power. This is where animal clicker training has something to say:

Intermittent, unexpected treats are more powerful than regularly scheduled expected treats.

The question is... how? I talked about this earlier in Creating Playful Users, and it seems like the big keys are the things I've already mentioned:

Rewards/treats should be both fine-grained and surprising

What constitutes a "treat"? Obviously that depends on who your users are and what their relationship is to you, but here's a random list:

* Easter eggs in your software

* Unexpectedly and uncommonly good customer service or support experiences

* Something unexpected and special in the box your product ships in... (but in order to be unexpected it has to be changed on a regular basis).

* A special feature that doesn't get in the way but says...we were really really really thinking about you here. I'm finding a lot of these in the new Mac OS X Tiger release! (Like "mail PDF" that lets you go from viewing a web page to mailing it as a PDF email attachment in one step!)

* Sponsoring and supporting user groups with a variety of special treats... everything from study guides and posters to raffle t-shirts and other cool giveaways.

* Special surprises (extra downloads that only customers get, something fun in the mail, etc.) that show up at the user's mail/email unexpectedly. (I always stay for the entire credit roll when I see a film in the theater (unless I hated the movie) out of respect, sure, but also because every once in a while you get an entire new scene (or really fun outtakes) that happens only after the credits are over... Napolean Dynamite and Constantine are two that come to mind).

Too many companies seem to give all the cool toys and treats to prospective customers--like trade show attendees, for example--but completely ignore you once you actually BUY the thing! That's just 180 degrees wrong. If they're pouring all this effort into enticing new customers, I can't help but think that if they channeled more of that budget to their existing customers (through both having a great product and continuing to surprise and delight them after the sale), then they'd increase their sales and marketing force by an order of magnitude as those customers go out and evangelize with way more credibility than the company reps or ads will ever have.

The message from the brain folks (and Iris Murdoch): spend less time thinking about The Big Reward and more time dreaming up and delivering the small treats. Write your significant other a funny message on a post-it and stick it somewhere surprising. That takes, what, 20 seconds? Slip a chocolate rabbit inside your employees' in baskets (you'll have to read the Scientific American Mind issue to understand that one). Don't punish your developers for putting an easter egg in the software...encourage it.

And I'm just following brain science when I run over to Ben & Jerry's as soon as I finish this post...

Posted by Kathy on May 5, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

I'm a tech writer, and one topic that has seen continuous discussion for several years is why games usually don't need manuals. Even open-ended games use relatively little documentation beyond "what's that symbol on the screen" and "which button you press to use the sniper rifle".

Part of it, of course, is that games tend to have designer-defined goals (kill this specific boss), and applications tend to have user-defined goals (create some document that's in my mind somewhere), but even that isn't as true any more thanks to games like SimCity, the Sims, and Civilizations.

I think users are compelled to keep playing games because every twenty minutes or so, you get a little compliment. You get to use a new weapon, a previously unexplored area is now open, or maybe you just get a little near-meaningless message ("LEVEL 2"). Could it be this kind of reward that games provide, that you are discussing, and that most applications lack?

I think so, but I have no idea where to start in designing a better system. I'm more of an idea rat, as they say.

Posted by: M@ | May 5, 2005 1:11:22 PM

"A special feature that doesn't get in the way but says...we were really really really thinking about you here."

Colloquy, a free irc client for OS X, has little pop-up notices that are small with rounded edges, that line up in a neat column, and FADE IN gently off to the side, then fade out when you click on them. Considering the reputation any kind of pop-up has these days, they are a total joy. Pop-ups that actually "feel nice". What a concept!

Posted by: Keith Handy | May 5, 2005 2:10:50 PM

I agree with the idea of treats for your customer, but totally disagree with your first example: Easter eggs in the software. Whenever I find (or hear of) an Easter egg, I can't help but wonder why they spent the time coding that rather than getting more of the bugs out, or adding in some feature that was pushed to the next release.

