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Death by risk-aversion


Memo to Microsoft: you've got people doing some amazing things over there. If you could just get the hell out of the way, the world might change for the better.

Risk-aversion is the single biggest innovation killer, and of course it's not just Microsoft that's been infected. Taking risks is... risky. But if not taking risks is even riskier, then WTF?

Sure the big companies have it bad and may fall the hardest if they don't get a clue and a cure, but none of us is immune. You see the safe path everywhere. Today at lunch I had one of those conversations with a co-author about the cover of the next Head First book, and there I was suggesting a "safer" cover model than the one he wanted (complete with all the logical reasons why people could complain about his choice). I still can't believe the words that were coming out of my mouth.

Blogging has not made this easier... if anything, the idea that a gazillion bloggers and commenters (or even ONE loud one) will seize any opportunity to find fault with your ideas and attempts can dampen one's willingness to be brave. So here's my quarterly reminder to all (me included) that if you're not doing something that someone hates, it's probably mediocre.


But back to Microsoft... as I said in my previous post, Robert Scoble kept using the phrase "risk-averse" when defining some of Microsoft's problems. And I heard the same thing from Liz Lawley, who has been fascinated by the disconnect between the wonderful ideas MS employees have for products and services, and the final products and services released to the public. Somehow, according to Liz, fear steps in between those two points.

But whose fear? The metaphor Liz used (she got from someone else) was that many of the "leaf nodes" (what Microsoft and Sun and others refer to as "individual contributors") tend to be innovative and brave, but many of the "branches" (i.e. layers of management) can't stomach the risks. In their (admirable) desire to be strong and stable, the "branches" put safety above all else.


What kind of safety? Sometimes managers are putting the best interests of the company first. That's great--they're often more experienced and have a better grasp of the bigger context. But (and it's a really big but) sometimes they're just worried about their own damn job. In other words, the leaf node/individual contributors often think about the effect of their work on users, while the mid-level managers often think about the effect of their work on their job. And whose fault is that? All those layers of bosses. Even one risk-averse boss in the chain-of-command can do major damage to innovation, spirt, motivation, etc.

So add one more skill to our career advice for young people: be willing to take risks! Perhaps more importantly, be willing to tolerate (and perhaps even encourage) risk-taking in those who are managed by you. Of course I realize that this is much easier said than done. I was a "leaf node" at Sun, and a zillion other places before that. I've even done a little time as a "branch" (and I sucked at it).

But can anything be done about all the spirit-squashing risk-aversion? Recognition is the first step. Unfortunately, those who recognize it tend to be the leaf nodes--the ones with the power to create and implement the ideas, but very little power to authorize them. Those with the most potential to create change are the branches. The Managers With a Clue.

I had one of those at Sun--Jari Paukku, now a "Senior Change Management Specialist" for Nokia in Finland. He knew how to walk that fiber-thin line between keeping those above him happy while keeping those below him from losing passion. He knew how to pick his battles, and believed in doing the right thing for both customers and his team. But he also knew that getting himself fired wouldn't do his "leaf nodes" (like me) any good, so he didn't let us run wild with every cool idea that popped into our heads. If the idea had value, though, and was the right thing for customers, he would help us figure out a way (even if it was through a sneaky back door) to make it happen, or at least plant the seeds of possibility.


I do have a few general tips for dealing with risk-aversion:

Regularly review your sacred cows

Regularly review the assumptions behind all your decisions
Are those assumptions still valid?

Here's where the Buddhists have an edge. Too many of us hold on to practices or ideas (including sacred cows) long past their sell-by date. If it doesn't serve us any longer, it's time to give it up no matter how well it served us in the past.

Of course, "letting go" means temporarily experiencing that painful, awkward, "I suck" stage again. But pro athletes do it if they want to break through plateus. Go players do it to move up in ranks. Musicians let go of habits and styles. Programmers do it (waterfall anyone?). Writers do it. Anyone who has switched from skiing to snowboarding (or switched from regular to "goofy foot") has learned to let go.

Stewart and Caterina did it when they let go of their product being strictly a game, and allowed it become Flickr. O'Reilly did it when they let go of technical books being strictly about text (or for that matter, that books were strictly about print.)

Easy and familiar is safe, but often comes with built-in, unscalable walls. You can't get there from here.

Push the boundaries strategically, one-by-one
Whether you're a leaf or a branch, pick your battles carefully, one poke at a time. Better to live another day to keep fighting the good fight then, say, being fired for trying to do it all at once.

Use blogs to build support within the company
The collective power of all those Microsoft employee bloggers is helping (one small step at a time) build support for the leaf nodes, and the braver branches who manage them. (And yes, this particular tip was Robert Scoble's advice to other Microsofters fighting risk-aversion).

