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Think Sexy


If you want to create passionate users, you need to understand passion. We do it in the geekiest of ways on this blog by reverse-engineering. But we can't just study it; we have to feel it.

Sure you can conjure up your own feelings of passion for skiing, dancing, golfing, coding, photography, etc. And we'll talk about that another time because it's crucial. But right now, let's think about... sex.

Call it neurobiological research. Call it marketing research. Call it... fun.

The brain cares deeply, profoundly, passionately about survival of the species. And that means sex.

But here I want to talk not about sex, but about the quality of sexiness. And for reasons we don't have to care about now, our brains seem to attribute sexiness to things that have nothing to do with a real breathing human.

A 45-year old programmer says, "Sure, this technology is sexier, but we can't afford it now..."

A 29-year old attorney says, "That is the sexiest new sports car I've seen in the last five years."

A 17-year old student says, "That new iPod is really sexy."

I say, "I love this music... it's so damn sexy..."

A 32-year old graphic artist says, "That new package design is sexy."

A 65-year old architect says, "The curves of that new museum entrance are very sexy."

On it goes. And we're not talking about the obvious things like cologne in a bottle that's shaped like, well, you know. The unimaginative can simply use the shortest route to the brain's basic response to sex. They'll use the Coors Twins in an ad, for example, rather than come up with something more subtly clever.

But the rest of us can Think Sexy rather than relying on overt sex in our product design, marketing, adverstising, or in our case -- books (including covers).

Now, I'm guessing you spent more time looking at the picture at the top of this blog than the headline... even if you are completely unaware of that extra time. It just happens. Blame it on your chemistry. Blame it on your anatomy. But the more you personally respond to the notion of sexiness, the more likely you are to be able to conjure up the feeling when you're designing.

The iPod IS sexy. The Zen Micro is definitely not.

Given the overwhelming market share of the iPod, does that mean that most MP3-player buyers are simply shallow? Picking a product with as much sense as the 45-year old guy leaving his wife of twenty years to run with the cheerleader?


We're not picking it because it's sexy. We're picking it because sexiness is part of what makes it a better product!

Better to hold. Better to use. Better to look at. Better to give you a good feeling.

Don Norman talks about this in an essay Attractive Things Work Better, which Beth mentions in Why Cool is Good For Your Brain. (Side note: she's talking about attractive and cool qualities that aren't necessarily always sexy... sorry Beth and Eric, but however cool I think the Honda Element is, I don't think of it as sexy ; )

Whether you're designing a book, a software application, a piece of hardware, or a website... think sexy.

And have fun with the research.

Posted by Kathy on May 31, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Is your book, manual, or website remarkable (or recognizable) at every scale?


There's a game I used to play where you take a really small image from the painting of a famous artist and try to identify it. The trick is to see how small a sample you can use before you can no longer recognize either the painting or the artist. It's amazing just how identifiable a Van Gogh or a Monet or a Kandinsky or a Miro is, just from the tiniest slice. It's a wonderful game to teach yourself to really see the way the artist used color, texture, light, shapes, lines, etc.

Now, take the nearest computer book on your shelf and open it to a random interior page somewhere in the middle. Can you tell who the publisher is just by looking? Can you tell who the author is? Go a little further and start reading a paragraph. Now can you tell?

That's the problem.

The books might be easy to differentiate on a larger scale like, say, the level of a chapter or the whole book. A book from author "A" might cover the whole of the topic in a very different (and substantially better) way than author "B", but at smaller scales... can you tell the difference? Is there anything distinct about the look and feel? About the writing?

Why shouldn't a book be a reflection of the brand? Most publishers will tell you that they are. They enforce editorial standards and layout guidelines to help ensure consistency. But consistency is not enough! Not nearly enough to make a memorable impact. Not nearly enough to be even identifiably unique, let alone remarkable.

So why don't more publishers do more to ensure that their books are recognizable (and ideally remarkable) at every scale? Why don't more authors put their pages to the test... the "flip to a random page and see if there's anything different from the 30,000 other currently-shipping computer books on Amazon" test? A lot of authors don't because they're writing to strict formatting guidelines, and have no influence on the layout and style. And that's not always a bad thing... a lot of authors certainly don't pretend to be interior book designers. But they can still do it with their writing and information style. But I read so many paragraphs that could be so interachangeable with another book from a different publisher and author on the same topic.

There are, of course, a ton of authors whose paragraphs you can recognize. Peter van der Linden, one of my favorites, immediately comes to mind along with my good friend Solveig Haugland. (Interesting twist -- Solveig now helps edit Peter's books...) And I can always tell (and enjoy) Bruce Eckel's books.

