Five(ish) Things I Don't Know About You
Imagine you want to get to know someone and you can ask only five questions. What would you ask? What would you most want to know? Obviously it depends on the context--you'd ask different questions of someone you're dating vs. a job interviewee vs. a customer vs. someone your daughter is dating. But I wonder, should the questions we ask our users be that different from the ones we'd ask our dates?
Think of all those surveys you've taken. If you're signing up for a conference, magazine, or online news site, you usually get things like:
1) What do you do for a living? [Choose an industry and job title]
2) How big is your budget?
4) What are your purchasing plans for [whatever the domain is, with timeframes]
3) Are you "the decider"?
In other words, "How useful are you to our advertisers and sponsors?" Those surveys say to me, "The only thing we care about is how much you can buy."
If it's a customer survey, you often get things like:
1) How old are you?
2) What gender are you?
3) How old are your kids?
4) What's your total household income?
5) Do you own or rent your home?
In other words, "The only thing we care about is selling more things to you and other people who fit your demographics."
Those questions tell you little about me as a person. If we want passionate users, shouldn't we care about what they care about? Obviously there are personal questions that might not be appropriate for customers, but most of us here are trying to have a more personal connection with users, and that means doing more to get to know them as individual people.
By now, you've probably seen the "Five Things You Probably Don't Know About Me" meme floating around, which I've enjoyed reading. And several wonderful bloggers have tagged me for this including:
and the must-must-must read creativity guy Roger von Oech
Well, I'm much more interested in knowing something about you--our wonderful readers we learn so much from. So, I'm asking you for a huge favor--to answer some or all of the following five questions here in comments--or on your own blog (please let us know). Which brings me back to the start of this post, which five questions should I ask? Normally my first question would be, "Which books do you wish others would read?", but fortunately I've already asked y'all that and got a fantastic reading list. But, here are the other five(ish) things I'd love to know:
0) What's your name and website URL? (optional, of course)
1) What's the most fun work you've ever done, and why? (two sentences max)
2) A. Name one thing you did in the past that you no longer do but wish you did? (one sentence max)
B. Name one thing you've always wanted to do but keep putting it off? (one sentence max)
3) A. What two things would you most like to learn or be better at, and why? (two sentences max)
B. If you could take a class/workshop/apprentice from anyone in the world living or dead, who would it be and what would you hope to learn? (two more sentences, max)
4) A. What three words might your best friends or family use to describe you?
B. Now list two more words you wish described you...
5) What are your top three passions? (can be current or past, work, hobbies, or causes-- three sentences max)
6) (sue me) Write--and answer--one more question that YOU would ask someone (with answer in three sentences max)
[Bonus: What is one question you wish people would ask themselves?]
Thanks! And best wishes to y'all for a wonderful 2007. I know 2006 sucked for many of us, but the new year is a powerful metaphor for 'starting new.' At the very least, you get to start a new calendar and crack open a crisp, fresh, Moleskine ; )
Don't make the Demo look Done
When we show a work-in-progress (like an alpha release) to the public, press, a client, or boss... we're setting their expectations. And we can do it one of three ways: dazzle them with a polished mock-up, show them something that matches the reality of the project status, or stress them out by showing almost nothing and asking them to take it "on faith" that you're on track.
The bottom line:
How 'done' something looks should match how 'done' something is.
Every software developer has experienced this many times in their career. But desktop publishing tools lead to the same headache for tech writers--if you show someone a rough draft that's perfectly fonted and formatted, they see it as more done than you'd like. We need a match between where we are and where others perceive we are.
Joel Spolsky talked about this way back when in The Iceberg Secret, Revealed. The secret:
"You know how an iceberg is 90% underwater? Well, most software is like that too -- there's a pretty user interface that takes about 10% of the work, and then 90% of the programming work is under the covers... That's not the secret.
The secret is that People Who Aren't Programmers Do Not Understand This."
