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Saturday bytes

If you haven't seen it already, I recommend reading 10 Things That Will Make or Break Your Web App, a list derived from what Markus learned at The Future of Web Apps summit.

Greenpeace takes a novel, inspiring approach to a campaign to make Apple 'green'. Rather than attacking the company, it encourages Apple fans to get involved creatively as a way to "help" Apple design a "new, cool product."
The first words on the main page of the campaign are, We love Apple.

Aaron Dragushan from Wondermill pointed me to their Help Wanted ad for a Usability Ninja. I read it, and it sounds like a dream job! (You'll see why when you read it.) Some lucky person will get to work with an amazing, talented, caring group.

Laughing Squid talks about Dogster's million-dollar angel investment. For those of you who don't know about Dogster, these guys (their blog) are definitely all about passionate users, and are one of the best models/examples we've found. (Hey Ted, when you build out Horsester, I want to help!)

Susie Wyshak of told me about Cambrian House, a "crowdsourced" software thing. I really don't know what to think about this. No idea whatsoever, although it's certainly interesting. I'm waiting to hear what others think.

I DO, however, know what to think about Susie's SuperViva "life planning" site which I only just discovered... I love it. I'm going to be spending some time there keeping track of my goals. At first glance, it felt 43-thingsish, but it's for a somewhat different audience and most importantly--you don't need to make things public. Even if you don't think you're in the "What Should I Do With My Life" category, it's a great place to check out. Warning: you'll notice from the main page that it looks/feels tilted more toward women, and I had to get past my knee-jerk reaction to anything that might smack of bookstore self-helpism, but it was worth it.

Stephanie at the "Back in skinnny jeans" blog has done a FANTASTIC job of explaining RSS, "Oprah Style", in this blog post. The picture alone is worth a ton... she's definitely put the graphics we do here to shame. And this is not the last thing we'll hear Stephanie explain "Oprah Style". Even if you're an RSS guru, you should check it out for an example of fun, accessible, good learning.

I wanted to say thanks to all the folks in Europe (Rails and Foo and Oscon) who came up to say hello... it was great to finally meet some of you in person. A special thanks to Patricia and the gang at Java Black Belt, a successful and growing community based around creating and taking technical exams (Java and related technologies especially).

I finally got to meet two very special people who've been part of our Head First team since pretty much the beginning, Johannes de Jong (managed most of our review process), and Jef Cumps, who I've learned a lot from (including some of the topics on this blog) over the past few years. Thanks for all the help you've given us, guys, and for taking the time to visit while I was there.

Posted by Kathy on September 30, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Motivating others: why "it's good for you" doesn't work

"What matters is what they do when the clicking stops." That was the central theme in the New Media Interaction Design courses I taught at UCLA Extension (Entertainment Studies dept). We all want to motivate our users (customers, learners, kids, employees, members, etc.), but motivate them for what? What do we hope they'll do when they stop clicking/listening/reading? More importantly, how do we make it happen?

Question 1: What do we want our users to do?

And no, we don't get to say, "know more." That's not an action. "Like us more" is not an action. Even my favorite, "kick ass" is not an action. How many people take a course in Design Patterns and then go right back to work and write the same clunky code, reinventing the flat tire? How many customers interact with a web app and then... just leave? How many people say they care deeply about a cause, but do nothing beyond bumper-sticker activism? How many people listen to a lecture on the dangers of smoking, but keep smoking?

There is nearly always an action (or set of actions) you're hoping users will take, and most of you already know what that is. But we also know that this sometimes involves a change in behavior, something that's extremely hard to do. So it's really the next question that matters more:

Question 2: How do we motivate them to do it?

That's where broccoli and optimism come in (I promise I'll get there in a moment).

We all know we can't simply slap motivation on another person. All we can do is design an experience to help them motivate themselves. If we get them to spend time on our web site, and they have a good experience, but then leave without doing anything--and never come back--does it really matter that they had a Good User Experience? Is a good experience an end in itself, or is it a means to something else? For much of what we design, what matters is what happens when the clicking stops (or for many web apps, just before the clicking stops).

So, we really have two levels of motivation... motivation to interact and motivation to do something as a result of that interaction. Motivation to interact is something we've talked about quite a bit here... things like the flow state, levels/superpowers, spiral experience design, painting a compelling picture with clear steps to getting there, blah blah blah. This post is about inspiring post-interaction action.

And it all comes back to broccoli. And optimism. The main points are:

1) Trying to motivate someone to action by telling them it's good for them doesn't... actually... work.
There's way too much statistical evidence (not that any of us need more evidence than our own personal experience), that not only is "... because it's good for you" NOT motivating, even the extreme case of, "... because you will DIE if you don't..." often fails! Smoking, weight loss, lack of exercise, too much alcohol or drugs. We all know what is and isn't "good for us," yet too many of us still aren't motivated enough to DO something about it. So we must ask ourselves:

"If people don't aren't motivated to make changes even under the threat of death, what on earth will motivate them?" In a controversial but powerful article in Fast Company (from May 2005) called "Change or Die", there are some insights and examples. You need to read the whole thing for the full context, but this quote gives a strong hint:

"The conventional wisdom says that crisis is a powerful motivator for change. But severe heart disease is among the most serious of personal crises, and it doesn't motivate -- at least not nearly enough. Nor does giving people accurate analyses and factual information about their situations. What works? Why, in general, is change so incredibly difficult for people? What is it about how our brains are wired that resists change so tenaciously? Why do we fight even what we know to be in our own vital interests?
Kotter has hit on a crucial insight. "Behavior change happens mostly by speaking to people's feelings," he says. "This is true even in organizations that are very focused on analysis and quantitative measurement, even among people who think of themselves as smart in an MBA sense. In highly successful change efforts, people find ways to help others see the problems or solutions in ways that influence emotions, not just thought."
Unfortunately, that kind of emotional persuasion isn't taught in business schools, and it doesn't come naturally to the technocrats who run things -- the engineers, scientists, lawyers, doctors, accountants, and managers who pride themselves on disciplined, analytical thinking. There's compelling science behind the psychology of change -- it draws on discoveries from emerging fields such as cognitive science, linguistics, and neuroscience -- but its insights and techniques often seem paradoxical or irrational."

Or to put it another way, telling you to eat broccoli because it's good for you doesn't work because it doesn't invoke the right feelings.

And even the threat of death doesn't invoke the right feelings. (Not that fear isn't a powerful motivator, but it's not motivating in the ways we might think...)
Which brings us back to, what does motivate?

Optimism. Hope.

In the Fast Company article, they talk about reframing / recasting the reasons why you should do something. Rather than using "it's good for you" or even the hard-to-believe-it-doesn't-work "you'll DIE if you DON'T," some health-related programs have much more success by emphasizing pleasure. From a doctor in the article: "joy is a more powerful motivator than fear."

Yes, this whole "duh" post is to reinforce the cliche: focus on the positive. (And if you're wondering why an article on making health changes is in a business magazine, you'll have to read the whole thing to see how they apply it to work behavior and culture as well, especially in the area of change.)

But what prompted me to dig out that old article was the most recent Fast Company article, Moving Pictures, about the Oscar-nominated entrepreneur Jeff Skoll, the man behind Participant Productions--"the first film company to be founded on a mission of social impact through storytelling." Skoll is also the guy who made Al Gore's new film, An Inconvenient Truth happen.

Skoll recognizes that simply "raising awareness" of issues is of little value unless people take action. From the article:

"For each project, Participant execs with nonprofit backgrounds reach out to public-sector partners, from the ACLU to the Sierra Club, for their opinions. If those partners don't think they can build an effective action campaign around the film, it's a no-go..."It can't be good-for-you spinach, or it's not going to work."

[I used broccoli instead of spinach because that whole recent Killer Spinach thing in the US wrecked the metaphor]

And here's the optimism part:
"In the face of challenges ranging from global warming to threats to civil liberties, Skoll aims to inspire hope, then action. "Time and time again, you see this outpouring from people once they're made aware they can do something," he says. "That's the principle that drives this company."

And even if you're not trying to get someone to take action for social change or to save their life--something Meaningful with a capital "M"--remember that meaningful with a lowercase "m" matters too. If your software, book, or service helps me learn more, spend more time in flow, kick ass a bit more at work, or even just have fun playing a game...you're bringing a bit more joy into my day. And THAT is meaningful to me.

Posted by Kathy on September 29, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

It's not too late to be a genius


In the web/tech world (and many other domains), it seems the Big Ideas belong to the Young. Barely 27, David Heinemeier Hansson, creator of the Ruby on Rails framework, has changed the world and given the Ruby language a reason to live. Then there's Caterina and Stewart, creators of Flickr. And don't get me started on the creators of the blog service I'm entering this post in...Six Apart's Ben and Mena.

Then there's Larry and Sergey, the "boys" behind Google, and Jeff Bezos was just 30 when he founded Amazon. At O'Reilly's first Foo Camp, I learned later that the young guy who kept bugging Bert about games was Bram Cohen, creator of BitTorrent (named to the Time 100 Most Influential People list).

If you're over 40, is there still hope? Could you be a late bloomer like Doc Searls who said in response to being called an "A-List Gatekeeper":
"Nearly all of what I'm known for I've done since I was fifty."

Apparently yes. Frank Lloyd Wright did his best work at 70. Alfred Hitchcock got it all together just shy of 60. Beethoven's 9th? 50's. You get the idea.

An economics researcher named David Galenson (a late-bloomer himself) plodded along for years and eventually discovered a way to reverse-engineer creativity... finding that creative innovators come in two flavors: Conceptual and Experimental. Conceptual innovators, it seems, get their Big Ideas out early, many peaking out before they leave their 30's. They can change an industry (sometimes the world) almost overnight. Experimental innovators are those who quietly crunch along, doing creative trial and error but staying largely under the radar until much later, often having no visibility until their 50's or beyond.

There are, of course, some Big Idea people who've managed to start early and NOT peak out. Unlike many of their Conceptual counterparts, these folks didn't flame out after a spectacularly run through their twenties. My publisher and friend Tim O'Reilly is certainly one of those. Guy Kawasaki is another... as Apple's original Mac evangelist, he wrote a bestseller Selling the Dream (a classic, still useful!) in 1992 and just kept on going. And from what I know of David HH, he might just be getting warmed up. I reckon we'll be hearing (and using) more of his Big Ideas for years or decades to come.

All this is from an article (that most of you have probably already read) by one of my favorite people, Dan Pink, author of the life/business-changing book A Whole New Mind. The article titled, "What Kind of Genius Are You", appeared in the July issue of Wired, and you can read it online here.