Posted by: Sandy Kemsley | May 5, 2005 2:16:16 PM

Yep, Matt, I think you have it exactly! Now the big question is *how* to do this in non-game software. That's something I've been trying to think about myself (having come from the game development world originally). We try to do this in our books, using the idea of "getting to the next level where you get cool new superpower capabilities" as a model for the organization of topics and chapters, and then we try to *use* that next-level promise to get readers/learners to want to keep going ("Jim really wants to have this cool XYZ thing happen on his website... but how?").
We believe that our learning books are worthless if people don't actually learn, and there's no way to learn unless they get involved and *keep reading* and working through the content, so we try to apply some of those game design principles. We want to learn to do much, much more in this area though.
I think your reward idea should be applied to just about anything... if people spend hours and hours on games, wouldn't we love to have people spend that much time... willingly, happily, and in FLOW, on the other kinds of things we create? Things like books, other learning tools, many software apps, marketing-related content? Yeah, the big thing now is still... OK how? I want to hear your ideas : )
I think it's not unreasonable to say that if a lot more of the things we interact with on a daily basis were developed at least somewhat with a game designer's perspective, the world would be a better place.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | May 5, 2005 2:21:27 PM

Sandy, you make a VERY important point. This whole thing will completely backfire (for exactly the reason you give) if you haven't already met their expectations completely for functionality and utility. Where these things really come into play is when you've satisfied all the fundamental criteria for what user's want and need in your system... and now you're competing for marketshare on the things that can push you past the rest of the crowd.

But yes, if a company puts something special (like a t-shirt) in the box with their software, but their manual is terrible, the first email I'd write is to say, "lose the shirt, spend your resources on the documentation!" But then having just read Matt's post, I'm also tempted to say... and while you're there, why is the app so hard that I NEED a better manual?

I make an implicit assumption here on the passionate users blog that I should restate more often... and that assumption is that we shouldn't even be DISCUSSING passionate users until you've at least reached "neutral" users. Everything here is about breaking through when you (and your competitors) are already delivering on the core promises and users aren't pissed off or frustrated.

So yes, don't even THINK about treats until you've fixed the bugs! Unfortunately, many of us users have been trained by some big software companies to believe that bugs are simply part of the system... and they view (and even CHARGE us for) fixing bugs as a "treat" ; (

Very good point Sandy. Functionality before Fun. But we'll never get passionate users unless we nail the basic functionality and can start competing on the things that add *meaning* ... even if that meaning is simply a little more joy, delight, humor, or surprise.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | May 5, 2005 2:32:38 PM

In fiction writing, we call this feature gold coins. When you start out as a fiction writer, you learn that the easiest thing for a reader to do is to close your book and not pick it up again. The only way to make sure that someone finishes your book (and buys the next one!) is to "drop gold coins along the path," little moments that make the user gasp or laugh or get excited, anything that will jolt the user. It doesn't matter if it's a good or bad jolt so long as it's compelling. This tells the reader, "Look, I'm going to keep you entertained. Keep reading. And read the next one too."

If done at the right pace, you can almost guarantee the reader will keep reading, even if he violently disagrees with what you're trying to say.

Posted by: Elf M. Sternberg | May 5, 2005 2:36:04 PM

Keith: good example! I'm also loving the way the Dashboard widgets "spin around" to show you their backside. They didn't have to do that, and it doesn't feel gratuitous. It gives you a sense of continuity with the widget because it doesn't just wipe away the front and magically replace it with something else, but instead you have a feeling that it's more like a tool in the real world, where you turn the device over to see what's on the back. It's awesome. I am SO wasting time playing with Tiger when I should be working...

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | May 5, 2005 2:37:44 PM

Popped over from a link at AIGA/LA and found the content here inspiring.
As to how it looks, the center column is not defined well enough and the left and right side columns interfere with the ‘read’ due to line-spacing imbalances. If you like widgets, look at the popular graphic design forum SpeakUp to see a nifty one.
Since you are concerned with the user and perception, and in light of the entry regarding intricacies in Japan, a slight tweak in the design of your blog may be in order.