If all else fails and the culture of risk-aversion is stealing your soul, consider going into "short-timer" mode.
This was my path at Sun, and the one I recommend when you're dangerously close to losing heart. You'll probably be fired, but at least you can do some good on the way out by making a lot of noise. And you never know what will happen later... today, just a few years after my most ungraceful Sun exit, I not only contract with Sun in several key areas (including leading the development on most of their programmer/developer certification exams), but I'm also a founding member of Sun's Java Champions (I know, lame name, what's with the "champs/champions" thing and tech companies?) program. I find myself in conference calls with departments that still house a few folks who desperately wish I'd switched to .NET ; )

Keep reminding yourself that life is short!
One of the benefits of having a scary illness or major loss is that it reminds you of just how much time is ticking away, and that you always have options to make changes. If you have a great idea, what do you risk by not persuing it? Will you have more regrets if you try and fail than if you don't try at all? Some of the best and biggest ideas happen within the scope of large companies, but some of the most world-changing happen... elsewhere.

Posted by Kathy on January 30, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (50) | TrackBack

Naked Conversations on a Bus

NakedI started this blog a year ago, as a latecomer (late for a tech geek anyway). I'd been inspired by Tom and Dori's Backupbrain, Scobleizer, The Red Couch, and Gaping Void, but I still thought Robert Scoble was mostly full of crap about the Awesome Power of Blogs. The banner on this blog (from day one here) even makes fun of his blogmania:


Fast foward one year, to last week. I'm on a bus with Robert Scoble, heading to the Microsoft campus for day two of Search Champs. To my great delight, he hands me a copy of his and Shel Israel's just-released Naked Conversations book, and then it hits me--over the last year, I've done a complete 180 (i.e. drunk the koolaid) on the power of blogs. I've gone from finding Robert's message charming but ridiculous (after all, he is an edge case), to believing that blogs really are changing the world. One person at a time.

I won't restate the stories in Robert and Shel's book about blogging's impact on the world... you should read the book. But one of the best effects of blogs is that--because the technology makes it so damn easy for blog authors/readers/commenters--people have a chance to share their knowledge and passion with the world, and potentially make a difference in someone's life.

Blogs let the "little guy", from a cowboy horse whisperer, or a geek who can make your life a little simpler develop a global microbrand. That means they can keep doing what they love--what they're passionate about--rather than, say, working 60 hours a week elsewhere and leaving no time for doing the things that help teach, inspire, or entertain the rest of us. Because of blogs, the lone programmer or writer can create something that others will find (and potentially pay for), so the lone author can keep doing it. It means the little guy who can't out-spend the competition, can out-teach (through his blog) the Big Guys.

Blogs are helping churches that suck at marketing, epileptics (like me) learn from others with the same disorder, and a guy who does chicken cartoons on yellow sticky notes find an audience. Blogs are even helping Microsoft think about the notion of community thanks to bloggers like Nancy White (I highly recommend her blog if you're interested in online community and learning).

And it's not just about those who have a blog. Blog readers here (through comments or email) have led me to innovative folks like Kid Mercury. And because Daniel Barret was reading my blog, I learned of both his band (Porterdavis, who will be at SXSW), and the incredible site of musician Billy Harvey.

Perhaps most of all, blogs offer a (potential) partial solution to the deadly risk-aversion that's killing off innovation! And that brings me back to the naked bus conversation with Scoble... he used the phrase "risk-averse" several times in describing both Microsoft in general as well as the obstacle that keeps other companies from embracing blogs as a tool for communicating with current and prospective users. The guy is definitely on a mission about risk-aversion (the topic of my next post), and he wasn't the only one using that phrase to describe Microsoft last week, but between Robert Scoble and minimicrosoft, the company is being pushed in lively and provocative ways... ways that were unimaginable just a short time ago. 2006 should be veeeeeery interesting.

Robert, I'm not changing my banner (and I still think you're full of crap about a few things), but I now believe in the premise of your book in a way I would have bet heavily against a year ago (even six months ago).

Or maybe I should've brought my own water to Redmond... ; )

To those of you blogging (or commenting on other blogs) who may be thinking of giving it up... don't. You never know how the "butterfly effect" of that one sentence on your blog or a comment you leave--that someone found serendipitously (or even randomly)--can change a life. As a result of blogs, I've both changed--and been changed by--the lives of those I'd never have met in the pre-blogging world. Blogs enable discussions and connections that static websites and online forums just weren't providing, and even with all the noise out there (20+ million blogs on Technorati?), the amount of continually-growing learning and inspirational content in blogs today is breathtaking.

And those who post comments (or send emails to the bloggers) are just as important to the discussion as those who make the posts. It all matters, and it's all meaningful... even when we're simply having fun. In fact, it's the fun/humor links and posts and emails and comments that got me through these last three months--the longest and darkest of my life.