I skimmed the article when it first came out, saving it for a long coffee break, but lost the magazine in the shuffle of moving and travelling, until this morning. I'll never be a genius, and given that the chances of me being in the "young/conceptual" camp are pretty much zero, I still found the article inspiring. There's hope for me-- and all of us who are past our 30's--still.

At the end of the article, he talks about how we need to make sure that the brash and bold aren't stifled by, say, their managers (or work policies too inflexible to handle a creative genius). So, yeah, another "duh" thing (one that all managers acknowledge but few really DO). He doesn't leave out the slow-starters, though, because he adds:

"But we should also leave room for those of us who have, er, avoided peaking too early, whose most innovative days lie ahead... we need to look at that more halting, less certain fellow and perhaps not write him off too early, give him a chance to ride the upward curve of middle age.
Of course, not every unaccomplished 65-year old is some undiscovered experimental innovator. This is a universal theory of creativity, not a Viagra for sagging baby boomer self-esteem. It's no justification for laziness or procrastination or indifference.
But it might bolster the resolve of the relentlessly curious, the constantly tinkering, the dedicated tortoises undaunted by the blur of the hares."

So... to all the hares out there... watch your back! We're coming. Just really, really s l o w l y. And we have an advantage today that previous generations didn't... the internet. Blogs. The opportunity to reach people online--across the globe--with nothing more than a free blogging account. See, there was actually more to Doc Searl's quote than I put at the beginning. What he really said was:

"Nearly all of what I'm known for I've done since I was fifty. And without the Net, there would hardly be any of it."

It's never too late to be creative. It's never too late to make a difference. Just...keep...trying s***. And remember the quote from the 90-something woman who, when asked about her regrets said, "If I'd known I was going to live this long, I'd have taken up the violin at 60. I'd have been playing for almost 40 years by now..."

So, what kind of genius are YOU?

(Whatever type you are--conceptual or experimental--note the computer both David and Doc are using in the pictures. I'm just sayin'...)

Photo credit: pictures were taken by James Duncan Davidson who, uh, managed to create the Tomcat Java web container (and drove the astonishing effort that led Sun to donate it to Apache as open source), and Ant, all around the age of 30. Not content with being merely a tech genius, he recently launched a second part-time career as a pro photographer. Bastard! ; )

Posted by Kathy on September 27, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (29) | TrackBack

Help! Need a web developer/designer to fix this blog

Alright, the feeds are messed up here, there's no printing or searching (thanks so much to all of you who've written to try to help me with this... I just couldn't do it!), and I haven't even updated the About page to include my new co-blogger Dan Russell. So, it's time for some work on the blog, and I would take forever to get it done.

So... I'm looking for a person/company that I can pay to fix some things up, and of course any input on other changes we should make are very very welcome! A few requirements:

1) You have to actually like the blog, so that we know you understand what we're trying to communicate here.

2) It's hosted on Typepad (although we can control just about everything), and it's going to stay that way for a while so don't bother trying to talk me into moving it. I DO want to set up a separate website, which could be hosted anywhere, and I'll probably want to talk with you about doing that too. Nothing big.

3) I still don't want to think about having advertising, so don't try to talk me into that either. I'm open to hearing suggestions, but for the future, not for now.

If there's ANYTHING at all you'd like to see on this blog, or if you know anyone who might be able to spare some time to do a little contract work, let me know here or in email. If you're potentially interested in doing the work and also want to promote your services, please leave a link to your site/company and I WANT you to shamelessly self-promote here... I know I'm not the only one who needs help and isn't afraid to pay for it.

Thanks to everyone for being so patient with the problems with the blog. All my talk about passionate users and I give my OWN users broken feeds... not acceptable. : (

Ane one more thing... if you have something urgent that I haven't responded to in email, PLEASE write back and say URGENT in the subject. I am so far behind now that it's likely I've missed an awful lot of messages, but I've finally arrived back home and I intend to spend the next two weeks catching up.

Posted by Kathy on September 25, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (40) | TrackBack

Ease-of-use should not mean neuter-the-software

Is our heart in the right place but our execution flawed when we neuter a product in the name of newbie-friendliness? In the push to make programs "so simple even your [mom/kid/dog] could use it", there are a lot of dumb products out there. Or rather, dumbed-down products. It's like we're throwing the power baby out with the poor UI bathwater. But if we want passionate users, ease-of-use should NOT be the Big Design Goal. Good usability is the enabler for what we (users) really want--more superpowers.

We want to do things. Cooler things. Advanced things. More creative things. We don't want to be better at using the tool, we want to be better at doing whatever it is the tool supports! Usually when we talk about this it's-not-about-being-better-at-the-tool thing, we're coming from the perspective of what and how we teach our users. This post, however, is about the software, product, web site, service, itself.

Take a look at this chart, and ask yourself how you'd describe the two boxes with question marks. We know the bottom right quadrant is awesome, and in the top left, there be dragons. But what of the top right? What of the bottom left? Think about it for a moment before you continue (or before you, as most of you will do, skip to the next graphic ; )


It's great that so many are putting the "user" back in "user interface", but using a brain-dead-simple tool does NOT necessarily mean an "I Rule!" experience. Maybe we need to spend more time thinking about providing superpowers and a little less time on simplifying. The last thing we want is to build the Tic-Tac-Toe equivalent of software, when the user ultimately wants to play Chess. (Note: I said "when" the user wants to play Chess. Sometimes the ultra-beginner-only product is exactly what's needed, and might be extremely successful, but it does mean that users will outgrow it before they ever become passionate. This post is about the products that do NOT want to be newbie-only.)