Posted by: Shahla | May 5, 2005 4:31:04 PM

Re: Sandy's concern about the easter eggs:

I don't personally have experience working with a team of programmers, but I do programming and other creative stuff independently. What I find is that mental blocks and difficult problems can often be surmounted more easily after giving myself "play-time". If I'm recording a bunch of music I'm really serious about, for example, sometimes I get so mentally and emotionally disoriented that I need to just stop for a while and do a parody. I would think this applies to most anything, and that easter eggs are probably the result of programmers needing to temporarily clear their minds.

Posted by: Keith Handy | May 5, 2005 6:17:06 PM

*British* novelist Iris Murdoch?

What a put-down! She's rather more well known and respected than that. How many other Iris Murdochs are there, novelists or not, British or not? Not many well known ones!

W.

Posted by: Wally | May 6, 2005 7:47:36 AM

Wally - why's that a put-down? Personally I'm quite happy when someone mentions a talented person who has contributed good things to the world and makes mention of their Britishness. It slightly balances out the fact that British actors only ever seem to get cast as bad guys by Hollywood casting agents, giving anyone who never visited the UK the impression that we're all lying, murdering scumbags. ;-)

Posted by: Matt Moran | May 6, 2005 8:59:56 AM

I think Keith H. is on to something here. Easter eggs can be a win-win for developers and users. First some poor slob of an overworked underpaid code monkey (let's call him "Bob") builds something small and silly into AccountingWizard 0.9.195b, which makes him smile (a mini-treat). Two months after the release, Marvin in Accounting at Acme Corp. runs across the easter egg while he's in the throes of his quarterly audit, which makes him smile (a mini-treat). He immediately posts his find on rec.accounting.software.easter.eggs, which Bob has been scouring in anticipation of the first sign of his creation being sighted in the wild... Et cetera.

Does this mean we should turn AccountingWizard 0.9.195b into EasterBasket 1.0 (now with Bonus Secret Accounting Functionality!)? Of course not. But win-win scenarios are hard enough to come by. Why not take advantage of the ones we find?

Posted by: David Rupp | May 6, 2005 9:18:36 AM

Regarding game development and treats:

http://www.gamedev.net/reference/design/features/alchemy/page2.asp

And a more detailed explanation:

http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20010427/hopson_01.htm

Easter eggs are fine in DVDs and games, but when Excel crashes on you, you have to wonder why they took the time to embed a game into it.

Posted by: GBGames | May 6, 2005 9:33:37 AM

Wally: I truly didn't realize that including the "British" part might be perceived as a put-down, so I apologize if that's how it sounded. I tend to do that because it *adds* information, but perhaps you're suggesting that information is irrelevant? I just never saw that as a put-down, regardless of how well-known you perceive the person to be. But Wally, I really will think about it because maybe I'm being insensitive.
Of course I'd *prefer* that when people refer to me, they add qualifiers like...
"Blonde, female, intermittently cogent computer book author Kathy Sierra..." (even better if you insert "and recently named Top Ten Blogging Babe"...)

Sorry, couldn't help myself ; ) But no offense meant when I mentioned her "Britishness"... FWIW, I used to live there (Cornwall), and am rather fond of the place.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | May 6, 2005 11:14:43 AM

GBGames: -- thanks for the links. I think based on what you and Sandy said, I'll probably make a blog post about FIRST hitting the threshold of core, working functionality. The way I see it, if they haven't got the base fundamentals right, they have no business trying to add something further up the hierarchy-of-meaning.

Elf: thank-you for mentioning the "gold coins" feature. Not being a fiction writer, I hadn't heard that, and you offered a great way to think about it.
You made a key point about "if done at the right pace..." and I think that pacing/timing is something we should explore.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | May 6, 2005 11:22:56 AM

And I thought I was the only one who longed for an Airstream. I'm trying to figure out how to have one as my next office in the city.