I'm not suggesting this recognizability is the most important thing -- you could certainly print each terrible paragraph in day-glow orange and it would be recognizable, even remarkable, but still a terrible book. But let's say we've crossed the threshold and we have good writing, good content, technical expertise... all the things a good computer book needs to have. Now what? How do you begin to differentiate yourself from all the other equally good books? We all know that you can do it simply by being the first out with a book on a particular topic, but that's not a sustainable and healthy strategy.

The best way, in our opinion, is to create the book for the user, using the approach I suggested in How to write a non-fiction bestseller. But we're talking about a different, smaller scale in this post...

So which brands/books are recognizable at every scale? Certainly the Dummies series does this. I believe the O'Reilly Missing Manuals series does this, as does their Hacks series. The Visual QuickStart guides from Peachpit are pretty easy to spot. Our Head First books pass the test pretty well:

Our intention was for each page to look as though it was constructed by a somewhat strange instructor using a whiteboard and markers to draw things. It's supposed to have a kind of friendly hand-drawn classroom feel. That's not the feeling everyone wants from a technical book, but it works for our audience (shameless self-promotion: Head First Design Patterns was THE #1 bestselling computer book on Amazon for part of last week, according to their bestseller list--way to go Eric and Beth!), and they can spot it on virtually every page.

And it's not just in the look and feel (fonts, graphics, etc.), but in the actual writing style.

But just so you don't think I'm too full of myself... here's the first book Bert and I wrote, a couple months before we designed the Head First series:


Looks just like every other computer book. In fact, for comparison, here's another page from a different publisher. Can you tell who published either of these books? (Neither are from O'Reilly).


Yeah, that's what we thought. Nothing identifiable. Nothing unique. Nothing recognizable. Nothing remarkable. At least not at the level of the page look and feel. The first one, from Bert and I, is our Osborne/McGraw-Hill Java certification book. The second page is from a great book -- Marty Hall's Core Servlets book published by Prentice-Hall.

But they look the same.

Is that really a problem? Don't virtually all novels look pretty much the same inside, and after all--this is about writing and words are, well, words? Does (or should) the typography and column grid make any difference?

If you're writing fiction, I'd say no, it doesn't. Beyond basic readability. But then again, publishers have notoriously poor customer/market recognition. Almost nobody goes to the store believing their intention is to buy a book from a particular publisher. They go to buy a book on a particular topic, or from a particular author, or perhaps from a particular series (which is usually as close to brand recognition as a publisher ever gets).

But if you're writing non-fiction, I don't think it has to -- or SHOULD -- be that way. The problem with so many non-fiction books, especially books meant to be instructional, is that they're treated as "writing", when they should be treated as "experiences." Our goal is to change what's inside someone's head, and that might point to a very different approach than if the goal is simply to "write a good book." So, I believe that publishers, authors, book interior designers, etc. should think more about the experience and less about the delivery of written words.

And if that experience is designed in a way that really works and is remarkable, then it will be recognizable at any scale, and will add to the power and memorability of the brand (and if all the other good things happen that we talk about on this blog, may even lead to passion).

And while we're on books, what about product manuals? I bought a Nikon Coolpix 5700 when it still cost over $1000. Nikon is a pretty cool company, and has some wonderful passion-inspiring things on their website (if they can make me a better photographer, they're going to train me to realize I need a more expensive model camera ; ), but look at the manual that came with the camera:


For comparison, notice how it looks no more remarkable than the manual that came with my Canon digital video camera:


Absolutely nothing there to reinforce the brand. And although both manuals are decent, neither are particurlarly good. And neither go out of their way to try to make me better at using the equipment, when if they DID, I'd be more inclined to buy the next thing they make -- including accessories and a more expensive and capable model.

In comparison, though, look at the manual that comes with a wonderful music software app, PropellerHead's Reason:


The manual has a nice look and feel that draws you in and makes you want to learn more about Reason. And the better you get, well, now I'm obviously going to have to upgrade to version 3.0...

And for one last contrast, here's what the part of the Nikon site looks like that includes online learning:


Now why can't the manual look at least a little bit like that?

I think I'm going to do another blog on this topic of "remarkable at any scale", but in terms of things other than books and manuals. Maybe I'm just obsessed with mapping everything into fractals...

Thanks for being patient while I've been mostly offline folks. I think I'm really back this time : )

Posted by Kathy on May 30, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Why you need to go to a skateboard shop


If you're a programmer, attorney, teacher, chef, preacher, marketer, whatever--you can't ignore the crucial importance of design, especially today. And one of the best places to find it is... the nearest skateboard shop.

The photo above is from the bottom of my latest board, and I almost hated mounting the trucks (the thing that holds the wheels) because I loved the art. (This photo doesn't do it justice, because the image is now obscured by the wheels.)