Y'all aren't the target audience for the Naked Conversations book (the whole preaching to the choir thing), but for me it was worth reading again (I read most of it online through their blog) just for the motivation. And if you're ever trying to get someone else to drink the blog koolaid, there's plenty of ammo in that book.

Thanks Robert and Shel for putting aside your own risk-aversion and being willing to, well, sound ridiculous.

Posted by Kathy on January 30, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

REAL motivation posters

"The customer is always right." "Employees are our greatest asset." "The customer is why we're here." You see those lame posters in businesses across the world. They mean little, and they motivate nobody.

Yesterday, Bert and I were in Miami after giving a "creating passionate users" talk on Marco Island. Bert had a printing emergency, and the Hilton's business center printer was glacial. Bert mentioned it to the front desk clerk who was a hero and had Bert come behind the desk to the office and use the way faster printer back there.

Fast forward 15 minutes, when the manager-on-duty walks behind the desk, sees that A Customer has Been Allowed Behind The Desk, and proceeds to rail on the clerk--telling her that customers are NEVER supposed to be back there, and what did she think she was doing, and never do that again, etc.

Ironically, the one thing Bert "saw" behind the desk was a for-employee-eyes-only poster that said in 72-point bold type, "The Customer is why we're here." and "The Customer is NEVER an inconvenience."

Then I recalled the time I worked on the interactive version of Oracle's Annual Report. We did a video shoot of Larry Ellison saying openings for each chapter of the report. If only I'd kept the outtakes for the one that had my team on the floor--Larry was reading a script for the opening of the "People" chapter and had just completed the phrase, "Our employees are our greatest asset," when something off-camera pissed him off. He threw the script down and began ranting and swearing, including the words, "What is this crap? I want somebody fired for this s***!"

So, just how useful are those cliched slogans? (Including my personal worst--"None of us is as smart as all of us.") Maybe we should replace them with something a little more real for 2006. Here are three of my before-and-after posters...

Bill Gates fake:


Bill Gates real:


Larry Ellison fake:


Larry Ellison real:


Scott McNealy fake:


Scott McNealy real:


Here's to a more real 2006 ; )

[And don't forget to visit Despair Inc., for a look at the world's best demotivational posters.]

So, what meaningless slogans can you replace (or at least destroy) today? Hmmm... I wonder what would happen if you changed some at work... would anyone even notice? That's the problem. It's not like anyone reads these things, let alone applies the message. Motivation--especially when it comes to a deep concern for the users--does not come from saying it. It comes from a culture of meaning it.

Posted by Kathy on January 14, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (31) | TrackBack

Crash Course in Learning Summary

Here's a PDF (500k) with a two-page summary sheet (with the graphics as icon/reminders) of the full post I made previously. Do NOT look at this until you've read the earlier (big) post... it's not meant to be stand-alone.

The PDF is actually nine pages, divided into two parts:

1) A seven-page "workbook" with mainly just the pictures, and space for you to make your own notes about what you think each image/concept means or how you'd apply it. Better to do it without looking at my earlier post, so you have a chance to figure out your own--potentially better--way to think about it.

2) The two-page summary (if you're not interested in making notes, just skip to the last two pages).

I'd like to see our new authors do the exercise as applied to your upcoming Head First book (and you KNOW I'm going to ask you for it)

I'm out and offline for the next several days, so be nice ; )
I'm still recovering (and taking new drugs) from my recent brain/seizure problems, so I'm way behind on everything (especially email) except doing my blog posts. I plan to get caught up soon, so my apologies to those who are still waiting]

Posted by Kathy on January 4, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

Crash course in learning theory

One formula (of many) for a successful blog is to create a "learning blog". A blog that shares what you know, to help others. Even--or especially--if that means giving away your "secrets". Teaching people to do what you do is one of the best ways we know to grow an audience--an audience of users you want to help.

It's what I try to do here because--let's face it--you're just not that into me ; ) But I assume (since you're reading this blog) that you ARE into helping your users kick ass. So to make content that's worth your time and attention, I try to make this a learning blog. I reckon y'all could not care less what I had for dinner, who I ate with, or what I think about the latest headlines.

So, as promised in an earlier post, here's a crash course on some of our favorite learning techniques gleaned from cognitive science, learning theory, neuroscience, psychology, and entertainment (including game design). Much of it is based around courses I designed and taught at UCLA Extension's New Media/Entertainment Studies department. This is the long version, and my next post will be just the bullet points with the pictures--as a kind of quick visual summary.

This is not a comprehensive look at the state of learning theory today, but it does include almost everything we think about in creating our books. And although it's geared toward blogs/writing virtually everything in here applies regardless of how you deliver the learning--you can easily adapt it to prentations, user documentation, or classroom learning. And remember, this is a BLOG, so don't expect academic rigor ; ) but I do have references, so leave a comment if there's something in particular you want.