Check this out:
http://www.soluxdesign.com/solux/portfolio/projects_vfaust.cfm

Posted by: Tom Asacker | May 6, 2005 12:29:48 PM

Kathy, when I read "Too many companies seem to give all the cool toys and treats to prospective customers--like trade show attendees, for example--but completely ignore you once you actually BUY the thing!" I immediately thought of a recent experience of my own: renewing my Sports Illustrated magazine subscription. I got a note in the mail saying I'm a "preferred" customer and was eligible for a "special discount" if I renew immediately. Guess what? My "special discount" was less than the deal a brand new subscriber could get! I called them on it, and, of course, they granted me the better deal any new customer could get. It just bothers me that I had to point it out to them, and that they were trying to pull a fast one on me.

Posted by: Joe Wikert | May 6, 2005 7:54:16 PM

Is it me, or are some people here missing the concept of "Treats"? One of my pet peeves is having to re-enter the same data multiple times in an application. I consider it a treat when an application can generate lot's of information on a little bit of data. The best example I can think of is Quicken - Enter a little bit of data and the application gives you more information than you thought you could use. What happens next is that you start entering more data, and Quicken gives you more treats. What makes it work for me is the initial ease for a user to begin using the application. Quicken became almost an addiction and it wasn't long before I moved on to more advanced features. It would be nice if more applications worked that way.

Posted by: Tom | May 7, 2005 10:07:56 AM

Very interesting post and site. I enjoyed the discussion and it actually was just that; I'm used to "online debates=ranting babies." This is very refreshing.

I am launching my new site and Web log in the next week or so; the main focus is "design and technology serving human needs," which I believe should be the case. Perhaps "better" serve is more appropriate. In any case, I am in a state of disbelief much of the time regarding how infrequently humans, real people, are considered or even part of our profession's internal discussions.

When they are mentioned, people are referred to as "Users." It may sound petty, but it is indicative of how little we understand human behavior. The term "Users" has a negative connotation in some cases; "Bobby Hanky totally used Jenny Blake in Junior high school "(true story, he used everyone).

I get that it is industry slang or a shortening of "People who use Web sites" (I'm not quite that dense) but then why not refer to them as visitors; better yet "guests." We want people to feel welcome when they choose to visit our sites. How can we do this sincerely when we can't use a positive term to describe them. Why not "Prisoners"? At least it is honest in most cases. People feel trapped, but aha! They have the easiest escape route imaginable. Click.

Just a pet peeve (a rant, O.K. already). But thanks again.

Posted by: michael almond | May 7, 2005 12:40:13 PM

After working for the Walt Disney company for 10 years I never call people who come to a web site users. They are guests!

Posted by: Julie | May 7, 2005 5:42:29 PM

I HATE Easter eggs. After all, what is an Easter egg? It's a cool feature that is hidden from you. Great. Terrific. I paid for the feature, now I have to frickin' find where it's hidden, too!

Maybe in the next version of Windows, Micro$oft will make EVERYTHING an Easter egg. Present the user with a completely blank screen. Want to open a program? No problem, just keep clicking -- it's there somewhere. (Actually, I sometimes feel this way about Micro$oft Visual Studio .NET. It's so confusing that it's like having the features hidden "in plain sight.")

Instead of forcing me into a game of "hide and seek," why not include the great feature and then tell me about it. But, no -- they can't do that. It's just what I would be expecting...

Posted by: Johnny | May 8, 2005 8:21:18 AM

Tom: That's a great comment about Quicken's treat experience. It's a virtuous cycle... the software does things that help you get better, and the better you are the more you do, and the more it rewards you with still MORE ways to get better and...

Michael: a lot of people feel the way you do about the word "user", and while we're aware of that complaint, we're committed to it for several reasons:

1) In the software world (where we come from) it doesn't make sense to refer to software users as "visitors" or "guests" or even "customers". They are users of the software just as you "use" a hammer, you don't "visit" it as a guest. On the community website I started many years ago, Javaranch.com, I DO refer to the participants as visitors and guests, because that's the metaphor... they are visiting the ranch and our job is to make them feel welcome. But that metaphor doesn't work for software.