Some of today's best and brightest designers are working on skateboard/snowboard art, as well as the gear that goes with it, and it's definitely worth a trip to your nearest skateboard shop (and I recommend either a skateboard or skateboard/snowboard shop rather than one that's strictly about snowboards).

If you're not a skater yourself, don't let that stop you. Think of it as a visit to an urban modern art gallery. Just don't go to one of those typical "mall" stores! The real skaters in your area will be able to tell you where the real skateboard shop is, and it's worth finding that lesser-known place the serious locals know about. (Although even the mall stores will still have rows of wonderfully-designed boards to look at.)

I buy my gear at the Satellite Boardshop in Boulder, and it's a great example of a store that's worth spending time in just soaking up the design of the boards, shoes, and even the store interior. (And if you're not in the neighborhood, check out the website).

A couple other places to check out online are:

Girl Skateboards


Elements, who also make some of the best "hoodie" sweatshirts I've ever seen.

And while you're looking in unusual places for design (especially contemporary, young, urban design) ideas, you should also consider a stop at Kid Robot, with stores in San Francisco and Los Angeles (you can't go to SF without making a stop at Kid Robot, which is just down the street from the world's best music store, Amoeba).

Oh yeah, once you're in toy mode, don't forget that "plush toys" have a whole new meaning among designers today. These are not the cute stuffed animals you had as a kid. These stuffed creatures are showing up in galleries and high-end stores, for a hefty price-tag, but they represent another aspect of a design trend that keeps surprising me.

I guess the point is--no matter what your age, your end-users are (for most of our target markets) going to keep getting younger. We all need to keep figuring out what our new users are all about, and how their brains work, and looking at their design sensibilities is one of the most powerful ways. Too many people tend to see only the films -- and listen only to the music--that reflect the style they liked when they were in their late teens and early twenties. Forcing myself to listen to newer, younger music, and watching newer, younger films (and by "younger", no I don't mean the 3,242 viewings of Nemo you've been watching with your three-year old) is one of the best things I can do to stay in better touch with my younger, hipper, differently-wired users.

And if you're not a video game player, you have a great excuse to start. Get your ass down to Best Buy or the local video game store and pick up an XBox or a Sony Playstation. Or, you can start with my latest toy--I mean serious PDA--the Tapwave Zodiac. It's the best Palm OS device you can get for the money, and while it's nearly as cool as the Sony PSP, you can justify it like I did by using it to do everything from word processing to Quicken to keeping your Getting Things Done lists. I love the idea of writing off game playing as a business expense. Market research.

We'll do whatever it takes to understand our users. No matter what the sacrifice.

Posted by Kathy on May 24, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Management's role in passionate users


A few months ago, Skyler started working part-time at a Mrs. Fields cookie store at a local mall here in Colorado. They treated her--no, all employees--like ex-convicts. The default company assumption was "Employees are NOT to be trusted!"

This came through in policy decisions, but never more obvious than the what-to-do-with-leftover-cookies-at-the-end-of-the-night policy:

Employees must throw away ALL unpurchased cookies at the end of the night. Employees are expressly forbidden from taking leftover cookies home.

Skyler is the kind of person who collects stray animals and, in some cases, stray people. She has a soft spot for the homeless. She'd be delighted to take a nightly walk down Pearl street (or one of the other places in the area where you might find street folks of various flavors) and hand out leftover cookies (which, as a somewhat-obnoxiously born-again vegeterian/health nut, she'd accompany with a lecture on nutrition...)

But no, those cookies are destined for the trash heap. If she wants to take them, she'll have to pay for them. Because the company policy of "you must throw the cookies away" is based on the assumption that Employees are Bad. They cannot be trusted. If they're allowed to take leftover cookies home--so goes the company's conventional wisdom--you just KNOW what they'll do--they'll get closer to the end of the night and then go on a baking binge to generate as many leftover cookies as possible.

But hmmmm... if that's the worst that can happen... could it possibly be worth the bad will it creates between employees and The Management? And while it doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize that treating employees this way is NOT the path to stellar customer service (let alone something like passionate users), I'm stunned that this kind of management practice still happens.

Let's say the cost of the "extra" cookie dough produced by the highly immoral college student with the cookie fetish is, oh, $60.00 per month. This adds up, sure. But what about the cost of the policy aimed to prevent it? Skyler couldn't wait to find another job, in large part because of this attitude of distrust. The cost of employee turnover probably averages in the hundreds of dollars per month, and it's no stretch to assume that the less you trust your employees, the higher the employee turnover.

So the company LOSES money on the policy because what they save in cookie dough they lose in the costs associated with poor employee retention.