He goes on to add corollaries including:
"If you show a nonprogrammer a screen which has a user interface that is 90% worse, they will think that the program is 90% worse."
"If you show a nonprogrammer a screen which has a user interface which is 100% beautiful, they will think the program is almost done."
You'll have to read the rest to get the other corollaries, and to see where else he takes the topic.
My First Robert Scoble talked about this recently, in a story about the early fake prototypes of Vista:
"Later... I found out that all we really saw were Macromedia Director-based movies. They looked so cool...how good they made us feel... This actually was NOT a good thing for Microsoft...when you build up expectations and you aren't able to meet them you look pretty silly.
But behind the scenes things were even worse. Why? Because executives bought into the Flash and Mirrors song and dance too. They thought what they were seeing was possible... it's very possible that what you are dreaming of is simply not possible."
So, overpromising by delivering a flashy (or Photoshopy or Powerpointy or Visioy) demo is tempting, but it's short-term gain (you're a hero to your client, boss, the public) with long-term pain. But there's another problem with overdone demos that's just if not more damaging than wrong expectations:
The more "done" something appears, the more narrow and incremental the feedback
We see this with books and software all the time. Show them something polished and pretty, and you'll get feedback on font sizes. The reviewers make incremental tweaks, blinded by what's in front of them. But show a napkin sketch, and they don't just see what's there, they see what's possible. Obviously you need to tell reviewers about the kind of feedback you DO want at this stage... you don't want big-picture-forest feedback when you've really moved on to the tree stage. My point is: all you'll get is tree-tweaks when you show something finished-looking, so if you want big picture, make it fuzzy!
Finally, it's great to know that there are tools to help make the look match the state, with my favorite being the Napkin Look and Feel, a GUI "skin" for Java that makes the interface look--quite literally--like it was scrawled on a napkin. I think it's brilliant, and creator Ken Arnold (Java guru, fellow Sun refugee) paid astonishing attention to detail. For example, if the radio buttons were all exactly the same, no matter how sketched they look, their exact sameness would break the spell. So, there's more than one of nearly all of the GUI components from sliders to buttons to tabs to...
Here's just one picture, but I urge you to go check out the snapshots on Sourceforge or even better, try the actual Java demo (you can get to the demo from the link above).
I realize that there are a million exceptions and caveats (like, for example, when you'll be fired if you don't show something jaw-dropping early on), but in general, the more closely what you SHOW matches what you HAVE, the more likely you are to have less pissed-off people down the road, and the more likely you are to get much better feedback, at the stage you need it. Bottom line: when it's an early demo, think fuzzy. Think sketchy. Think underpromise-and-overdeliver.
* 37Signals blog talks about how to make sure you fix the 'placeholder' stuff before the final release
UPDATE: flow/state discusses the same thing in Matching Design sketches to the desired level of design feedback]
My First Scoble: a DIY gift idea
Give that special boss, client, co-worker, employee, friend, etc. their own action figure doll. You can do it the cheap way -- about $6.00, or the ultra-expsensive way -- $300 and up. It's a great way to call out someone's special attributes and let them know you've been paying attention. This "tradition" started when I was at Sun, and several of my former Sun co-workers have kept it up. So for this Christmas, I made a My First Scoble doll for Robert Scoble.
This little DIY project takes about an hour, and the following materials:
1) An action figure / doll
I prefer Barbie or Ken-style dolls, but virtually anything will work. The "Blaine" doll (one of Ken's friends) cost $4.00 at Target. The easiest ones to work with have a simple rectangular box, so it's easy to completely cover it with your own print-out.
2) Some digital photos of the person
3) Some typical or favorite quotes/sayings... things the person is known for (or that you want to make fun of)
4) Ink-jet paper with low-tack sticky backing.
I prefer the Post-it Picture Paper, in 8.5 x 11 size, because it's got a fairly strong stickiness, but you can still reposition it without tearing anything!