2) We refuse to let a perfectly good, time-tested word be hijacked just because there are alternate ways of using "using". Yes, drug dealers have users, and Bobby "totally used" Jenny, but you're not doing anything the least bit negative when you "use" a hammer, calculator, or map! Using, in our sense, is an active, participating word, and we're taking it back! It may be politically correct to not call users "users", but, well, in this case we don't care.

3) Most importantly, we feel very strongly that "user" sends a GOOD message because "users" care about two very important things--"usability" and "usefulness", and these are guiding principles for those of us developing tools, games, etc.

We agree that the word "user" has some issues, and we wouldn't use it to describe, say, hotel or theme park guests/visitors or church attendees, simply because it doesn't make sense in that context. We like a lot of different words, depending on the context including (for us especially) readers, learners, players, participants, attendees, teammates, and on it goes. But "users" is the best catch-all term for what we do here, which is from our perspective, focused on those who use interactive software tools or books and, as I mentioned, care about usefulness and usability.

Let's take back the word "user" and restore it to its proper glory where the "user" is the most important person! : )

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | May 9, 2005 2:30:36 PM

Sorry to weigh in so late with this. Back to my long-ago point: I think one way to get the game-like satisfaction would be to identify the milestones in the user's experience of the application, and provide something new at that point.

For example, I use Framemaker a lot at work. Everything is organized into chapters. How about letting me outline everything in a parallel file, and check things off as I write them? How about when I check off the last thing off in the chapter, there's a happy message (NOT a pop-up dialog box -- maybe something in the status bar for the chapter file, or show the file name in red, or something). How about it automatically generates the file as a PDF in printer speads, so I can immediately print off the chapter and show something cool and finished to my colleagues?

It's not as though I write without a structured approach, even in my fiction. Surely the designers of Framemaker (and Word) know the typical writer's approach (and yes, pretty much everyone writes the same way, when it comes right down to it) and could both identify the milestones, and identify the things I'd want to do when I reach them.

And -- of course -- make it REALLY obvious where I go to turn these things off, the first time!

Posted by: M@ | May 9, 2005 9:13:39 PM

Sorry to weigh in so late with this. Back to my long-ago point: I think one way to get the game-like satisfaction would be to identify the milestones in the user's experience of the application, and provide something new at that point.

For example, I use Framemaker a lot at work. Everything is organized into chapters. How about letting me outline everything in a parallel file, and check things off as I write them? How about when I check off the last thing off in the chapter, there's a happy message (NOT a pop-up dialog box -- maybe something in the status bar for the chapter file, or show the file name in red, or something). How about it automatically generates the file as a PDF in printer speads, so I can immediately print off the chapter and show something cool and finished to my colleagues?

It's not as though I write without a structured approach, even in my fiction. Surely the designers of Framemaker (and Word) know the typical writer's approach (and yes, pretty much everyone writes the same way, when it comes right down to it) and could both identify the milestones, and identify the things I'd want to do when I reach them.

And -- of course -- make it REALLY obvious where I go to turn these things off, the first time!

Posted by: M@ | May 9, 2005 9:16:19 PM

Sorry to weigh in so late with this. Back to my long-ago point: I think one way to get the game-like satisfaction would be to identify the milestones in the user's experience of the application, and provide something new at that point.

For example, I use Framemaker a lot at work. Everything is organized into chapters. How about letting me outline everything in a parallel file, and check things off as I write them? How about when I check off the last thing off in the chapter, there's a happy message (NOT a pop-up dialog box -- maybe something in the status bar for the chapter file, or show the file name in red, or something). How about it automatically generates the file as a PDF in printer speads, so I can immediately print off the chapter and show something cool and finished to my colleagues?

It's not as though I write without a structured approach, even in my fiction. Surely the designers of Framemaker (and Word) know the typical writer's approach (and yes, pretty much everyone writes the same way, when it comes right down to it) and could both identify the milestones, and identify the things I'd want to do when I reach them.

And -- of course -- make it REALLY obvious where I go to turn these things off, the first time!

Posted by: M@ | May 9, 2005 9:23:55 PM

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