And we haven't even touched on whether this ripples through to actual cookie revenue in the store. Do employees who aren't trusted behave as nicely to the customers as those who ARE trusted? Perhaps it's subtle--after all, Skyler isn't going to be rude to people regardless of the company's policies. But still... that little drain on her personal enthusiasm while at work infuses everything she does, and that includes every interaction with customers.

Of course, most of us are not entry-level employees at a fast-food mall store, but it's amazing how this attitude of mistrust exists in other companies for even the high-paid individual contributors from software developers to designers. Even if the company doesn't have these kinds of "we don't trust you" policies, their lack of trust still shows. Managers who question everything you do...who don't believe you're capable of working outside the strict procedures and rules set down by Those Who Know All Things And Make The Important Decisions.

I'm continually surprised by companies that hire someone for, say, a $100K a year position, and then treat them like they might do or say the wrong thing at any moment. They aren't allowed to talk to the press. They aren't allowed to blog. They aren't allowed to make critical decisions about the customers. They aren't allowed to do what they THOUGHT they were hired to do!

Every contemporary management book and philosophy (and just about every manager) says that the key to successful management is: "Hire good people and then get out of their way." But how many companies or individual managers actually do that?

The footnote to Skyler's story is that she worked at Mrs. Fields only until the nanosecond that she found another job, which she did, at the Boulder Einstein's Bagels. And when I drop in for a latte or a bagel, I watch her in action interacting with the line of customers (the place is BUSY) and I notice the change. She's always nice, but there's something more. I now see in her the way people act when they know they're trusted and respected, and I swear the customers can feel it. And if even 2% of those customers decide to come back again that week simply because they had such a pleasant, energetic encounter with the bagel clerk...

[FYI: I've been out of commission for the last ten days, but I'm back : ) Sorry about the missing blogs... and Beth couldn't jump in because Beth and Eric are in the midst of physically driving/moving from Santa Fe back to Bainbridge Island in Washinton. If you've emailed me in the last week, I'm still trying to catch up. Thanks for participating while we've been gone!]

Posted by Kathy on May 23, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Reverse-engineering passion: part 1


Part One: What it looks like (why we care)

Like all good geeks, I can't let something important remain unanalyzed. If we're talking about passion, we better know a little something about what that means. The best way to create passionate users is to figure out:

1) What it looks like when people are passionate about something
2) What kind of things people are passionate about
and finally...
3) The characteristics of the things people are passionate about

We're not going to leave it to chance or fads.

This post is about #1, What it looks like when people are passionate. This defines why we want it. It defines our goal! We hear people talking about wanting (or already having) "passionate users", but when they describe what it looks like, it's closer to "satisfied and happy" users. And since we're going for the full passion monty here, we can't stop with that.


If you're serious about creating passionate users, this is what it looks like. This is what we're trying to build. When making a decision about something, we have to ask the question, "Will this thing we're about to do support any of the things on this map?" In other words, are we doing something with our product, service, marketing, etc. that will help the user do any of the following:





Show Off

Spend Time

Spend Money

Too often, companies seem to focus only on the last one -- they're quite happy to find ways for the user to spend more money, but ignore the others. So let me add another question. Besides asking, "How is what we're about to do going to help us support one of the seven passionate characteristics?" we should be asking, "ARE we supporting all seven things?"

Do you help users connect with others who share that passion?

Do you have a way for users to learn more?

Do you give users a clear path for improvement, so that they're motivated to keep getting better? (Under the assumption that the better they are at it, the more they love it. Think about it...)

Do you give users a way to show off their expertise (the "more [insert here] than thou" thing)

Do you give users opportunities to spend more time on this passion?

Do you give users a way to spend more money around this passion?

Do you give users support for evangelizing to others?

Granted, you don't have to actually do all of these... you can support other third-parties in doing them for you.

For example, my co-authors and I are doing several of these things for Sun, without any direct support from Sun. I originally created javaranch.com, which is now the single largest Java community "fan" site on the internet. Between javaranch and/or our books, we support:

Users can connect with others.

Users can learn and improve through forums, articles, lessons, etc.

Users can show off either through answering questions, contributing articles, or--even better--by becoming "bartenders" (forum moderators).

Users can spend time on the site (to the great delight of their employers and family members ; )

Users can evangelize on the various discussion forums.

Users can spend money (which we sometimes hope will be on one of our books... hey, we have to eat too)

This support we provide is all part of Java's Passionate Wake, and yet Sun didn't do a damn thing to help us (well, other than create a wonderful programming language which we believe is passion-worthy).