Crash Course in Learning Theory

The long version...

• Talk to the brain first, mind second.Brain_3
Even if a learner is personally motivated to learn a topic, if the learning content itself isn't motivating, the learner's brain will do everything possible to look for something more interesting. This applies to both getting and keeping attention, as well as memory. Remember, you can't do anything until you get past the brain's crap filter! And to the brain, a dry, dull, academic explanation is definitely CRAP (regardless of how much your mind cares about the topic).

Learning is not a one-way "push" model.
Learners are not "empty vessels" waiting to be filled with content pushed into it by an expert, blogger, author, etc. Learning is something that happens between the learner's ears--it's a form of co-creation between the learner and the learning experience. You can't create new pathways in someone's head... your job is to create an environment where the chances of the learner "getting it" in the way that you intend are as high as possible.

• Provide a meaningful benefit for each topic, in the form of "why you should care about this" scenario.
Learning is much more effective if the learner's brain knows why what you're about to talk about matters. The benefit and/or reason why you should learn something needs to come before the actual content. Otherwise, the learner's brain gets to the end of what you're telling them and says, "Oh, NOW you tell me. If you'd said that earlier, I would have paid more attention..." This process of not-paying-attention is not completely within the learner's conscious control so, like I said, even if the person is motivated to learn this thing, their brain can still tune out during specific parts that don't start with a compelling benefit.

To find a "meaningful benefit", play the "Why? Who Cares? So What?" game with someone else. Describe the thing you're trying to explain, to which the other person asks, "Why?" Provide an answer, to which the person then asks, "Who cares?". Provide an answer, to which the person asks, "So?" At this point, when you're nearly ready to kill them for not getting it, you probably have the thing you should have said instead of whatever you said first (and second). The most compelling and motivating reason/benefit is almost always the thing you say only after you've answered at least three "Yeah, but WHY do I care?" questions.

• Use visuals!
We are all visual creatures, and the brian can process visual information far more efficiently than words. These pictures can come in many forms:
* Info graphic or diagram
* Visual metaphor
* Picture of the thing being described, with annotations
* Picture of the end state
* Picture designed to create attention and recall

• Use redundancy to increase understanding and retention.
Redundancy doesn't mean repetition--it means "say the same thing again, but differently." And "differently" can mean:
* From a different perspective.
* Using a different information channel (channels include things like Graphics, Examples, Prose explanations, step-by-step instruction/tutorial, case studies, exercises, summaries, bullet points, commentary, devil's advocate, Q & A, personal POV, etc.)

Also, the more senses you engage, the greater the potential for retention and recall. Even having a bowl of just-popped popcorn or the smell of freshly-baked cookies while learning, can make a difference. Bummer about web-delivered content, though...

Being terse is good for a reference document, but deadly in learning content. The best learning experience considers the way you'd learn that particular thing in real life -- but offers it in a safe, simulated, compressed form. Real-life learning is never terse; it's choas and confusion punctuated with moments of insight ("Ah-ha!") and clarity. It's a wave, not a straight line. A learning blog, book, or classroom shouldn't try to straighten it out!

• Maintain interest with variety and surprise.

• Use conversational language.
The brain pays more attention when it thinks it's in a conversation and must "hold up its end." And there's evidence that suggests your brain behaves this way even if the "conversation" is between a human (you) and a book or computer screen (or lecture).

• Use mistakes, failures, and counter-intuitive WTF?
People usually learn much more from failures than from being shown everything working correctly or as expected.
The most memorable learning experiences are usually those where things are going along fine, making sense, etc. when you suddenly slam into something that goes terribly wrong. Describing the things that do NOT work is often more effective than showing how things DO work. (We call this the "WTF learning principle").

But showing is even better than describing. And even better than showing is letting the learner experience. Take the learner down a garden path where everything makes perfect sense until it explodes. They are far more likely to remember than if you simply say, "Oh, and be sure you do it such and such a way."

It's tempting to want to protect the learners from the bumps and scrapes experienced in the real world, but in many cases (with many topics) you aren't doing the learner any favors.

• Use the filmaker (and novelist) principle of SHOW-don't-TELL.
Rather than lecture about the details of how something works, let them experience how it works by walking them through a story or scenario, where they can feel the bumps along the way.

• Use "chunking" to reduce cognitive overhead.
Remember, we have very little short-term memory (RAM) in our heads. The standard rule is that we can hold roughly 7 things before we must either commit some of it to long-term storage or toss it out to take in something new. And the things you hold in short-term memory vanish as soon as there is an interruption. You look up a phone number, and as long as you repeat it to yourself and nobody asks you a question, you can remember it--usually just long enough to dial the number. By the time you finish talking to the person on the other end of the line, the number is long gone.