Modified Side One:
Modified Side Two:
First, I measured the box--the one I used for My First Scoble was 13.5 inches tall and 7.5 inches wide
Next, I made a single image to cover the back and sides of the box. I used Photoshop, but any desktop publishing or image-creation program will do. Even though this isn't a "talking" doll, people seem to enjoy having their quotes, so we always include a list of things the doll would say.
Finally, I printed the image on the ink jet post-it note paper, cut the edges off with a paper cutter, and wrapped the entire thing around the box. Since the box was longer than the post-it note (the box was 13.5, and the paper was only 11.5 inches tall), I had to print it on two separate sheets and then splice it together. The post-it note stickiness makes this really easy.
For My First Scoble, I also needed to make a label/logo for the front to cover up the "Barbie". And just for fun, I changed the shirt to a white one I had from another doll, so that I could make it into one of Hugh's Gaping Void t-shirts. The cartoon on the shirt is actually one that Robert's been photographed in many times.
So that's the simple and inexpensive version.
* Include miniature items (accessories).
I was going to make a tiny copy of Robert and Shel's book, Naked Conversations, and put it in the doll's hand, but I ran out of time.
* Alter the clothes or make new ones.
OpenOffice goddess Solveig Haugland (her new OpenOffice book just came out) is the one who started this whole thing at Sun, and she's quite the crafter. She's made clothes for some of them that match what the person is wearing in a picture. I took the easy way out and made a custom t-shirt for Scoble just by sticking an image on a white t-shirt from another doll of the same size.
* Create a completely custom box.
THE EXPENSIVE OPTION
For a usually-hefty fee, you can have a company make a custom-molded head based on photos of the person. In other words, you can have a personalized action-figure created! Companies that do this include:
Highly Flammable Toys creates one-off action figures. Very very cool.
Herobuilders makes personalized action figures. I don't know much about them.
HeadBobble makes... wait for it... custom bobble-heads. They're much less expensive (the site says they start at $69) than a fully-custom action figure.
Michael Leavitt can be commissioned to make custom action figures.
Andgor is my favorite company for this, but I can't get to their website right now... I'm hoping that's just temporary and you can try it later.
On this blog, we always talk about making our users into heros, so why give at least one special user or client their own superhero figure or... at least a custom Ken doll like My First Scoble ; )
Have a festive Christmas or a happy whatever! I'll be back in a couple of days with "real" content. For now, cheers to all.
(Robert: sorry I didn't finish this sooner; it'll have to be a post-Xmas gift ; )
(I also modded Barbie for my friend Tara Hunt -- complete with a miniskirt and boots (Tara is, well, hot)-- but I still have one thing left to do, Tara, so stay tuned...)
[I used CC photos of Scoble from Flickr, taken by the following people:
JDLasica, Thomas Hawk, Derek K Miller, Scott Beale / Laughing Squid, Peter Orosz, Mike Dunn, Kris Krug,Jason DeFillippo, Tantek. They all have tons of other wonderful photos]
What you DO affects what you THINK
What our users DO with our products--or even what they see someone else do--has a bigger effect on their brains than we might believe. How we move (or imagine moving) our bodies changes our thoughts. And if there's a mismatch between thought and physical action, brains don't like it. Whether you're designing interfaces or instructional materials, you can't afford to ignore the research on this.
The rest of this post won't make sense unless you do the following exercises, so... you've been warned.
1) Say the word "zeal" out loud. Twice, clearly.
2) Without changing the position of your mouth and lips, imagine yourself saying "zeal." Make sure you "hear" it.
3) Now--this is the important one--open your mouth as wide as you possibly can, keep it open, and imagine yourself saying the word "zeal."
So, what happened when you tried to imagine saying "zeal" with your mouth wide open? Did the state of your physical body--in this case your mouth--affect your ability to think?
1) Tighten your whole body, grit your teeth, clench your jaw, tense the muscles in your shoulders and arms, and clench your fists. Hold that position and imagine yourself pushing a piece of big heavy furniture across the room.