Without challenge, there can be no growth and no flow state. And wherever you find real passion, you always find challenges. Alan Kay once said something like, "We do a great job of helping people practice being beginners. We help them get really good at being beginners. What we need are ways to help people start at an intermediate level so they can start doing something rewarding right away."

Of course usability is absolutely crucial, and it's a prereq for pretty much everything. A UI that gets in the way of the thing the user is trying to do is a deal-killer (or at least a flow-killer). But there's a difference between "Good UI" and "Ease-of-use"! If I'm doing something complex, by choice, then focusing on making it easier might not be the right move. Assuming the power is there, the main goal should be to keep the UI the hell out of the way of what I'm trying to do. You may not have made it technically an easier product to use, but you've made it a product that supports more time in flow, doing the thing I want to do (which is NOT "use the software", but rather "edit video" or "write a letter" or "mix audio").

Perhaps I need a qualifier for the word "easy", because while the thing I'm doing with the tool may be quite difficult, it's true that I want the how-I-communicate-with-the-program to be as easy as possible. I do want it to be extremely easy to figure out how to tell the software what to do, but I do NOT want the software to pat me on the head and say, "don't worry your little head... I'll take care of it all for you with this nicey-wicey wizard and this fuzzy-wuzzy dialog box and all the helpful things I can do for you like capitalize words (since you're too stupid and lazy to do it yourself)" . And I do NOT want the software to simply strip out all the functionality that's too complex to simplify. So I guess there's at least two different forms of easy: easy-as-in-natural-usability and easy-as-in-dumbed-down.


But what about Featuritis?

"Featuritis" comes from adding horizontal (broad) capabilities, rather than adding vertical (deep) capabilities. Rather than add 25 new ways to do the same shallow things, add 5 new advanced capabilities. I don't want to do more things, I want to be more advanced.

Photoshop, for example, would be adding horizontal features if they added new painting tools, or yet more ways to configure your tool bars, etc. But adding new capability to their color correction and RAW tools, for example, would be adding vertical features. One leads to featuritis, the other leads to more powerful users.

Featuritis is not so much about feature quantity... it's about feature shallowness. By all means, please give me more features. But they must be the right features, and to figure out "right", we have to know our users, we have to narrow down the domain in which they use our products (e.g. is Photoshop about photography or digital painting?) and make some assumptions about their goals, motivation, and background.

1) Adding power through different products or product editions

When we add features, they should be the next natural things an advanced user wants to do, but the new superpowers don't necessarily need to be in the same product... Apple provides a dumbed-down (but still wonderful) free music making tool in Garageband. It's extremely easy to get started (which is great), and ridiculously simple to use, but even a non-musician who really gets into Garageband starts to bump into Garageband's limitations pretty quickly. And as if by magic, Apple's non-free product Logic Express just coincidentally happens to have the features you find yourself wanting after you've started to max out Garageband. (And the same thing repeats when you bump into Logic Express limitations, there's always the much more expensive full-featured Logic. Apple uses the same thing 3-tier/first-one-is-free-crack-model with their video editing tools as well).

2) Adding power through user-created extensions

Many excellent, successful products take the approach of, "Sure, we could keep piling more and more features on after listening to all the requests, but each added feature would just annoy everyone except the one person who asked for that particular feature... so instead, we'll let YOU add new features."

IBM once had an Expert System tool called TIRS, and when users wanted to do more, rather than continuing to add to their API, they opened up the system so that you could embed your own C functions in a rule. Allowing plug-ins, extensions, macros, third-party modules, etc. is (sometimes) a great way to add far more vertical/deep power than you could ever come up with when YOU are both the developer and, well, the decider of what should be there.

3) Adding power through "advanced modes"

Yeah, yeah, yeah I know that this is controversial, and I have virtually no credibility in developing a product with different user modes, but... it can work.

4) Adding power through a willingness to sacrifice newbies

We can't be all things to all people. The cliche of "catering to the lowest common denominator" is one we all consider negative, yet we still do it. It can be a form of greediness! If we can only do one thing well, then we have to choose carefully. And if can't find a clear way to add advanced capability while hiding the complexity from the newbie, then some of us must choose to leave the newbies to someone else. (Yes, there are a million implicit qualifiers, conditions, disclaimers, exceptions, etc.)

Being the one who nails it for the newbies is a very successful strategy for a lot of products and services. But again, once those newbies leave the nest, they have to look elsewhere. And the better we are at inspiring enthusiasm and loyalty in beginners, the more they want to continue with us ("I trusted you this far, and you really came through... now help me get to the next level").

5) Adding power by truly knowing (and not underestimating) your users

Recently someone showed me a very early alpha of a start-up web app he's working on. The target audience is "regular people" (i.e. not programmers or other hard-core geeks). I was horrified when he showed me what amounted to a command-line style of input. Command-line?! But then he reminded me that most people who aren't right in front of their computers write things down. Most adults are not just comfortable but experts at writing on paper. When I write someone's phone number on a piece of paper, I don't have a separate little piece of paper for [first name] [last name] [area code] [phone] [cellphone] and on and on. I just write the damn thing down as a string of characters. So... why not allow (or even encourage) users to simply type things in rather than forcing them to go through complex wizards and dialog boxes.

This particular example is fraught with UI landmines including the problem of users needing to memorize the exact order and syntax they have to type things in. And yes, that could render the whole thing virtually unusable. But if the software had some very intelligent, clever parsing and could just look at the text and figure it out (or at least make a high-probability smart guess), then you've got a way to enable a ton of power without having to add endless dialog boxes and windows and choices and other get-in-the-way features.

The point is, that while it looked DRASTICALLY counter-intuitive to me to have "regular users" essentially work in a command-line interface (fortunately it looked and felt like a simple text edit window as opposed to, say, a DOS prompt), when the guy showing it to me framed it as, "Writing things as text is the most natural thing there is" I felt my brain shift a little. And then I began to consider all the software that babies us, insults us, and ultimately gets in our way... something Jason talked about when he delivered Opening Remarks at SXSW (classic example: "I can capitalize words mySELF thank you very much...").

[Here's a podcast/mp3 recording of the talk. Incidentally, I am the scared s***less lucky one delivering the Opening Remarks for the next SXSW Interactive in March. I'm hoping Jason will give me some tips; he gave a wonderful talk]

So... as always, now it's your turn. This is a tricky topic, and everyone has something to add to the story. Are too many of us dumbing down our products? What are other ways we can help our beginners without leaving them stuck in that lower left quadrant? Remember, an "I Rule!" doesn't come from success... it comes from doing something challenging.

Posted by Kathy on September 25, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (28) | TrackBack

Why they don't upgrade (and what to do about it)


Why is it that--after we bust our ass to produce a shiny new version of our product--users are so slow to upgrade? WE know it's better. WE know it'll help them kick ass in new ways. WE know that if they stick with their current version, they'll never truly become passionate...because they'll never touch that high level of expertise where things get really really interesting. But there our users sit, apparently content to hang out in the "competent" zone, happy they no longer suck, but unmotivated to push forward.

That's a problem.

And I'm not talking about the financial side. Even if we make no money off our upgrades, we still want our users learning and growing and improving and reaching for new challenges and doing more complex, cool things. (Assuming you ultimately want passionate users, which if you're reading this blog...)

So why are users dragging their feet? Why aren't they desperate to get the latest and greatest spanky new release? Conventional wisdom says it's because of the expense, or that users fear change, or that users are simply too lazy. But there's a simpler explanation:

People don't upgrade because they don't want to move back into the "Suck Zone."

They worked too damn hard to reach a level of competence and the thought of sinking back down--however briefly--into that awful state they clawed their way out of--is too unpleasant. We've trained users to fear upgrades. Raise your hand if you've ever installed an upgrade only to find yourself back in that confused I-have-no-frickin'-clue-where-they-put-that-dialog-box state? Raise your hand if you felt the upgrade just wasn't worth it, even though you knew that the way you did things in the current version was pretty much an inefficient hack. Raise your hand if you felt intimidated and maybe even a bit humiliated that after upgrading you could no longer do some of the simplest things.

It's not usually the upgrade that sucks. It's that the upgrade makes the users suck. Or at least makes them feel that it's their fault for not instantly getting it.

Bottom line: nobody likes doing things they suck at. If there's a way to avoid it, we will.

Back in the late 90's, I attended a Macromedia conference, and one of the sessions was a panel of web pioneers discussing what were then the earliest days of web development, especially the whole browser incompatability problem (that we of course thought would be LONG gone by now... lol). The panel host asked one simple question of each of the panelists, "So, which browser do you have on your machine right now?" The response was shocking. Almost every panelist--and keep in mind that these were hard-core web developers/entrepreneurs--gave the same response, "Whatever was installed on my machine at the time I got it." One of those panelists was none other than Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo! We were stunned. If even Jerry Yang doesn't bother with upgrades...
(Many of us later confessed that we would have answered the same way.)

How to inspire users to upgrade

Don't give in to featuritis

Make the upgrade worth it.

More importantly...

Make sure the users KNOW it's worth it.
Provide a compelling benefit, and do your best job of painting that compelling picture for the users.

Go over the top with documentation
Geez... I hate it when I get an upgrade and it comes with a whopping 1-page ReadMe. Make sure users know you're going to hold their hand and walk them through the new things in the friendliest, most accessible, most encouraging way.

Try not to break things that were previously important to them
Yeah, another "duh" thing, but so often ignored. Users should feel like the new upgrade simply adds capability, performance, etc. without sending them back to the "suck zone." In other words, they should feel like the upgrade is an extension not a radical modification. This isn't always possible for forward progress, of course, and you don't want to be locked in to your former design mistakes, etc. but at least think about ways to help a user transition gracefully from one version to another.

Don't tell me what cool things YOU did to the new version, tell me what cool things I can do with the new version.
Never, ever forget that it's all about me. For most products, and most users, they don't give a duck about your new specs. They care about what it means to them. Connect the dots for them in the most vivid, compelling, motivating way.

The pain of an upgrade begins with download and installation
Even if the new version itself is natural and easy to get used to, if the install and set-up is a pain in the ass, they'll remember that the next time (and tell their friends not to bother unless it's REALLY REALLY worth it).

Don't make me pay for YOUR bug fixes
The more users perceive your upgrade as simply correcting things you should have had working in the first place (bugs, performance problems, etc.), the more likely they are to start taking hostages if you expect them to pay for the privilege of having what they thought they were paying for with the previous rev. It's OK to make a performance/bug-fix release, but don't charge for it unless you've done something earth-shattering to the technology which gives you a huge increase in performance (as opposed to correcting poor performance).

Seed the community early
Get beta versions to your key community of users so that they can start evangelizing why the new version is worth it. (Of course, this assumes that the new version IS worth it.)

Set the tone for future upgrades
If you lie about the upgrade--either by downplaying the learning curve or overselling the benefits, you're screwed.

Users will remember the pain of THIS upgrade when it comes time for the NEXT one.
The better the first upgrade experience is for them, the more likely they'll be to ever do it again.

Try making more frequent, smaller/incremental upgrades
While this does't work for most non-software products, continuously "refreshing" and modifying the product in tiny ways adds up to big changes down the road without those huge jump-off-the-cliff slides back to the "suck zone". The ultra-fast release cycles of many of the Web 2.0 companies is an example (and of course ANY web app has a potential advantage here since the user doesn't need to choose to upgrade).

Entice, bribe, or potentially force them to upgrade
This is extremely dangerous, but if you are absolutely certain that your upgrade will be universally loved by users--and that the upgrade will be relatively bloodless--you could potentially hold them hostage, like the way Apple did recently with the new iTunes. If you want to download the new shows at the new hi-resolution, you have no choice but to upgrade/install the new version of iTunes. Again, very few of us will ever have Apple loyalty, but there are scenarios where you might just have to say, "Sorry, but there is no way we can--in good conscience--let you continue without this upgrade." This approach will likely backfire spectacularly if the upgrade is not free.

Start the buzz early (practice T-Shirt-First Development)
By the time Apple releases a new version of Mac OSX, the Faithful are so excited that they line up by the thousands outside Apple stores at midnight, braving the cold, just to get the new OS a full 24 hours ahead of their friends. How do I know? I've done it, twice. Once when it was snowing.

New releases can be a source of great enthusiasm and energy. Exploit that.
In the right situations, upgrades are like crack. (In a good way)

Remember, reducing guilt is the killer app. Nobody wants to go back to the "suck zone", so it's your job to make sure that:

A) The new upgrade must not send them back to the Suck Zone
B) You must convince users that they won't land back in the Suck Zone

In the ideal world, the curve looks like this:


Posted by Kathy on September 22, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack

Screaming users considered good


We all know our users can have really strong opinions about our stuff.  And we all know we need to listen carefully.

My very favorite user comment of all time came from a young woman who had been using this cool design tool (something I’d built) for about 12 weeks.  At the end of the project, I was doing the standard debriefing of the users, asking what they liked and didn’t like, what worked, what didn’t work, what was frustrating… the usual sort of post mortem on a project. 

She told me that my software, my baby, the thing I’d been working on for the past 2 years was “..the most white male fascist tool I’ve ever had the misfortune to use…”

I was somewhat taken aback.

“Ah, yes…”  I stalled for time, desperately trying to hold it together.  “And what made you feel this way?”

The conversation went on for some time after that (as you can imagine).  And while it was a painful episode, it was a really valuable learning experience. 

Although I knew intellectually that not everyone would see my system as I did, I was floored by her reaction.  But it made the point: as a designer, you really have to be aware of other folks opinions (even when they don’t jibe with yours), and you have to know what it is you’re building.  Sometimes, your product is going to passionately piss people off.  Sometimes, that’s okay.  In many cases, you simply can’t design a product that will make everyone sing your praises and want to send you roses.  I love my iPod, but I know there are some people who think it’s devil spawn.  If Steve can’t get everyone to love his things, I’m not sure I can. 

So I’d succeeded in creating a passionate user.  Sadly, it was passion in the wrong direction. 

After I recovered my composure a few weeks later, I realized I was really glad she’d told me.  The ten users I’d interviewed before her were all pretty nice and even-keeled.  “Oh yeah… it worked well…”  or even the sweetly positive comment  “I could do things with it that I could never have done before.” 

But in retrospect, I didn’t learn much from the nice folks who told me everything was fine and ducky.  I did learn a great deal from the ones who struggled, my users that just didn’t get it, had really strong reactions or failures. 

As Henry Petroski writes in To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design, we learn more from our failures than our successes.  But only if we pay attention to the failures and figure out what to do right the next time. 

The trick is to figure out what the message is from the user.  I did have the presence of mind to ask her what “fascist” meant.  Sure, I know the dictionary definition, but I couldn’t figure out what it meant in the context of the tool I’d built. 

My question opened up the sluice gates and I heard an awful lot about “not letting the user have a choice” and how our design tool “forced the user to do things in a particular order.”

Gee.  We did it that way because we knew it was more efficient.  But provably correct didn’t win the heart and mind of this user—she did things in a different way, and the tool was forcing her to go along a different path.  It felt fascist to her. 

Okay.  Got it.  So it wasn’t the Gestapo of all software, but it really was at variance with her approach.  In an instant it became clear what we could do differently the next time around. 

Bottom line:  Every product evolves.  It’s the rare (or trivial) that gets it right the first time and sticks with it for the rest of time.  Listen to the screamers and whiners and people writing nasty blog posts.  It’s painful and tough, but worth it. The screamers may not know it, but they’re really helping you out with the next release. 

Posted by Dan Russell on September 18, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (36) | TrackBack

Be Provocative


When you want to get--and especially keep--someone's attention, what's your competition? What else could they choose to focus on at any given moment? The belief that we have 100% conscious control over what we pay attention to is a myth. The belief that users can and will choose to pay attention to our message/ad/docs/product/lesson, etc. is a mistake. So what can we do to up the odds of getting and keeping attention?

I just returned from two weekends of intense horse/human training, including the annual Parelli conference, and you'll just have to suffer through several posts in which I map everything into some all-I-needed-to-know-I-learned-from-my-horse principle. Starting with this post. At the first clinic, master trainer David Lichman said of our horse-human relationships:

"The secret is to be more provocative and interesting than anything else in their environment."

If we want our users (members, guests, students, potential customers, kids, co-workers, etc.) to pay attention, we have to be provocative. We can moan all we want about how the responsible person should pay attention to what's important rather than what's compelling. But it's not about responsibility or maturity. It's not even about interest. It's about the brain.

Remember, the brain and the conscious mind don't always see neuron-to-neuron. The brain pays attention to survival of the species. No matter what the mind wants! If you want the mind's attention, you can't ignore the brain. In other words, you can't assume that users will pay attention to what you say even when they're genuinely interested. Unless, that is, you throw a bone to the brain as well. Or trick it.

So this isn't about having to bribe people into paying attention by sexing things up with graphics, sound, or shock. This is about helping the mind and the brain agree on what's worth paying attention to. And if you want it to be you, then you better be the most provocative and interesting thing in their environment.

With horses, there's not as much competition. There's no HorseBox 360 or PonyMail. No Horse 2.0. No PonyMeme. Yet it's still a battle to be more compelling than the grass, the wind, a plastic bag, other horses (especially), playing the whoever-moves-their-feet-first-loses game with me, etc. And as smart and complex as my [fabulous Icelandic] horses are, they're still way easier to interest than a human.

Being Provocative

Provocation is in the eye of the provoked, obviously, so there's no clear formula. But there's plenty we can try, depending on the circumstances, including:

* Be Visual
Pictures are more important to the brain than words, and unless you've already got their attention and are a good enough writer to paint pictures in their head, you'll do better with visuals. The more stimulating the better. Even graphs and charts are a huge help... it doesn't have to be pictures of naked women (although that would work, of course. Just try to get past a rack of men's magazines (without the "protective covers") without at least a glance. Your brain can't help it, so let yourself off the hook ; )

* Be Different--Break Patterns and Expectations
As long as we're doing what everyone else is doing (or what we have always done), the brain can relax and think, "Nothing new here... whew... what a relief, that means I can now go back to scanning for something that is". Ways to be different include doing the opposite of what you normally do, or doing something expected in a different domain, but which is wildly unique in yours.

* Be Daring
You know the story on this one--being safe is often incompatible with being provocative.

* Change Things Regularly
This is about continually breaking your own patterns. Consistently shaking things up whether it's look and feel of your website to the product itself. (Obviously the definition of "regularly" and "things" varies dramatically depending on the type of product or service. MySpace can change daily to the delight of its core audience, while a financial app better keep its UI stable for a much longer time and find something else to change regularly (like the website, tutorial style, or online forums).

* Inspire Curiosity
Humans often find puzzles and even questions irresistible. Just try to walk by a TV playing a quiz show and not think about the answer to the question you heard walking by. How many times have you watched to the end of a movie you didn't particularly like, just because you had to find out how the story ends? Our legacy brains love curiosity because it usually means more learning. (FYI - my horse finds orange traffic cones irresistible)

* Pose a Challenge
The level and nature of the challenge work only if they're within boundaries that work for your audience, of course. Ask me to solve a calculus problem and I'll keep on walking. Ask my co-author Bert, and he'll find it impossible to do anything else but work on it.

* Be Controversial and Committed
Take a stand. Mediocrity is not a formula for holding attention.

* Be Fun
Remember, brains love fun because fun=play, and play=practicing-to-survive. (And as we've said many times here, fun does not have to mean funny. Chess can be fun but isn't funny. Except when I play.)

* Be Stimulating. Be Exciting. Be Seductive
Keep in mind that seduction does not have to mean sexual. A good storyteller can seduce me into sticking with the story. A good teacher can seduce me into learning. A good software app can seduce me into getting better and better.

* Help them have Hi-Res Experiences
This gets back to the notion of being-better-is-better. The more your users know and can do, the higher resolution experience they have. Whatever you can do to give them more expertise will help keep them interested in wanting to know and do more. But they need to be up the skill curve a ways before this really kicks in, so we must do whatever we can to help get new users past the rough spots (i.e. the "suck threshold").

* ???
Your turn. What are your ideas for how we (or you) can be more provocative? Who's doing a good job? Who is not?

(Note: I'm currently in the middle of a difficult multi-country work trip in Europe, so I'm having a tough time getting online. I apologize for not responding to your comments here recently, but they're HUGELY motivating for me, so... thanks : )

Posted by Kathy on September 13, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack

Why "duh"... isn't.


Critics of this blog love to say, "Duh!" or "Thanks for stating the obvious." My response is, "While the idea is dead obvious--the problem is that we don't do the obvious." When I hear comments like, "You wasted all that space to say, "Care about your customers", I wonder why we don't. Or rather, I wonder why we all say we care about them, yet our actions reflect a more selfish view. When it comes to our users/customers...

I don't think they think what we think they think.

It's similar to all those other statistics you hear about, like that way more than 50% of the population rate themselves "Above Average" in everything from looks to smarts. We think our customers generally love us, although of course we're not perfect, but then... who is? Sure we have a few issues, but we're working on it. And besides, we're so much better than the competition.

When we first came out with the Head First books, and talked about brain-friendly learning principles, people said, "Duh. There's nothing new here." And we said, "Of course not. We didn't invent anything. We just applied it. And if implementing these principles were truly "duh" (which they should be), then everyone would be doing some variation of it, and readers/learners would not be struggling to learn tough technical topics.

If helping your users kick ass were truly "duh", then our users wouldn't feel frustrated, confused, angry, stupid, humiliated, or furious. If writing good user manuals were truly "duh", then there'd be no acronym for RTFM.

This is no different from any other part of our lives, of course. Eating healthy is a "duh." Exercising five times a week is a "duh." Saving money is a "duh." Keeping our kids off TV is a "duh." Flossing is definitely "duh." Managing stress is a "duh." Greeting your significant other and kids with a smile and full attention is a "duh." Empowering our employees is a "duh." Changing the oil is a "duh." Being on time is a "duh." And I might as well end this paragraph with a totally lame cliche:
There's a big difference between saying, "Eat an apple a day" and actually eating the apple.

If "duh" is so damn obvious, why aren't we DOING it? (I say "we" because I'm just as guilty) More importantly, why do we drastically overestimate the extent to which we are doing "duh" things?

There are too many reasons to list, and many I hope you'll add, but a few highlights include:

Downplaying the importance
Denial (we think we are)
Fear of change
Too risky
If the competition isn't doing it, why should we?
Ego (making a change means admitting you weren't doing something right)

But I think the most important one is that we never actually take the time to really think about the "duh" thing. I try to ask people, "Sure, taking care of the customer yada yada yada is "duh", but what would it actually mean if you really REALLY did it? Stop. Think. Deeply. How much of what you do might feel like it's for the customer... or you tell yourself that story, anyway... but it's more about what's good for you? What would it mean if you took the "duh" thing and spent one hour--just ONE hour--brainstorming what that really means?

When people ask for the secret sauce guaranteed recipe for success, we say that it's quite simple: just do the "duh" thing. The Big Secret is not about knowing what magical thing to do--it's about taking the "duh" things seriously enough and actually doing them. If you could pick just one "duh" thing to work on, what would it be?

And yes, this post is one big "duh." A "meta-duh", if you will. ; )

What are your thoughts?

[Update: In comments to this recent post on Tara's blog, Martin Wells said something similar:
"And readers continue to buy into the idea that if they can just somehow find the right formula -- the "secret" -- they'll succeed.

The irony is most of the books are right, it's just a matter of applying all that knowledge correctly and intelligently."]

Posted by Kathy on September 7, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (35) | TrackBack

"Success" should not mean "Management"


We might all say that career success should be measured by how fulfilled you are on the job, but in practice, most people and companies still measure success by how high you climbed the corporate ladder. Clawed yourself near the top of the org chart? You ARE successful. But if you're not on a leadership track, playing the "my number of direct reports is bigger than yours" game, you're probably not. We all know this is lunacy, especially in the tech world, so why do so many companies still have only a single path for promotions? You either move into management or your career (pay, benefits, perks, control, etc.) stands still.

Isn't it about time we quit measuring professional success in one dimension, vertically, and start considering how much your actual work matches your desired work?

And isn't it about time more companies started offering multiple career tracks, where management is no more valuable or important than the highly-skilled work of an individual contributor? (Sun is a good example of a company that offers two clear paths--one for management, and one for individual contributors who'd rather bathe cats than be a boss.)

What happens when a company gives an employee no option for growth other than management? Yes, lots of individual contributors (even programmers) want the challenge of a management role, but some of the best feel forced into trading the work they love best for more "advancement opportunities". How senseless is it to take a star programmer and make her do Gantt charts? How lame it is to take your best designer and make him run budget meetings, review TPS reports, and consolidate time sheets?

This post was partly inspired by Anne 2.0's Where Are The Women Redux, which (among other things) talks about conferences that claim they can't find enough women speakers because their aren't enough women in those top leadership roles. Anne makes a fabulous point with:
"It’s no surprise that you might find more “smart” women speakers elsewhere than in the upper reaches of large tech and media companies. Part of being smart is weighing your options and making tradeoffs. Women face a radically different opportunity landscape than do men. I’m not going to say one or the other landscape is better–they’re different. But if you care about having more women as speakers at your tech conference, you might have to go with someone other than a senior level executive or dealmaker type."

So, yes, I'm thinking that we should wean ourselves from evaluating professional success on management level (even if it's within a company we started and own). Rather than asking about someone's rank, position, job title, number of direct reports, power, etc. we should focus on one simple question: how closely does the work you do match the work you want to do? We should start thinking of ways to make sure that kick-ass individual contributors can be compensated just as well as managers, so that they aren't torn between getting a promotion that sucks (into management) or sticking with what they're good at and love, for less pay.

[And yes, I realize that this is all way over-simplified with tons of big, tricky issues including the whole ugly mess about how some jobs (engineers) are considered so much more valuable than others (teachers), etc. But even if I were smart enough to take that all on (I'm not), we can't do it all in one blog.]

We should start thinking in Venn diagrams instead of hierarchical org charts. But I want to know what you think--I've seen this from only one side--as an individual contributor who'd rather program in punch cards than do an Employee Performance Review.

Posted by Kathy on September 6, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (47) | TrackBack