Chunking takes fine-grained data/facts/knowledge and puts them into meaningful or at least memorable chunks to help reduce the number of things you have to hold in short-term memory, and increase the chance of retention and recall. For example, imagine you were asked to take 30 seconds to memorize the following "code symbols" for the numbers 1-10:

you'd be lucky to get 60% correct in a follow-up quiz given immediately after those 30 seconds. There are simply too many symbols to memorize in such a short time, and there's no instantly obvious way to relate them to one another.

But... with one simple change to the way in which the symbols are presented--and without changing the symbols:

30 seconds gets most people to 100% accuracy in the follow-up quiz. In other words, by grouping the symbols into a meaningful, memorable pattern, we reduce the number of individual (and potentially arbitrary) things you have to memorize, and increase the chances.

• Since stress/anxiety can reduce focus and memory, do everything possible to make the learner feel relaxed and confident.
That does not mean dumbing-down the material, but rather letting the learner know that -- "This IS confusing -- so don't worry if it's still a little fuzzy at this point. It will start to come together once you've worked through the rest of the examples." In other words, let them know that they aren't stupid for not getting it at this point. For especially difficult and complex topics, let the learner know where they should be at each stage, and help them decide whether they need to go back and repeat something. Make sure they know that this repetition is part of the normal learning process, not something they must do because they failed.

If you're worried about being patronizing, then don't patronize. Just be honest about what it takes for people to learn that content. But you can't do that unless you know how hard it is for a beginner to learn it. As experts, we have a tough time remembering what it was like NOT TO KNOW, so if you're not sure, do the research. One of the best ways to find out what newcomers struggle with is to visit online discussion forums for beginners in your topic. This is also a great way to come up with a table-of-contents or topic list, because what you THINK should be a no-brainer might be the one thing everyone gets stuck on, and what you think would be confusing could turn out to be easy for most people.

The point is, YOU are not necessarily the best judge of how your audience will learn the topic. And empathy rarely helps -- you cannot truly put yourself in someone else's shoes unless their brain and background are a very close match for yours. You have to find out what your learners are struggling with, and suspend any judgement about "This should be a no-brainer."

Those who have taught a topic have a big advantage writing about it--they've fielded the questions and watched people struggle. They know how things should be "weighted" according to how difficult they are. But you can learn almost as much simply by lurking on beginner discussion forums (or attending user group sessions for newbies).

• Use seduction, charm, mystery to build curiosity.
We're hard-wired to pay attention and pursue things we're attracted to. This isn't about selling them on an idea--it's about helping them stay engaged and learning. Knowing what--and when--to withold is one of the most powerful tools you have. If you're writing reference material (like this post), witholding will just piss people off. But in a learning experience, you want a page-turner. And don't even think about suggesting that "page-turner" doesn't apply to, say, technical material. If the purpose is learning, the learner has to stay engaged. It's up to you to craft an experience that keeps them hooked. This engagement might be within a single post, or you might offer little cliffhangers or teasers to keep them engaged across multiple posts, if that's what it takes to cover a topic.

• Use a spiral model to keep users engaged.
Game developers know the importance of "The Next Level", and learning experiences must do the same. Each iteration through the spiral should start with a meaningful, motivating goal, followed by the interaction/activity/reading that moves you toward that goal, followed by a meaningful payoff. Ideally, the "meaningful payoff" leads right into the next motivating goal.

For example, in a game the payoff for completing a level might be "You Get A New Weapon". But now that you have that new weapon, here's the cool new thing you can do that you couldn't do before. Learning doesn't need to be any different. "Imagine you want to do X on your website..." is the goal that starts the topic, but when the topic is complete, the learning content can say, "Now that you have THAT new [superpower capability], wouldn't it be cool if you could do Y?" And off they go into the next round of learning.

• Don't rob the learner of the opportunity to think!
Rather than simply spelling everything out step by step, ask questions, pose multiple and potentially conflicting viewpoints, show the topic from different perspectives, and set up scenarios (and possibly exercises) that allow the learner to use deeper brain processing. Things that encourage deeper thinking are those that cause the learner to categorize, organize, apply, infer, evaluate, etc. Don't be afraid to pose questions that you don't answer right away.

Think back to those teachers you had who would ask a question then immediately answer it, as opposed to those who would answer a question then just sit there... waiting...

• Use the 80/20 principle to reduce cognitive overload.
It's far more important that they nail the key things than be exposed to everything. Be brutal, be brave, be relentless in what you leave out. Knowing what NOT to include is more important in learning design than knowing what TO include.

• Context matters.
Try to place facts, concepts, procedures, examples in a bigger context. Even if you've already discussed the context, don't be afraid to repeat that context again. For example, instead of always showing code snippets, show the code within the larger context of where it usually appears. Highlight the code you're focused on by bolding it, putting it in a box, etc., so that the learner is not overwhelmed by the amount of code, and can focus on just the part you're talking about, but still be able to see how that new code relates to the rest of the code. Our rule of thumb in our books is to show the same code context two or three times before switching to just the snippets (although this rule varies greatly with the type of code).