2) Now relax all your muscles. Let them go as limp as you can, unclench your jaw, relax the face, shoulders, hands, all the way down. Picture yourself lying on a beach listening to the sound of the waves. KEEP THAT RELAXATION in your body for the next step.
3) Holding that completely relaxed position, imagine yourself pushing a piece of big heavy furniture across the room. No matter what, do NOT let your muscles tense up.
What happened? Did the state of your muscles affect your ability to think?
Both of these exercises are from neuroscientist Richard Restak's latest book, The Naked Brain. From the book:
"Our mental processes are sufficiently tethered to our bodily senses that we have difficulty with situations when the brain and other parts of the body aren't in sync."
Even more dramatic, in a test measuring the association of arm posture and attitude, he demonstrates that the way you hold your arms affects how you feel about items you encounter. Apparently even just imagining items while your arms are extended in the "pushing away" position can cause you to like those items less than if you imagined them while your arms were in a flexed "bringing-to me" position.
One experiment he describes:
"Half of the participants in the experiment were asked to push a lever away from them if they reacted positively to a particular word but pull it toward them if the word gave rise to negative associations, while the other half of the participants were told to do the opposite, pulling forward with positive words and pushing away with negative words. Overall, people were faster to respond to positive words when they were pulling instead of pushing the lever, and faster to respond to negative words when they were pushing rather than pulling the lever."
In another experiment, half the participants were told simply to push a lever the instant they saw a word on the screen, regardless of any like or dislike. The other half were told to pull a lever the instant they saw a word. You can imagine what happened... those asked to push the lever reacted more quickly to negative rather than positive words, and those asked to pull reacted more quickly to positive words.
And of course scientists have found evidence now that simply thinking about an action--or watching someone else do the action--activates the same brain regions that would be involved in actually doing it yourself.
I'm sure you can imagine the implications, including one of the key design principles known as natural mapping, outlined so well by Don Norman in The Psychology of Everyday Things (the title was later changed to "The Design of Everyday Things).
A quintessential example of mapping for those new to design:
A switch for moving something up or down should have "up" position move the thing up and the "down" position move the thing down. The most ridiculous example of bad/incorrect mapping would be to reverse that--the "up" switch position moves the thing down, and vice-versa.
Usually we think of mapping in the context of usability and "mental models"--the most natural mapping helps the user intuitively do the right thing without having to consciously think, learn, or remember the switch positions. But Restak's brain/body link goes beyond just mapping, and into attitudes. And when you factor in mirror neurons, then even just the pictures you use on your website can matter.
Consider the following two pictures, and think about your feelings related to each one:
Even if you don't consciously notice anything significant, your brain is still doing that "pushing away = dislike, bringing in = like" thing. (Technically, this is an unfair apples-to-oranges comparison because I was forced to switch genders (I couldn't find suitable pictures of two men or two women), but you still get the idea.)
I'd very much like to hear your thoughts about the body/thought connection, and how it might relate to the kinds of work we're all doing...
Wow -- this is supposedly the biggest snow storm here in a quarter-century. The airport is closed until at least tomorrow... the National Guard is out there now (Denver International is a United hub, so it must be crazy out there). Hello to all my other stranded Colorado friends! : )
Clover ran outside, fell in, panicked, and "swam" back in:
Now she refuses to leave the house:
We're in a blizzard
We're supposed to get a foot of snow today and another foot tomorrow. Flights are cancelled, highways are closed, and I'll be VERY surprised if we don't lose power here at the farm. Fortunately my horses are from Iceland--they're outside loving it and mocking the foofy dressage horses shivering in blankets. The two big horses in the picture--Pride and Dandy--are my roommate Mary's percherons that spent last winter logging in the Canadian bush. (Here's a Quicktime movie of her husband skidding out a log--this is a seriously extreme sport/job). [note: these are beetle-kill logs; they're not chopping down live trees]
This makes my fifth winter living in Colorado--after a lifetime in southern California--and I'm still physically, mentally, and emotionally unprepared for living with snow. But this means there'll be powder at Copper Mountain, so... I can deal with it. ; )
Stay warm, everyone.