Sun's job? Stay out of our way and let it happen! At one point a few years back, Sun's legal began sending threatening letters to javaranch (after I had turned the site over to it's current owner, Paul Wheaton), for using the word "Java" on the site including in the name of the site itself. They suggested some lovely changes. Paul wrote back saying, "Hey, we'll be happy to rename it .NetRanch or maybe C#Ranch..." and the whole thing was slashdotted making Sun out to be the big bad guys going after their number one fan site. Rumor has it that James Gosling found out, and--virtually overnight--the whole "misunderstanding" was cleared up and Paul got a call from Sun marketing with a solution that would solve everyone's problems and make it possible for javaranch to carry on while still allowing Sun to protect it's trademark.

OK... back to the seven things. Again, you and your company don't need to personally do all seven things, but they are characteristics of passion, so if you want passion--they need to be somewhere in the equation. So if you don't support them, you need to help and encourage others to do it for you. Don't try to stop someone from making money off something you have built... because there's an opportunity cost for you if users don't get to do these seven things until YOU'RE ready to make them happen.

By giving up control--especially over the need to be the only one profiting from your creation--you greatly increase the chances that these seven things will happen more quickly, which in turn increases the chances that more and more people will become passionate. Truly passionate, not just satisfied or happy.

But if nobody is stepping up to support some of these things, then you better look for ways to kick-start the process. It could be as simple as starting a blog and providing instructions and materials for how to start a user group, or as complex as developing training programs, fan sites, and more.

Next up: we'll look at the things people are passionate about, and see if we can extract some useful tips, tricks, and data from that.

And, oh yes, don't worry if you're thinking, "my product could NEVER have those things... I make trash bags." We're still going to answer that one too... but you'll just have to keep reading ; )

Posted by Kathy on May 12, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

They Want To Believe...

In the beginning, it was about features. Products were new, barriers to entry were high, and there just wasn't that much competition. By the eighties, it had become all about benefits, and any salesperson (or advertiser/marketer/brand manager) worth his Mont Blanc pen knew he had to answer the customer's "what's in it for me?" question.

The brain scientists (and marketing research) convinced us that despite what users and customers claimed, they made decisions based NOT on logical feature-for-feature comparisons, but on an emotional response. So we focused our "unique selling propositions" on benefits that we knew (or hoped) would touch the right button, implying that what we offered made you richer, slimmer, sexier... someone others would respect, love, or envy. We called those "meaningful benefits", things that the prospective customer valued.

The idea of "meaningful benefits" still applies, but something has started to shift.

Something big.

What our users/customers/learners/visitors consider meaningful has evolved into something deeper.

While the goals we consider "shallow" are certainly still there for most of us--things like "will these jeans make my butt look smaller?" or "will Suzy sleep with me if I get the red Porsche?", the search for meaning seems to be taking hold. The evidence is all around us from the rise in spiritual practice, to the increased appreciation of beauty and aesthetics. When a man hits midlife and is just as likely to take a month off for a Zen retreat as he is to get hair plugs and a new sportscar, you know something's up.

The fastest growing group of new first-time horse owners is women over 40, and it's being attributed not to an interest in the sport of riding but rather the idea of horse as a means for transformation.

So how do we add more meaning? My co-authors and I believe that the small things are just as important as The Big Things... that small moments of more play, joy, happiness, and especially--kicking ass--are more meaningful to a user than, say, a false attempt at "building self-esteem". We believe one of the easiest ways to help add meaning to a user's life is by helping them grow. (I wrote more about this in Upgrade your users, not just your product.)

If users want to believe in something more... something bigger, what are you doing to support that? Some people wonder why so many others are "duped" into paying more for an iPod when other products appear--at least on the surface--to have more features and benefits for less money. They're baffled by the overwhelming numbers (like, nearly the entire market for MP3 players) is throwing away money for a fashion statement or trend. But there's more to that story then just trends and fashion (or ignorance).

When Steve Jobs wanted to hire Scully away from Pepsi, he asked, "Do you want to keep selling sugar water to kids, or do you want to change the world?" A whole lot of the Apple faithful feel that they're part of a world-changing movement, even if the rest of us might not understand how, exactly, is an iPod changing the world in any meaningful way???. That's not the point. If Apple has managed to provide people with an experience that feels more meaningful, that's what matters. And it isn't always about the experience with the product... sometimes it's about the company itself.

Some feel, for example, that the cause of "sticking it to Gates" is worth paying for. The uproar over Microsoft's reversal, and then re-reversal of a position on the anti-discrimination bill is another example of how a company can no longer remain neutral in emotionally charged issues that are deeply meaningful to both employees as well as community leaders and current and future customers. It's not enough today to say, "Our responsibility is to our shareholders" if your employees and customers feel otherwise.

Of course, taking a stand on some of these deeper issues will mean alienating some of your market. That's a good thing, of course, lest you fall into the dreaded Zone of Mediocrity.

Lots of people are talking about this in different ways, of course, but our favorite take on this is from Hugh Macleod's finding meaning comments on Gaping Void.

But if you haven't already checked them out, here are a few places to visit: Michael Pollock at smallbusinessbranding, Evelyn Rodriguez at Crossroads Dispatches, and the Passion Catalyst Curt Rosengren.

Most of us have gotten to the stage where we have ways to extract "benefits" from the list of features we get from engineering. But how do we come up with the questions that transform benefits into meaning? One way is to just keep digging. When someone gives you a benefit, play the Why Who Cares So What game, and don't stop asking until the answer touches something a little deeper. In other words, when the engineer says, "This feature will let users add data more quickly...", don't stop asking "and this matters... how?" until the answer has to do with the quality (and shortness) of the user's life. The answer to the "why entering data more quickly matters" question might be something like, "because carpe diem matters to our users!".

The idea that a user's life has significant meaning beyond his work is an important one. And remember, this isn't about you. A lot of companies are jumping on the "add meaning" bandwagon by trying to find ways to align themselves with causes or charities to show what good socially responsible citizens they are. This is definitely a positive step, but the orientation is still 180 degrees off if the company is thinking, "What can WE do to appear more meaningful?" as opposed to, "How can we help add value--and possibly meaning--to the user's life?" When the question is focused on the user, not the company, the answers start to change. At first, that difference might seem subtle--but it's actually HUGE.

And hey, anytime you get the developers talking about the quality of the user's time when the user is NOT interacting with the product, you're getting somewhere : ) And when you're thinking about the user's perspective, perhaps Mulder nailed it with the poster hanging in his X-Files office...

Posted by Kathy on May 11, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Think... or be afraid

The most important thing I've learned about humans came from a horse (that's us in the photo--Kathy and Kara--taken yesterday), but it's backed up by brain research on humans.

It comes down to one simple concept:

You can't be afraid and rational at the same time. Pick one.

For the science-minded, you learn more about this in neuroscientist Richard Restak's book on fear and anxiety, Poe's Heart and the Mountain Climber, but here's the basic idea:

You're about to step into the street when out of the corner of your eye a car appears. There is a gap between when your brain perceives the car and when you are consciously aware of the car and can think about it. That gap could mean the difference between you being flattened by the car and... not. There are simply too many situations where you just don't have time to wait for your cortex to kick in, so your brain has another mechanism for acting without the overhead of involving your cortex first. And even if your cortex did get the news, taking the time to think could get you killed... by the time you come up with a plan, it's too late to execute.

And thousands of years ago, the humans who did NOT stop to think were the ones who stayed alive long enough to... breed. Their "wait, I have to weigh the tradeoffs here" counterparts were clubbed to death, eaten by tigers, and flattened by falling boulders. Darwin won, and here we are stuck with legacy brains.

Fortunately, you DO have a cortex that gets the message, eventually. And it's the thinking cortex that stops you from, say, perceiving a horror movie as an actual threat to your life. But if you're continuously in a state of fear over something, your cortex is not going to be running the show; the emotional subsystems stay in charge, and you're more likely to use instinct than logic.

With my horse, if I want her to continue to think, I have to work at keeping her from being afraid. And when she is afraid, the best way to calm her down is to give her something to think about, like a puzzle to solve. Something challenging but not inherently scary like maybe a "figure out which trick will earn you a carrot" game, or having her walk backward through a gate instead of forward. And that means I have to teach her how to solve these puzzles during those times when she is not afraid, so that I have something to use when she is.

It works on people, too, but there's something else to consider... the dark side of the equation. Imagine that you did want someone to be afraid, because you specifically do not want them thinking rationally and logically. What if your goal is to convince them to do something that's not in their best interest? One approach is to make sure that they stay as fearful and anxious as possible, to make it more difficult for them to focus and think rationally. It's a trick that's been used by governments, managers, manipulate family members, and advertisers for ages.

We all need to recognize when someone's doing that to us. And I would start with the television "if it bleeds it leads" news. Unlike television shows, movies, and video games--which your brain knows aren't real--a brain perceives the news as "real" and often concludes that things are far more dangerous than they really are, thanks to the dramatic statistic imbalance (reality distortion field) between what is displayed on the news and what is actually happening outside your front door. It's not like you'll ever hear, for example, a nightly new run down of all the people in your city who were NOT in fact killed in a drive-by shooting that day. The "good news" is usually a 20-second spot at the end about a rescued kitten.

And of course if you want the best from your employees, never manage through fear. And if someone's trying to manipulate you through fear, the best thing you can do is get away from the input. One idea is to use Tivo to skip the news promos, and get your news instead from the internet or radio -- according to Restak, the brain has a much saner reaction to bad news when it's not accompanied by high-resolution moving visuals. But if you can't get away, have some left-brain activities and tricks handy to try to kick-start your cortex and shift the balance of power away from the lower-level emotional subsystems in your brain. Apparently it really does help to take a deep breath and tell yourself, "OK, it's just my amygdala talking here..."
(FYI: alcohol can shift the balance of power in favor of the emotional subsystems over the cortex. The chemicals combined of fear and alcohol (especially when laced with testosterone) can be a deadly combo, so if you're drinking... go to your happy place ; ))

Of course, I'm not qualified to be talking about ANY of this, but I can tell you it definitely works with horses : ) [and this entire post was just a shameless excuse for me to include a picture of the new object of MY passion... the cutest Icelandic horse on the planet]

Posted by Kathy on May 10, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

The case for easter eggs (and other clever user treats)

My previous post on user treats drew some arguments both for--and passionately against easter eggs in software. But in each of the arguments against easter eggs, the reason is virtually the same: "Why the hell are you spending your time creating these "surprises" when you haven't even bothered to fix the glaring bugs?"

So let's get this out of the way right now...

Until you've nailed the fundamentals--the things users want, need, and expect--don't bother trying to "surprise and delight" users. That just pisses 'em off.

That's why I updated the graphic I made for my earlier how to break through post to show the place a product or service should be before easter eggs come into the picture.

But this blog is about creating passionate users, not merely satisfied users. If you're still dealing with the bottom levels of the hierarchy, you've got bigger issues to deal with first. The scary thing is, in those lower levels you're kicking and clawing and trying to buy your way to market share amidst what is, for most of us, brutal competition. And that's not a fun place to be, financially or emotionally and spiritually.

So now that we're talking only about those who've satisfied user requirements and expectations...

A good easter egg is a playful, hidden or disguised feature that, when discovered, can offer surprise, delight, entertainment, humor, novelty, or an "I Rule" experience.

I'm not just talking about software easter eggs--you'll find them in movies, music, posters, logos (have you noticed the little extra image within the FedEx logo?), books (our Head First books have quite a few), games, magazines, blogs...

Brains thrive on the "OH!" moments of discovery.

They love to stumble on things, and even better--they love to figure things out. A lot of easter eggs are like puzzles waiting for you to find their second meaning, especially when that meaning requires some "insider" knowledge or skill.

If user engagement is a Good Thing (and for what most of us are creating, selling, writing it is), easter eggs can be a powerful ally in making that happen. Done right, easter eggs can add value that (unless you're doing a mission-critical app where undocumented code is a security or safety risk) is worth it.

Characteristics of good easter eggs:

* They get users involved as a participant rather than a passive specatator (people have told us they've through our books a second time looking for some of the easter eggs once they've found a few and realize that they're in there).

* They get users to spend more time

* They're remembered (you can use easter eggs to enhance learning)

* They DO NO HARM!

* Their discovery is NOT a required part of the experience. If it is, then it's not an easter egg, but simply a part of the product.

* They give users the "I Rule" experience of being clever enough to "get it", especially if it's in plain sight, but requires "insider" info to recognize it. For a particular audience, for example, that might be "NCC-1701" as the license plate on a car. Just about every programming book (ours included) uses the number "42" in a statistically unlikely number of code examples. And there are more Monty Python references scattered in books and movies than any of us can possibly know.

Think about the number of movies that include lines made famous in other movies, or feature cameos from the director or an actor from the original movie, etc. but that only die-hard fans would discover. The person who "gets it" has the smug satisfaction of knowing that the line or joke would be lost on other mortals.

[In the new Hitchhiker's Guide movie, a key character from the original BBC TV show makes an appearance in the movie, as a different character. This recognition is not in any way required for you to enjoy the movie, but it's a wonderful delight and surprise to discover it, and those who do feel somewhat "special" for experiencing more in the movie than others will.]

* They're entertaining in some way (this is largely the point of making them)

* They do NOT need to be funny, although they often are. But they can be moving, inspirational (like discovering the developers were proud enough of their work to put in their personal signatures and sometimes photos), or thought-provoking.

Not everything that's entertaining and fun is funny... logic puzzles are fun, but not funny. Chess is fun, but not funny. Easter eggs can work the same way.

As a disclaimer, I'll state the obvious--we shouldn't be adding undocumented code to anything running a mission-critical application like, say, air traffic control or a nuclear power plant. Actually, we shouldn't be adding undocumented code to ANYTHING, but there's no reason a programmer can't document easter egg code, except for the whole getting fired thing... so there are obviously places you don't want to put these things. But I'm not talking about those!

So assume that we're all exercising common sense, and we're now trying to go beyond the basics in our products and services. We're trying to deliver more engaging, delightful, fine-grained, frequent treats to reward our users and the employees who get to make doing this a part of their job description.

To summarize: if you don't have the basics down, don't even think about adding special features like easter eggs. But if you're stopping at user satisfaction and meeting expectations, you're in for a bloody marketshare battle, because there's nothing stopping your competitors from doing the same thing. If you want to compete for hearts and minds, you have to care about the higher notches of user experience, and easter eggs are one of the many tools you should have in your user-delight toolbox. Unfortunately, easter eggs have gotten a bad rap in many software shops, but some developers aren't so happy about that (like this Microsoft Longhorn evangelist).

And if you're looking for easter eggs in your own software, the best place to start is The Easter Egg Archive, which advertises "7884 easter eggs collected so far, 9 new in the last two weeks!"


Finally, you might want to check out this wonderful book on "witty thinking in graphic design", A Smile in the Mind. Although it's specific to design, it's a visually-rich (and very entertaining) book with a message that applies to virtually anything from teaching a class to writing a book to developing software to decorating your house. Leave it on your coffee table and watch what happens...

Posted by Kathy on May 9, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Fine-grained treats = user happiness


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 | Comments (27) | TrackBack

Hire Different


This isn't a real ad, but I pulled all of the attribute words (world-class programming skills, outstanding, excellent, bright, talented) from a Google job listing. The last line about being a loser is all mine ; ) But it's not just Google that's looking for the best and brightest, of course.

I have to admit that this sounds exactly like the kind of developers I'd love to spend time working with. They'd be good for me. They'd raise my skills, and I'd probably get a little smarter just being near programmers who are world-class, exceptional, outstanding, excellent, bright, and talented. And there are plenty of people out there who meet that criteria.

The trouble is, those who meet that criteria often tend to be... similar. There's a reasonably good chance that they got to be world-class developers by having a somewhat similar background, from the C.S. degree at a top-notch school to work experience at a recognized company.

And in the US, that means they also tend to be under 45, white, and male.

So what?

According to James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds, that lack of diversity can hurt both innovation and decision-making. Sometimes with terrible consequences.

But he contends that it's not necessarily the lack of demographic diversity that's at the heart of the problems... it's cognitive diversity you need. If those doing the hiring are going after only world-class, exceptionally bright people with similar skills, the differences between the Chosen Ones may not be that useful. He claims the company needs to hire not just only the smartest people!

And he cites lots of studies to back this up. Studies that demonstrate that a more diverse group, with fewer of the smartest people, under the right conditions, will consistently make better decisions than a group made of nothing but the smartest people. It's a pretty compelling argument when you look at the research he points to (although you might not always agree with his conclusions on some of it.)

One dramatic example involves what happened at NASA with the Columbia disaster. I won't go into his details (it's nearly a chapter long and includes other group dynamic factors besides lack of diversity), but here's one of his main points:

"What was missing most from the MMT, of course, was diversity, by which I mean not sociological diversity but rather cognitive diversity. James Oberg, a former Mission Control operator and now NBC News correspondent, has made the counterintuitive point that the NASA teams that presided over the Apollo missions were actually more diverse than the MMT. This seems hard to believe, since every engineer at Mission Control in the late 60's had the same crew cut and wore the same short-sleeved white shirt. But as Oberg points out, most of those men had worked outside of NASA in many differrent industries before coming to the agency. NASA employees today are far more likely to have come to the agency directly out of graduate school, which means they are also far less likely to have divergent opinions. That matters because, in small groups, diversity of opinion is the single best guarantee that the group will reap benefits from face-to-face discussion."

I'm not doing his arguments justice here, because it really does take the whole book to explain how--and why--all this works. But it made me think that Hire Different should be just as important as Hire Smart. I would hope that all hiring managers everywhere will read this book and perhaps get a new (counterintuitive) insight into why they might actually get a better result by, um, lowering their standards. Although I don't think of it as lowering, since candidate A who has this different perspective but isn't, say, as young, high-IQ, or classically-trained as candidate B, might bring something even more valuable. In other words, what you lose in IQ points might be more than made up for by other things...

And in A Whole New Mind Dan Pink has a startling statistic: IQ accounts for less than 15% of career sucess. (Then he mentions research that suggests the most effective leaders are those who are funny--those who have their employees laughing much more than other managers do.)

I hope every hiring manager reads both of these books and at least considers some of their main points. And if you're looking for a job, the studies/research/stats in these books might give you a little more ammunition when you're up against the "we only want to hire people just like the world-class people we already have" attitude. It might help you learn to frame/position what you do bring, in ways that might not be immediately obvious.

Posted by Kathy on May 4, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (28) | TrackBack