• Emotion matters!
People learn and remember that which they FEEL. Look back at what you've written and if it's dry and lifeless, try to inject some energy. Dry, academic, formal, lecture-style writing is usually the WORST form of learning content.

One of the many ways to help tap into emotions (and increase attention and memory) is to use the brain's reaction to faces. Almost any kind of face with a strong expression evokes a part of the brain reserved just for processing faces. The ability to accurately recognize faces and read facial expressions is a key element of survival for the brain...

• Never underestimate the power of FUN to keep people engaged.
The act of having fun is also an emotion, so anything associated with fun has a greater chance of being remembered.

• Use stories.
Humans have been learning from stories for, well, a really really really long time. Millenia longer than we've been learning from lectures on just the data and information. When we say "stories", we don't necessarily mean actual fictional "John's network went down just as he was plugging in the...", although those do work. But a "story" can simply mean that you're asking the learner to imagine herself wanting to do a particular thing, and then offering an experience of what that would be like if she were actually trying to accomplish it, with all the ups, downs, false leads, etc. (but again, with less of the actual pain she might experience in real life). A flight simulator, for example, is a kind of story.You aren't just up there learning the controls; you're actually flying in a particular storyline.

If you're a software developer, another way to think about story-driven learning is to map use-cases to learning stories. Base your learning content around individual use-cases, and put the learner in the center of the use-case. One easy trick for designing story-driven learning is to start each topic with something like, "Imagine you want to do..." and then walk though that experience. It makes the learning organic and real, and helps make sure you get rid of the stuff that doesn't need to be there. If it doesn't show up in a use-case/story, are you so sure you should be teaching it?

• Use pacing and vary the parts of the brain you're exercising.
Learning--and especially memorization--doesn't happen at an even pace. Brains--or especially parts of brains--get tired and lose focus. By varying the pace--and type--of learning content, you give a user's brain the chance to let one part rest while the other part takes over. For example, follow a heavy left-brain technical procedure with a big-picture example/story that covers the same topic. This helps the learner's memory in two different ways--the redundancy means two different chances to save the information, and the fact that you gave one part of the brain a break while shifting to a different part keeps their brain working longer without fatigue.

Think about it--if you hopped up and down on your right foot repeatedly, that right leg would give up after fewer repetitions than if you kept switching from right to left. Pacing--by frequently switching which parts of your body (or in this case, brain) you're using--lets you stay fresher for a longer period.

Also, recording something to long-term memory is rarely instant (although the stronger the associated emotion, the faster (and more likely) your brain is to record it). Memory is a physical/chemical process that happens after you've been exposed to something, and if anything interrupts the process, the memory is not stored. That's why people with serious head injuries often cannot remember what took place just prior to the injury--the process of recording those things to long-term memory was stopped.

If you want someone to remember something, you must give them a chance to process that memory. Relentlessly presenting new, tough information (like tons of code and complex concepts) without also including chances to reflect, process, think, apply, review, etc. virtually guarantees that much of the learning will be forgotten.

• Remember, it's never about you. It's about how the learner feels about himself as a result of the learning experience.
Don't use learning content as a chance to show off your knowledge--that virtually guarantees your content won't be user-friendly. Use it as a chance to help someone's life a little.

A successful learning blog is about helping the readers learn and grown and kick ass! Make that happen, and your stats will take care of themselves. In contrast, the best way to ensure a low readership is to assume that readers are into you. Offering users nothing but your opinions, however well-reasoned, might not be enough to make it worth their scarce time and attention.

"If you teach it, they will come."

Posted by Kathy on January 3, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (61) | TrackBack

If pets could design user experiences...


This is a photo I took at Foo Camp of Caterina Fake's dog, Dos Pesos, while I watched him playing with blades of grass, imaginary objects, and Caterina. A few days ago, Caterina (whom many of you know as a co-founder of FlickR) posted a quote from Johann Huizinga, from Homo Ludens that included:

"We have only to watch young dogs to see that all the essentials of human play are present in their merry gambols. They invite one another to play by a certain ceremoniousness of attitude and gesture. They keep to the rule that you shall not bite, or not bite hard, your brother's ear...

Here we have at once a very important point: even in its simplest forms on the animal level, play is more than a mere pysiological phenomenon or a psychological reflex. It goes beyond the confines of purely physical or purely biological activity. It is a significant function--that is to say, there is some sense to it. In play there is something "at play" which transcends the immediate needs of life and imparts meaning to the action. All play means something."

When I saw this, I realized I left out perhaps the most important goal for 2006--upping the FUN slider!