Sometimes the magic is in the imperfections
What makes indie films more appealing than so many of the huge Hollywood productions? What makes indie music more interesting than the slick big label big production records? What's the magic that disappears when you hear the studio-mix version of something you once heard live? Not that most of us have the problem of too big a budget for our own good, but still... maybe we should think about whether some imperfections might be a good thing. Maybe we should consider whether we're trying too hard to smooth all the rough edges.
I'm not even sure this applies to much other than music and movies, but it's definitely a big deal there. A couple examples:
His breakout hit, Babylon, was on the album White Ladder -- an album he produced mostly in his apartment, using electronic sounds to back up his acoustic guitar and piano. One of the best parts of that record was the combination of cheesy drum machine sounds and the faint hint of traffic noise from the street below. It definitely had that home-made, soulful feel.
Fast forward-- he gets big and ultimately his last album was a big, slick, high production value studio recording that sucked the life right out of the music. (In my opinion)
If you had a chance to see this kid play live during the 2000-2001 time especially, you know what I'm talking about. I saw him at a small, used record store in Denver the first time in 2000, and he walks out with an acoustic guitar... and some strange foot controller devices. He constructs the songs in realtime, using looping and other effects to layer in percussion, other voices, different guitar parts, etc. It was captivating. But then his records--where he has an Actual Band to do the work--all sound like so much pop music crap. It lost the imperfections that came with building a song on-the-fly with one person and some gear.
I happened to see Thomas Dolby the other night, in the fantastic DeviantART show with BT, and Dolby also does a lot of his music through layering in pieces in realtime. I've never much cared for his music--certainly not enough to buy it and play it at home--but his show was amazing, and now I'm much more interested in his records. One of the really fun things in his show was his head-cam-- you get to see what he's looking at when he's fiddling the midi controls, switching rapidly between various input devices, etc.
If you happen to be near a city where the tour is (MD, PA, VA, NY are the remaining shows, I think), you should check it out. And the BT show will make your head explode in a good way.
I'm not sure how much this notion of overproduction vs. imperfection applies to other products, but I suspect it does, depending on how you define perfection. A typo in a book would be a mistage, not an imperfection that gives it life. But a more casual tone that occasionally violates your fourth-grade Grammar Rules might be just the imperfection it needs. I don't know. What do you think? Is there an "indie sensibility" that applies to other things besides music, film, and fashion?
Tech t-shirts aren't sexy enough
I've been to seven JavaOne conferences. I've paid more than $10,000 of my own money, just for the attendance fee. You'd think--just once--they'd give me a show shirt that didn't hide the fact that I have, say, breasts. You'd think--just once--they'd take part of the $2000 entrance fee and spend, oh, .1% extra to print up some shirts that sub-6-foot folks can wear. And it's not just Sun's JavaOne show, of course--practically every tech company out there is guilty. If I had a dime for every booth vendor who's smiled and said , "Here, you can sleep in it!", I'd be typing this from my ocean-front villa. (Pssst--tech companies: most of us women don't sleep in anything, but I digress...)
The formula we've done to death on this blog is pretty simple:
How are you helping your users kick ass?
I put "helping them look good" in the "kicking ass" category.
But that's not even the point. The point is showing us that you care about more than just saving a few bucks on a t-shirt print run. That you care about ALL your users, not just the Big Burly Men. And even if you do not care, you'd think the marketers would get a clue that people aren't going to be wearing your logo around giving you free advertising if the shirt doesn't fit.
The bar's been set pretty low on this, so even a MEN'S SMALL would make me happy. But Webstock went all the way to give the gals women's shirts. I actually wear mine all the time. I've even been photographed wearing it at another conference.