We talked about this recently in never underestimate the power of fun, but I think it's a good thought for starting the new year on a more playful tone--and I mean playful for our users. And maybe the best teachers are our pets.

For most animals, it's almost impossible to separate play from learning. They're virtually the same thing. It's not just about having fun. Animals use play to develop physical and social skills, but they continue to play throughout their lives. Remember, the experience of "fun" floods the brain with good drugs. The neurochemistry of fun (and "fun" doesn't have to mean "funny", in the way that chess is fun but not funny) tells the brain to pay attention, engage, and remember. We're all hard-wired for this.

What can we do to bring more joy, fun, and flow into the lives of our users? Obviously the answer depends heavily on the kind of product or service or cause you support, but there will always be something we can add, subtract, or change to make our user's experience feel a little less like work and a little more like play. (For some of us, it could be as simple as a few fine-grained user treats).


Dos Pesos is quite the star these days--Caterina just sent me a link to an absurd movie made from FlickR pictures (which is apparently the best example yet of what one can do with Creative Commons/FlickR pics) that includes a shot of Dos Pesos. Warning: the movie is getting slammed with requests, so you may have trouble with it right now.]

And it's not every day I run into two separate references to Homo Ludens in the same day... but I just got my copy of Serious Games, and it's right there in chapter 2. I don't yet know if I can recommend the book, because I'm only on chapter 3, but so far I really like it. I'll let you know when I'm deeper into the book. (One of the authors, David "RM" Michael, has a blog for independent game developers at joeindie.com/blog)

In the intro by Tom Sloper (link is to sloperama.com, a game design reference site), there's a quote from Mark Twain:
"Work and play are used to describe the same thing under differing circumstance."

And if I need a reminder about the importance of creating playful users, all I have to do is look at my furry friends (seizing chance to insert gratuitous pet photos), Kara (my Icelandic horse), and Clover (my dog):



(However, I shudder to think of the user experience a cat would design...)

[Update: Hey, I'm not dissing cats here--I have two of them. But most of us realize that were it not for scale, our beloved Fluffys would eat us without a moment's hesitation.]

If animals have evolved to find play and fun a crucial component of life long after the puppy/kitten/foal stage, who are we to disagree? I'm hoping 2006 will be the year I pay more attention to thinking young.

So, tell me about your pets! (current or past)

Posted by Kathy on January 2, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

2006 hopes/predictions EQ

It's that time... so here are some unscientific thoughts for '06: what we hope will happen, and what we think will happen. We represented these as EQ's (thanks to livingcode's interactive sliders), and this is only about our little corner of the tech world, not the WHOLE world.

What we HOPE for:


We believe that optimism can produce positive change. If you don't believe something can happen, why bother? Many of the biggest innovations over the last century were from The Crazy Ones who "thought different" and pushed forward against all odds. If they'd given in to pessimism, cynicism, and doubt (all of which were perhaps a lot more realistic) it would have been our loss.

Etched in stone over the entrance to a math building at UCLA is one of my favorite quotes, from mathematician Michael Farraday:

"Nothing is too wonderful to be true..."

My hope is that--especially online--people spend a little more time debating issues and a little less time falling into personal attacks, and especially when it's in the name of "frank truthfulness." The Dalai Lama is known for being direct, and has plenty of reasons to be pretty damn pissed... but he still manages to provide a lesson to us all on the power of optimism and not giving in to the kind of anger that leads to self-righteous cruelty toward others. Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Han, who also teaches the value of using "compassionate speech" sends the same message.

Not that most of us will ever be a Zen Master, but I hope more people (including myself) can learn from their message that giving in to anger prevents listening. I hope that in '06, more people will realize that you can be honest without being mean OR politically correct. And to those who say you can't have a thriving, diverse, productive community based around being nice, I have a half-million data points to prove them wrong. (That's the number of unique visitors javaranch gets a month, despite its near-militant enforcement of a "be friendly, be nice" policy.)

The condition psychologists call optimal experience or, the flow state, changes lives for the better. Scientific studies have linked the flow state to happiness, and one of the most delightful things for me about '05 was to hear something we (game developers) have been saying for years finally make it into mainstream geek conversations. I was thrilled to hear Merlin Mann and Danny O'Brien mention "flow" in their fabulous ETech Life Hacks Live talk. The whole Getting Things Done movement (based around David Allen's book) is--at its core--all about spending more time in flow.

More and more products and services are starting to really get that, from the "get the hell out of your way so you can do what you REALLY want to do" model captured by the 37signals folks, to the growing movement to ditch your TV. I think more and more developers and service providers will make "enabling more flow" a big focus (and yes, potentially a big strategic advantage), and this goes to all aspects of a person's life--from work to play. (In fact, when one is able to do WORK in flow, the hard line between work and play starts to dissolve...)