I so don't want a lecture on logistics or saving money by making shirts for the largest common denominator. And I don't want to hear that, after all, it IS mostly men at these things. So what if you have some leftover shirts? Give them out at other tech events. Send them to user groups. Donate them to a homeless shelter.
Yes, you could argue that as a web-focused show rather than a pure programming event, Webstock was likely to have more women than JavaOne, so it made sense. And that's true, but doesn't explain why I also got a fitted, flattering, rather sexy blue tee at GUADEC (the GNOME user's and developer's european conference) which was not expecting but a very few women attendees. But they treated us like we mattered too. Like we weren't the tacked-on not-really-target-audience people. Besides, this isn't even a gender thing... it's a SIZE thing. There are plenty of men who don't look that much better in an XXL Hanes Beefy T than I do.
This is partly tongue-in-cheek, but still...the t-shirts are a metaphor for--or at least a reflection of--the way the company feels about users as individual people. The shirts matter, and they speak volumes about your company.
And hey, tech companies, I AM available to beta test your freshly-minted women's T's (size small or x-small). In fact, for any tech company that tells me they'll be keeping plenty of women's shirts on hand for trade shows, user groups, etc., I'll post a picture of the shirt on this blog. But it better make me look good. ; )
Become the thing that replaces you
I asked Little Miss MySpace what happens when something new comes along... when someone else makes a MySpace-Killer. Skyler said, "Why does it have to be someone else? MySpace can just become that (whatever 'that' is)." She knows nothing of the business or politics of MySpace--she's simply a passionate user. And she's never read The Innovator's Dilemma. But she still has a point: why shouldn't we be the ones to build our own "killer"?
Whether we're trying to innovate around our existing products and services or trying to find a completely new idea, we have to back up to the meta-level rather than focus on implementation. Obviously implementation matters... a lot. But implementation of what? Why build a better XYZ if all that matters to users is the Z? What if XYZ is just one way to give users what they really want--JKL--and there's actually a much better way to help them do JKL? A way that makes XYZ unnecessary?
If we're not careful, we can take our existing success and misattribute it to an implementation detail that was never important.
Or worse... we can misattribute our success to something that's actually a problem but that users managed to cope with. Right up to the time we upgraded that thing-they-never-liked to give it a bigger role.
Yes, this is just another one more of those DUH topics, but as with so many others--it's too easy to get sidetracked by either our own success or the success of someone else's product or service that we're trying to build a better version of. And that's one reason why trying to reverse-engineer the success of a product is tricky. We get stuck rationalizing why some implementation detail is important, when it may be nothing more than noise.
An example of outstanding implementation that ignored the meta-level
The now-dead Purple Moon software company was the result of millions of dollars and years of research at Paul Allen's Interval Research think tank. They had finally found the secret sauce to getting girls--the great untapped market--into gaming. By the time the company's first product launched (1997), they knew just about everything you could know about what young (10-14 years) girls wanted and how they differed from boys. So they took their exhaustive and expensive research effort and created the ultimate implementation.
The implementation was awesome... beautiful graphics, clever characters and story, slick marketing, and a world-class leader who many of us still practically worship, Brenda Laurel. If anythng could finally bring girls to the games, it would be the perfectly-pedigreed Purple Moon's first game, Rockett's New School.
Except it sucked.
At the meta-level.
Because what is the meta-level for a game? Oh yes, fun. Purple Moon got the individual implementation details right, and applied all that they'd learned from the research, but forgot the forest. Fun.
Skyler was an early beta-tester, and had been looking forward to the game I'd been hyping for so long. But the first thing she said when she read the overview document was, "Why would I want to play a game about a girl trying to fit into a new school? HELLO! I've DONE that in real life and it wasn't fun then. I'd rather play Blobbo."
[Warning: gratuitous kid photo... this is Skyler today]
[Fortunately, she reads this blog only twice a year--she'd kill me if she knew I posted this. Let's just keep it our little secret.]
Granted, Skyler wasn't the typical pre-teen. She didn't do Barbie. (She would have given a kidney for her My Little Pony collection, however). But still, when you strip away Purple Moon's research and implementation details, Occam's Razor applies: Just. Wasn't. Fun.
With our books, that meta-thing is learning. And if we get off track by focusing on and EQ'ing our implementation details without remembering that, we're sunk. So if we try to figure out our own "killer", we'll do it only by staying true to the meta-level forest.
Many of us are creating products or services where the barrier to entry for a competitor is not all that high. The only thing we have to really protect us is a willingness to throw out even our most successful products in order to build a better reflection of what matters to users at the meta-level. And that might look nothing like our current, successful product. Keeping focused on meta-levels is also the key to avoiding being trapped by fads or fashion. Fads and fashion ("rounded", "glossy", "extreme", "twittery" [sorry, couldn't resist ; ) ] tend to be implementation details, not meta-level concepts ("have fun", "kick ass", "be smarter", "have more time in flow", etc.)
Finding the meta-level
The best trick we know for finding the meta-level is to play the five-why's / why-who-cares-so-what game. Ask your users (or even just yourself) what's important about a product. When they answer, ask, "Why?" When they answer that, say, "So?" and when they answer that, say, "Who cares?" and keep going until you get to the heart of it. (And if you haven't played this before, most people stop WAY too early and miss what matters the most.) Only then do you discover that this feature the users--and you--believed to be meaningful was simply a tolerable way to do what they really wanted. When they say that X is important, dig deep enough and you might find that it was only because X let them do Z, and that there's a much better way to make that happen.
Again, I know we all know this. But it's so hard to do, and the more successful your product or service, the harder it becomes. "Don't mess with success" is often the biggest barrier to becoming your own "killer".
A prominent tech book author wrote on a public forum, "Your Head First books will be fine just until the next hot new thing comes along to replace it." I said, "Yes, and that's why I want to be the one to replace it."
Two more words that might change your life (or at least your lunch hour)
Things I learned from my horse trainers #42: practice saying, "Hmmmm... how interesting." Say it when you're frustrated. Say it when you're mad. Most importantly, say it before you say or do anything else (including hit the "send" or "post" button).
It should be the first thing out of your mouth when things go wrong--or don't meet your expectations--because:
1) It inserts a pause and gives you a moment to think before you react.
2) It keeps you from taking things too personally
If someone calls you an idiot (or worse) saying "hmmm...how interesting..." changes your reaction from purely emotional to more curious and detached.
3) It helps you ask more questions instead of jump to conclusions.
With horses, the main goal of the "how interesting" technique is to keep you from losing patience and blaming the horse. If you say "how interesting," it helps you explore reasons, including what your own role in this might be. It makes problems feel more like puzzles.
I learned this trick only a few months' ago, and it helped when I had my little incident with Leira. But it also helped my perspective after my Web 2.0 post. Instead of being purely pissed off and defensive at some of the harsher things said about me on other blogs, for example, I thought about my horses and said, "Hmmmmm... how interesting... " which brought me to a new question, "I wonder what it is about Web 2.0 that leads to such strong emotional reactions in some people...?"
And that changed everything ; )
Imagine how it would effect you if you said "hmmm...how interesting" to yourself when a co-worker puts that picture of you on Flickr. Imagine saying this when your dog chews your digital camera's USB cable. Imagine saying this when your six-year old calls her teacher an ass. In class. Imagine saying this when your girlfriend flirts with your roommate (the one that looks like Brad Pitt). Imagine saying this when your clients make you crazy expecting you to, say, make their marketing "viral". Imagine saying this to the compiler.
Imagine saying "hmmm...how interesting" when you tell someone you're mad at them and they cock their head and say, "hmmmm... how interesting..."
So... in what situations could you say "hmmm... how interesting"?