Aesthetics matter, and as more and more young people are being raised with a heightened visual/graphic sensibility, it becomes increasingly more important that we focus on products that don't just work well, but do it with style. Attractive things even work better (or at least we perceive it that way, which may be just as valuable).

I wrote about this in my previous post about the hi-resolution user experience, and I'll be posting my "crash course in learning theory" within the week, so I won't say much here. The key point is that spending more time in flow means that we have the knowledge and skill to meet a continuing (and worthwhile) challenge, and increasing knowledge and skill requires learning. This may not be formal learning (as Jan Sabbe pointed out in a comment) but even discovery is still a form of improvement and growth, which I equate with learning. The more we help our users learn--through any means (formal training, better docs, a product that encourages discovery and deeper engagement, an experience that seduces the user into wanting to practice)--the more time they can spend in flow. And ultimately, the more likely it is that they will become passionate about whatever it is they're doing.

I hope to see more blogs (when appropriate) move in the direction of helping users learn. In other words, I hope to see more teaching blogs (or websites, etc.) rather than compay blogs used solely for announcements. One of my favorite examples of this new kind of "learning blog" is the new one from my horse coach/whisperer, cowboy Darren Wetherill. (Side note, Darren's Horse Bliss blog was mentioned by Hugh of Gaping Void, and the next thing you know, Horse Bliss was mentioned by Businessweek online as an example of what a business blog could be.

I'd love to see less "painting with broad brushes" and more consideration of context and subtlety. In other words, fewer statements like, "anyone with any religious or spiritual belief of any kind is by definition an idiot, or delusional." (A statement I saw online recently.) Or the one I've seen leveled against this blog occasionally-- "All marketing--or any thought or discussion of marketing--of any kind is inherently evil." I refuse to believe that anything good can be accomplished by reducing everything to black and white. I certainly don't believe that the opposite of those statements is true either. For example, saying, "NO marketing is evil" is just as absurd, and just as likely to shut down any chance of discussion about how to make things better. Granted, there are some things for which many of us believe there is not any value in seeing the grey (like, say, murder), but too many things today are being stated in absolutes.

Of course, I'm very guilty of this myself, but I'm also trying hard to recognize subtle distinctions, and fortunately--readers here are the first ones to point out all the generalizations I've made, and where my "story" doesn't hold up. One beauty of blogs is that you can take one perspective on one week, and come at the same topic from a different angle the following week...

Most of you already know our mantra on this -- "Users don't care about YOU--they care about themselves in relation to what you offer." It's simply not about you. My co-authors and I believe--quite literally--that our "secret sauce" for why our books have been so successful is because we work very hard to take our ego out of the books. We are not 100% successful (we're human), but it is our number one priority to try. (One of the ways this shows up is in the number of topics we choose to leave OUT. Our job is to help you learn, not show you how smart we are.)

We believe that if we write these with the intention of what readers will think about us, then we probably aren't doing the learner any favors. We do not write so that people will say, "Wow, these authors sure know their stuff." We want people to say, "Wow, I know Design Patterns now." We did a very detailed analysis of several hundred Amazon reviews of our books against our closest competitors, and discovered dramatic differences in the language used in the reviews. The most important benchmark we were looking for is that our readers would use first-person language. In other words, we want our readers to talk less about us, and more about themselves. We are delighted if someone says, "these guys are really tacky and could seriously use some writing skills, but I actually LEARNED something."

It's often a conflict of interest to write a book (or blog) meant to teach or inspire, with the goal of furthering your own reputation. What's good for your reputation (i.e. demonstrating your deep command of the topic) may be dead wrong for the readers. And this is true for just about anything--are people listening to music to be impressed with the artist, or for how the music makes them feel? Are they eating at a restaurant to be impressed with the chef, or because of how the experience of eating there makes them feel? Are they buying a Mac to be impressed with Apple, or because of how it feels for them to use their Mac?

This doesn't mean that users won't be impressed, but this is about the orientation you have when you are developing or communicating about your product or service. How you THINK about what you are creating matters deeply. Nobody wants to hear about whether we kick ass, they want to know how we're going to help them kick ass. We ask our authors to imagine individual readers out there with post-it notes stuck to their head that say, "But what does this mean to ME?"

Stories speak to our souls, and they are the way we communicated knowledge and wisdom for thousands and thousands of years. Our brains are hard-wired to respond to (and learn from)stories. Stories can change the world, one neuron at a time. For inspiration on the nature of stories, read Julie Leung, and for a technical look at developing story, read Robert McKee's Story book.

So, that's our wish for the new year.

What we THINK will happen:


What are your hopes and predictions for '06?

Cheers, and happy New Year from me and my co-horts. Here's to a more passionate year for all of us : )

Posted by Kathy on January 2, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack