User Community and ROI
Every time I give a talk, someone always asks, "That's all good and nice that helping users learn is the key to creating passionate users... but who's going to do all that extra work? Who's going to make the extra tutorials and better docs?" Answer: your user community. Think about all the things a strong user community can do for you: tech support, user training, marketing (evangelism, word of mouth), third-party add-ons, even new product ideas. And that's not including any extra sales you might make on community/tribe items like t-shirts, stickers, and other gear.
Yes, there's still a budget... but we've all seen third-party fan/user groups that got no support at all from "the mother ship" and yet thrived and gave users a level of support and training the company didn't provide. But there's still that little of issue of getting users involved, and for that--the single biggest factor is getting users involved at a much earlier path on their learning journey than typically happens.
This picture is from an earlier post:
In Building a User Community Part 1 we talked about the importance of not only a strict "There Are No Dumb Questions" policy, but also an even more dedicated "There Are No Dumb Answers" message.
Today, this post will offer a few more tips on how to use your marketing budget (tiny as it may be) to build, support, and grow a user community from the beginning.
* Host some kind of discussion forum (can include chat, wikis, and blogs as well), and do whatever it takes to get people there as soon as possible, ideally while the thing is still in beta (but it's never too late to start!)
* Look on other third-party forums where users are discussing (which usually means struggling) your product, and find the most active people. Reach out to your earliest adopters or strongest new users and offer them non-paid incentives for becoming active. Chances are, if you have any users at all and your product is even the least bit complicated, people are discussing it somewhere. This could be anywhere from Amazon product reviews to technical discussion boards and even comments on related blogs.
* Make these folks life-time "charter members" with special privileges and recognition as 'founders' that nobody else will ever get.
* Have levels and rewards for participating (but again, not money--that totally changes the motivation, or at least the perceived motivation). The rewards can simply be status, early access to betas, and especially restricted access to the developers where they can discuss their ideas or at least listen to the engineers and designers describe why they made the choices they did, etc. [Don't reward people for post quantity alone... if post-count is the only criteria, you end up with a zillion useless posts]. Study successful user group communities for examples (like, say, javaranch.com--3/4 million unique visitors a month).
* Teach users how to help other members by creating documents (or getting other users to write them) on how to ask and answer questions in the most productive way.
* Include some just-for-fun activities in your community, like one (usually ONLY one) totally off-topic forum.
* Make sure there are interesting, easy-access ways for users to get to know more about one another. Be SURE to have user profile pages that include gender, photos, and some other personal info in addition to the specifics related to this particular community. Which leads to...
* Encourage members to meet offline! Hold a dirt-cheap User's Conference, ideally in more than one city, to get things started. Start a forum from the people who sign-up for the conference, and offer user group or forum leaders free entry to the event (and be sure to have a private user group or forum leader cocktail reception). Tips for that are in this recent post on face-to-face). Create a document on How To Start A User Group, and make sure users know how to get it. There is a great series of posts on how to start a user group written by the guys behind the Edmonton .NET User Group. (Thanks guys)
* Encourage forum moderators or other community leaders to have their own private discussion space.
* Don't tolerate abuse of the beginners, but don't force the experts to have to put up with newbie issues. As any community matures, you must provide separate areas for newbies and experts... if the community culture is one of generosity and motivation, there will still be enough experts who want to spend time helping newbies.
* Why not help your top community leaders get a book deal? You never know... if it's a tech topic, direct them (or yourself) over to Wiley publisher Joe Wikert for some excellent and candid advice (search his archives, and you'll find everything from how to write a proposal, whether you need an agent, etc.)
* Consider starting a monthly "official" user group membership subscription, with something that comes in the real mail each month. Think about it. Think about how you feel when Fedex or UPS pulls up with that little Amazon box with the smile on the side. Each month, send them a newsletter or DVD. Where's the budget for that content? Get your users involved! Have them submit things, and use the small monthly membership fee to cover the cost of materials and mailing, etc. Maybe you can partner with a sponsor on this, to include other things in the monthly "kit."
* Create limited-edition, not-for-sale t-shirts, stickers, and other gear JUST for the founding community members (if you're just getting started in building a community). For ongoing communities, do the same thing and distribute them randomly, for free. Use the principle of "intermittent variable reward" that works so well to make slot machines and twitter so addicting ; )
* Make your community leaders or even just active participants HEROES. Create "superhero" Moo cards for them. Plaster their photos everywhere. (Cute story I heard from a reader here -- she met her husband online while they were both moderators for an Autodesk CAD forum.)
* Host an offline retreat just for the key community leaders. Can't afford to do what Microsoft does with its Search Champs? Can't afford to put people up at the "W"? Have a campout. Supply the marshmallows.
* Above all, keep teaching members to teach other members. Give everyone a crash course in learning theory. The better they become at helping others--the more skills they develop in mentoring/tutoring others--the more meaningful and motivating it is for them to keep on doing it..
These are just a few tips for now. Stay tuned for more. And of course, please add your own... while I have quite a lot of user group/community experience having launched several groups from scratch, they were all technology-related, and many of you are from very different domains.
Is your app an ass-kisser?
If your app was an employee, what kind of employee would it be? When it's employee performance review time, how would you rate it? These are just a few of the apps I've worked with recently...
What other app/product employee-types are there? Know any apps that need an employee appraisal?
Random Tuesday Links
Some Tuesday links:
We love Jeff Atwood at Coding Horror, and thanks to Ryan Fox for pointing out this post on friendlier 404 pages. Ryan was kind enough to refer to our 404 page here as "not great" as opposed to what he was actually thinking. [We've added that to the list of things to fix.]
Jacqueline Nagel translated one of our posts into German. You'll have to guess which post this was from. Thanks Jacky!
There's a very short video clip the SXSW folks put together, edited from my opening remarks there. It's not exactly the way it happened in the talk -- they cut things and rearranged things -- but it does show a couple of the slides about The Suck Threshold.
My good friends at Stikkit wrote to say they have integrated a version of the WTF button into an upcoming beta. (You'll see a WTF button in the video clip from SXSW). I'm sure Asha Dornfest will let us know when we can actually see it in action.
Marty Baker has some good stuff on creativity at Creativity Central
Richard Sauerman started a new blog, Wake Up Tiger with a tagline and premise that sounds disturbingly a bit too self-helpish for me, but it isn't. It's funny, it's creative and sassy (manages to stay above the "cheesy/sappy" threshold), and it's really making me smile!
(Warning: it is only 98% safe for work).
Longtime reader here Thierry Koehrien has a new publishing project, and the English version is here.
Alright, Nathan and Max have a passion for... ink. Yes, ink. Like the kind you put in your printer and pay too much for. They even have a show, and against my will, I find myself enjoying this. If these guys can make a passion-site out of ink, you can do it with frickin' anything.
If you're interested in humanizing the user's experience (and I know you are), don't forget to check out Humanized.
Those of you at my SXSW opening know why The Daily Puppy is important. As for the mystery behind the not-always-subliminal gratuitous puppy photos in my talk, I'm leaving that for an exercise for the reader, although those of you who've been to my older "Creating Passionate Users" talk have a pretty good idea. The fun/silly thing was that throughout the week, a few other panelists threw random puppy photos into their slides, regardless of the topic. I loved it.
Helping users "feel the fear and do it anyway"
We've said before that reducing fear might be a killer app... making something users were previously afraid of feel less threatening. Wesabe does this for personal finances. Dr. Laurie Kemet does this for a trip to the dentist. And Electric Rain does this for 3D. Our books try to do this for programming. But what about a step beyond that... where you help them do something that just IS really, seriously, scary? Making only things which are friendly and easy is not the holy grail of design.
Reduce my fear or guilt, and I'll be grateful. Help me do something that really IS scary, and I'll be grateful and exhilarated. I'll be forever changed, and your company, product, or service will be linked to that change. To reduce fear means taking something perceived as scary and showing users that it's not. But not everything can be made to appear friendly and easy and safe. Like Apple's Logic. The learning curve is steep, it looks overwhelming and intimidating, but the payoff can be high. What if instead of removing advanced features that make a product inherently daunting, it's OK to say to users, "This IS hard. Really, frickin' hard. But we'll get you through it."
Sometimes, with some products, it's OK to say, "We can't make this any easier or less scary, but we can help you come out the other side."
A short time ago I went on the Sydney Bridge Climb. At night. It was the most frightening thing I've ever done. But when it was over, I felt braver, stronger, and different. I'll never forget the Bridge Climb, and I'll probably be recommending it for the rest of my life.
We can reduce guilt:
We can reduce fear:
But helping a user be afraid and do it anyway is a powerful force. We shouldn't be too quick to over-simplify a product or experience. Of course, it's up to us to get our users through the big, challenging, thing--there's a big responsibility for stellar documentation and support. And we're talking moral support, not just tech support, so building a user community is even more important with something really, really, scary.
I've talked before about the benefits to us when we do something scary, but maybe we can help give those benefits to our advanced (or trying to be) users.
So, what scary thing have YOU done lately?
How to host a product/feature design party
Want to design the next great web app? Upgrade your product, but can't decide what to add or change? Add a new feature to your product, but can't decide how to implement it? Forget focus groups. Forget endless meetings and brainstorming sessions. Throw an ultra-rapid-design party, and do it in a single day. This approach exploits the wisdom-of-crowds through a process of enforced idea diversity and voting, so no consensus, committe, or even agreement is needed. And it's way more fun.
The Product Design Dinner Party takes 9 people, a pile of diverse "inputs", and has each of the 9 people voting on--and pitching--one another's ideas to continuously reconfigured groups of 3 people, letting the best ideas rise to the top. The process is a little complicated, but it's derived/modified from an existing rapid-prototyping design I'll talk about later in the post.
The basic idea looks like this, although there are a million ways to modify it:
1) Pick 9 people, ideally from different parts of your company and including some customers. (If you don't have a company yet, pick 9 friends--preferably those who don't know each other well)
2) Buy/borrow/find at least 20 "input materials" including books, magazines, a short film, graphic novels, etc. (a list of possibilities is a little lower in this post)
3) Assign (randomly) at least 2 "inputs" to each person. Do NOT let them choose (it's important they not be allowed to gravitate toward things they're already comfortable with)
4) Give the group 30 minutes to generate 4 ideas (if it's a feature/upgrade party, then 4 different features or feature sets... if it's a feature implementation party, then 4 different ways to implement the already-decided feature, etc.) These 4 ideas don't have to come directly from their input materials, although participants should be highly encouraged to describe at least one new thing they learned that inspired their idea.
5) Round One begins: split into 3 groups of 3 people (see chart below). Each person gets no more than 10 minutes to "pitch" four ideas to the other two in their group. There are 12 total ideas for this group, so allow about 30 minutes. Record (anonymously) the selections of each person, which represent a "vote" for the ideas.
6) At the end of Round One, each person must select their two favorite ideas from each of the other two members of their group. So if Group One had Fred, Mary, and Sue... then Fred must select his two favorite ideas from the four that Mary pitched, and his two favorites that Sue pitched.
7) Round Two begins: reconfigure the groups so that each person is now with different people (see chart below). Instead of pitching their own four ideas, each person pitches the four ideas they chose from their previous group members. Again, they have about 10 minutes to pitch the four ideas. Remember, the point is that each person is no longer pitching their own ideas!
8) At the end of Round Two, each person must again select their two favorite ideas from each of the other two members of this new group. Record (anonymously) the selections of each person, which represent a "vote" for the ideas.
9) Round Three begins: reconfigure the groups again. Each person in the group now pitches the four ideas (two from each of the two members of their most recent group) they chose in the previous (Round Two) round.
10) At this point, each person has pitched a total of 12 ideas:
* Round One: pitch your own four ideas
* Round Two: pitch four ideas from your Round One group to your new Round Two group -- two ideas from each of your previous group's other members.
* Round Three: pitch four ideas from your Round Two group to your new Round Three group, as before.
11) At the end of Round Three, again each person selects their top two favorite ideas from the ones pitched by the other two members. Record these as a vote.
12) You should now have a total of 108 votes. Choose the top 9 vote-getters (you'll have to be creative about tie-breaking... you could choose more than 9, for example).
13) Give each person a copy of the 9 ideas, and send them back for another round of "inputs." Again, assign each person different materials from the ones they used at the beginning.
14) Give the participants 30 minutes to use their inputs and flesh out a single idea from the nine. Their one idea can be a modified version of one of the nine, based on their "research." Their one idea could be a mashup of two or more of the nine ideas. It cannot, however, be something completely new. Participants should be prepared to explain how something they got from their inputs helped in some way (not an absolute requirement).
15) Now it's up to you what to do with the ideas. You might choose just one, or take all 9 "winners" with their pitches back to another person or group, etc.
Group Configurations (just an idea to get you started):
While it might be hard to believe a process like this could lead to any useful ideas, it's actually derived from a well-desiged, heavily-field-tested rapid-prototyping/development process from one of the leading training consultants on the planet, Thiagi. Granted, that doesn't mean my modifications haven't completely messed it up, but the main goals and benefits of doing it this way are:
1) Time constraints
Constraint-fueled creativity is something we've talked about earlier, so I won't discuss it here.
Build something cool in 24 hours
Creativity on Speed
How to make something amazing right now
and a little in Don't wait for the muse
2) Forced lack of attachment
By having to pitch someone else's ideas instead of your own (after Round One), it keeps people from getting stuck/married/attached to their own idea.
3) Random, outside-your-domain inputs
By having to use pre-selected (and pre-assigned) materials from outside your domain, participants have a better chance for a diversity-driven inspiration.
The whole thing is based on the assumption that you have all the knowledge you need -- the wisdom within your own company and your customers... you just need a way to tap into it that doesn't dilute the idea (as design-by-consensus would do) or prevent innovation (as design-by-listening-to-customers would do).
Ideas for "input materials"
Books on a wide range of topics outside your domain including architecture, astronomy, pop culture, filmmaking, comic books, wedding planning, education, children's book, romance-novel-writing, crafts magazine, travel book, sports, history, environment, etc.
If it's a software product, you might assign people to look at a variety of pre-chosen sites or web apps that are way outside your domain.
I've used this in the training world -- as a tool for learners to help come up with what they ought to be learning, but I've never used it in the way I've described here. I'm looking forward to trying it...
(And yes, I took a little artistic license with the photo at the top--pizza and coke might be better than alcohol. Then again...)
I'd love to hear ideas for modifying this, or from anyone who's done anything like this!
Seven Blog Virtues (for a Global Microbrand)
I was on a panel at SXSWi based on Hugh MacLeod's Global Microbrand idea. My slides for that panel were very lightweight--nothing meaty, just an orientation that I believe is really important if you're trying to attract more readers. I've added a little text to the slides and made a PDF here:
So, no secret tips and tricks, just a way of thinking about blogging for the purpose of building a Global Microbrand (whether the brand is you, your product, a cause, etc.).
These slides are under a CC non-commercial, with attribution license, so fee free to use them.
Is Twitter TOO good?
Twitter scares me. For all its popularity, I see at least three issues: 1) it's a near-perfect example of the psychological principle of intermittent variable reward, the key addictive element of slot machines. 2) The strong "feeling of connectedness" Twitterers get can trick the brain into thinking its having a meaningful social interaction, while another (ancient) part of the brain "knows" something crucial to human survival is missing. 3) Twitter is yet another--potentially more dramatic--contribution to the problems of always-on multi-tasking... you can't be Twittering (or emailing or chatting, of course) and simultaneously be in deep thought and/or a flow state.
[Disclaimer: I'm SO in the minority on this one... it looks like about a hundred-to-one in favor of Twitter, so I'm most likely way wrong on this one (but it doesn't stop me from trying). And this post is mostly a mashup of a variety of earlier posts I've made on related subjects.]
I'll look at each of the three points in more detail:
1) The Twitter Slot Machine
One of Skinner's most important discoveries is that behavior reinforced intermittently (as opposed to consistently) is the most difficult to extinguish. In other words, intermittent rewards beat predictable rewards. It's the basis of most animal training, but applies to humans as well... which is why slot machines are so appealing, and one needn't be addicted to feel it.
From a Time magazine feature story on multitasking:
Patricia Wallace, a techno-psychologist,...believes part of the allure of e-mail--for adults as well as teens--is similar to that of a slot machine. "You have intermittent, variable reinforcement," she explains. "You are not sure you are going to get a reward every time or how often you will, so you keep pulling that handle."
2) The feeling of connectedness
The biggest benefit most people seem to be deriving from Twitter is the ability to feel more connected to others. Carson Systems' Lisa put it this way in a comment to Tara Hunt's defense of Twitter:
"Twittering fills in those gaps...recording our friends’ feelings, geographic location and actions as if we were spookily almost there. That makes us feel *really* connected..."
Is this really a good thing?
Probably, yes. For most people, perhaps. But I think it's worth a critical look as opposed to an automatic connected-is-awlays-implicitly-good response. UCSF neurobiologist Thomas Lewis claims that if we're not careful, we can trick a part of our brain into thinking that we're having a real social interaction--something crucial and ancient for human survival--when we actually aren't. This leads to a stressful (but subconscious) cognitive dissonance, where we're getting some of what the brain thinks it needs, but not enough to fill that whatever-ineffable-thing-is-scientists-still-haven't-completely-nailed-but-might-be-smell. He didn't make this claim about Twitter... I attended his talk at The Conference on World Affairs, and he was addressing e-mail, chat, and even television (brain recognizes it's looking at "people", and feels it must be having a social connection (GOOD), but yet it knows something's missing (BAD).
Dr. Lewis cited a ton of studies which I didn't write down, so you can take this with a grain of salt. Plus, I'm extending his issues from e-mail and chat to Twitter. But part of the reasons he talks about are that our brain has evolved an innate ability to interpret body language, facial expression, tone of voice, etc. so the brain expects these channels of information and becomes distressed when the social interaction appears to be there, but these innate, legacy-brain pieces are missing.
Again, this doesn't mean that it's not worth it and highly valuable for people TO stay connected to far-flung family and friends, I'm just saying that it's worth a look at whether that might be lulling some folks into a false sense of "I'm connected" at the expense of real-life connections.
Coffee with your next-door neighbor could do more for your brain than a thousand Twitter updates.
While this same argument has been going around forever, and is the same claim made about television, that doesn't make it untrue. (There's that study about the isolated Canadian village whose collective IQ went down once cable finally came to the village... Lewis cites it in his talks, although I can't find it referenced online).
Ironically, services like Twitter are simultaneously leaving some people with a feeling of not being connected, by feeding the fear of not being in the loop. By elevating the importance of being "constantly updated," it amplifies the feeling of missing something if you're not checking Twitter (or Twittering) with enough frequency.
3) Twitter is the best/worst cause of continuous partial attention
From an earlier post of mine:
Worst of all, this onslaught is keeping us from doing the one thing that makes most of us the happiest... being in flow. Flow requires a depth of thinking and a focus of attention that all that context-switching prevents. Flow requires a challenging use of our knowledge and skills, and that's quite different from mindless tasks we can multitask (eating and watching tv, etc.) Flow means we need a certain amount of time to load our knowledge and skills into our brain RAM. And the more big or small interruptions we have, the less likely we are to ever get there.
And not only are we stopping ourselves from ever getting in flow, we're stopping ourselves from ever getting really good at something. From becoming experts. The brain scientists now tell us that becoming an expert is not a matter of being a prodigy, it's a matter of being able to focus.
We're already seeing a backlash response to info overload, and it seems like a good chunk of Web 2.0 VC investments are going to companies that promise to help us get/stay organized. There's a reason 43 Folders is a Top 100 blog, and it's got to be more than just Merlin Mann's good looks ; )
Lots of people are talking about this, and perhaps nobody more eloquently than Linda Stone:
"To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention -- CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter.
We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention. This artificial sense of constant crisis is more typical of continuous partial attention than it is of multi-tasking."
Do I think Twitter has benefits? Clearly, and Tara does a great job of defining them (although not everyone agrees that these things are all benefits, they are for her and that's what matters).
Do I think people can use Twitter responsibly, without letting it get out of control or become too much of a distraction or encourage the same kind of voyeurism that makes tabloid news and TV so pervasively popular in the US?
All I'm saying is that beyond the hype, we should consider just how far down the rabbit hole of always-on-attention we really want to go.
I am not in the target audience for Twitter--I am by nature a loner. I don't want to be that connected. And I also have a huge appreciation for the art of keeping the mystery alive. I don't want to know that much about so many people, and I sure don't want people to know that much about me... mundane or otherwise. So, that puts me in the minority, and my Twitter fears are probably based solely on my own--quirky and less common--personality traits.
Face-to-Face Trumps Twitter, Blogs, Podcasts, Video...
SXSW Interactive had more attendees than ever before. A lot more. But here's the confusing part: the people attending are the same people who create and evangelize the tools that make attending totally unnecessary. I started my keynote by asking if anyone was live-blogging. Hands shot up across the room. Someone yelled "Twitter!" The whole thing was recorded on video and audio. So... if nobody needed to be there, why were they?
Lots of people claimed it was all about the side/hallway conversations. But chat and Twitter and all the other non-face-to-face tools are pretty damn good at letting you have conversations. Some said it was for the free beer, but seriously, if you needed to come to Austin, pay a few hundred bucks, and stand in lines just to get a beer, you have other issues. The only logical excuse was for those few (or perhaps more) singles who were hoping for some... action. So it must be something illogical, or rather--some ineffable human thing that defies a simple rational explanation.
The point is, face-to-face still matters. And in fact all our globally-connecting-social-networking tools are making face-to-face more, not less desirable. Thanks to the tools y'all are building, we now have more far-flung friends--including people we've never met f2f--than ever before. We now have more people we want to connect with in the human world, often after years of electronic-only contact.
All we (and the scientists researching this) know is that there is something we still haven't managed to replicate in a meaningful way, even with the highest-resolution video conferencing tools. One theory is that it has something to do with smell. Whatever it is, it exerts a powerful pull on our legacy brain... a brain that still has no idea we aren't living in caves where human contact and social face-to-face interaction are key to our survival.
The most underrated benefit of the face-to-face effect of conferences is INSPIRATION.
For me, the single biggest reason to attend an event like SXSW is the feeling of motivation and--as David Seah so aptly put it -- "Rededication". Almost everyone I talked with at SXSW said they were newly inspired. Was it from the ideas they were hearing in the sessions? Some of it, sure. But again, those same ideas are going out to everyone with a browser. No, there's more to it. There's mirror neurons, for one thing, and the effect of emotional contagion that happens when you're around a pile of people who share the same interest and enthusiasm. Everyone comes out re-energized. And you don't need to go to SXSW to get that benefit! Simply attending any live event--from the three-person lunch meetup to the 100-person local user group can give you the most positive effect of being at an event like SXSW.
In my talk, I mentioned two implications of the importance of face-to-face:
1) We should encourage our (human) users to get together in the offline world.
2) We should add more human-ness to the interactions in our software.
In this post, I want to mention a few ideas for the first one.
Get your users to meet other users in the real world!
Where there is passion around an activity or product or service or cause, there are always people wanting to connect with others who share that passion. The more we can help put our users together with one another offline, the more likely we are to get--or increase--user passion.
1) Put together a "How To Start A Local User Group or Club" document.
Include tips on things like finding a space, topic ideas, and getting speakers. (If anyone has one of these, please let us know!)
2) Offer free materials for the user groups
User group meetings often start or end with prize drawings; give the user group leaders plenty of swag for the meetings. It'll make the leaders look good, etc.
3) Treat your user group leaders like royalty
Sun puts JUG (Java User Group) leaders on a pedastal--helping them promote their groups, giving them special receptions at the annual JavaOne conference, etc.
4) Instead of a traditional user group, provide guidelines for a Study Group
(Or a related book club.) Collect advice and lessons from other existing groups. Provide a list of suggested books to read, and 6-months' worth of topic plans. For example, "Month One: read [insert book related to your domain], and have each attendee discuss the following key points..."
5) Hold a very low-cost annual weekend conference.
Make it ridiculously easy for people to get there. Find sponsors to help. Even better if you hold several mini-conferences a year, in different locations.
6) Encourage users to start a local BarCamp (or other *Camp).
Direct your users to the BarCamp Wiki where they can learn how to do it.
7) Use Meetup.com as a resource!
8) If you already have online user forums, enlist moderators to try to form an offline meetup.
This is often one of the best places to start.
9) Hold special cocktail receptions/parties for user group leaders at industry conferences in your domain.
10) Advertise/promote your user group events on your main page!
Remember, passionate users MUST connect with others who share that passion, so this is not a nice-to-have... it's an essential part of any product, service, or cause for which people are passionate.
Bottom line: Face-to-Face matters, and the more people we meet online, the more people we now want to connect with offline. Perhaps one day in the future, the technology will finally catch up with real-life and we'll get the same brain/health benefits from a non-real-world experience. Personally, I hope not. I'd rather see technology that lets us come together in the real world as cheaply and easily as possible, despite wide geographic distances.
And to all who bothered to come to my SXSW talk when you clearly didn't need to, I so SO much appreciate it. I've only recently been speaking at conferences, but I've been attending them for almost 20 years like a junkie. And I don't even go to the parties. I go because I always come back motivated, even by the things I had begun to take for granted.
You don't need to go to SXSW to take advantage of the ideas there... just read the coverage and listen to the podcasts. But to get the real benefit of SXSW without being there, find a local group of people to meet up with! Even if it's three people having a coffee morning, it's important. A lot more important than most of us twittering, IM'ing, blogging, video-chatting folks like to acknowledge.
Searching the CPU Blog Space
As you might guess, I’m a big fan of web search. Disclosure: I work at Google now, but I’ve always felt that being able to effectively search is really a key skill, whether you’re searching in a library or in an online web-based corpus. And we know that being able to provide your users with easy-to-find information is absolutely essential.
A while back, Google introduced something called “Custom Search Engines” (CSE) – it’s basically a way to make a very simple widget that lets users search a particular piece of the web. Since you get to say which piece of the web gets searched, you can focus in on information that’s very targeted to your users.
Not long after Google launched CSE, I built one for our Creating Passionate Users blog. Just as a mini-experiment, I put the search tool at the bottom of the blog and wondered if anyone would find it and use it. (Sure, go ahead… you can look down there now. It’s really there.)
All it really does is (in my best techno-geek-speak) is a “site restriction operator over the CPU blog space…”
What that really means is that when you do a search using the widget at the bottom of each CPU posting, that search is limited to just the contents of all the CPU postings and the comments.
So if you really want to find that great blog post Kathy wrote about Icelandic horses, or the one about acrobatic dismounts, or maybe the sexy t-shirts post, all you’ve got to do is scroll to the bottom of the page and find the search box. It’ll look like this:
Figure 1: Note this is an IMAGE, the real thing is down below…
To use it, just type your search terms in the box on the left (where you see the words “Google Custom Search” in light gray). Hit enter, and, voila.. you’ll find the posts you seek.
If you have a website or run your own blog, you might want to consider adding your own Custom Search Engine to it. It’s really pretty simple - it took me about 3 minutes to make our CPU Custom Search Engine, then another 5 minutes to fit it into the Typepad HTML.
As I mentioned, I dropped the search box onto the bottom of our CPU blog posting page. I know, I know… that’s a terrible place to put it if you’re looking for traffic. But I was really curious how many people read all the way to the bottom of the post and would then use the feature.
Here’s the answer:
Figure 2: Statistics of the CPU Custom Search Engine. Uses per day since startup.
As you can see, we’re slowly picking up more and more traffic over time. This is a typical adoption curve for a well-hidden feature. It’s been used a little bit each day. Notice how use typically drops on the weekends. Is that because we tend to post midweek, or are all you readers checking out CPU at work??
Now that we have some experience with it, it might be time to move it up to the top of the page.
Consider adding custom search as a way to quickly and easily increase the overall usability of your web site / blog / whatever… Since it’s now pretty easy, you no longer have any excuse for making your users work to find the information they really want about your product.
Just out of curiosity, now that the secret is out, how many of you noticed the search box down there, and never tried it out? If not, can you say why?
And if you have tried it out, did it work for you?
Inquiring minds want to know! We're experimenting just a bit to see if we can't make CPU an ever-better place to learn the latest and greatest. Tell us what you think!
The best user manuals EVER
We say users won't RTFM, but they do. Just not the one that comes with the product. Personally, I hope companies don't listen to me about making better end-user docs, support, and online help. If y'all made better FMs, I'd be out of a job... along with all the other third-party tech authors and training providers. David Pogue's worst nightmare is that all those Missing Manuals will be found. Until more companies recognize the value (yes, even ROI) of helping their users kick ass, there's an opportunity for the rest of us to help fill in the gaps. But this post describes a company that actually charges its users big money for high-quality learning materials, and people are thrilled to pay it.
User Documentation Users Pay For
Parelli Natural Horsemanship sells horse-related products including saddles, bridles, ropes, etc. But you have to pay more to learn how to use them properly. Much, much more. Users are paying anywhere from $200 to $1000 for home-study kits including booklets and DVDs. Yes, horse training is not the same as using a project management app--clearly the markets and context are different--but the main point is the same--people place an extremely high value on quality learning and support materials. And I'd rather see a company make top-quality manuals and charge extra, than turn out the after-thought-barely-functional docs that ship with most products today (or are posted online for most web apps).
(I believe the better approach would be to NOT charge, and exploit end-user training as a competitive advantage--remember, all things being equal, he who gets his users past the suck threshold and into the kick-ass zone the fastest wins.
FYI: Parelli has one of the largest, most loyal passionate fan bases I've ever seen (and it's what finally motivated me to get back into horses). There are unofficial fan clubs and user groups worldwide, including over 1500 local members just in the little part of Colorado I live in. Parelli is one of the best possible case studies for Creating Passionate Users.
[Note: long post, but you can skip the text and get 90% of it from the pictures.]
Characteristics of World-Class User Learning Materials
Easy to use when, where, and how you need it.
2) Based on sound learning principles
i.e. users actually learn from it, not just refer to it.
Keeps users willing to push forward to higher "levels"
The following pictures are some examples of how Parelli does this. The only thing you need to know to understand the examples is that the Parelli system groups a set of skills and knowledge into "levels". Founder/creator Pat Parelli designed levels into his program based on the success of the martial arts belt system and video game levels. In other words, he knew that the levels --key achievement milestones with clear rewards--are more motivating than just, "here you go... keep going." In the Parelli system, the physical reward is nothing more than a paper certificate and piece of colored string. But the mental and emotional reward is enough to keep people sticking with it and--paying more money for additional training materials (including, sometimes, live courses).
Everything here could be used as a model (with modifications for a different audience, obviously) for building brilliant, motivating, passion-inspiring user learning regardless of the product or service. (And regardless of whether its a physical product or web application.)
Task-based Pocket Guide "job aids" with context-dependent tips, pitfalls, and troubleshooting
Typical user docs are reference. If users are lucky, they might also get a tutorial or "getting started" guide. Some user manuals include "job aids"--in other words, things the user can use just-in-time on the job, but in software, these are nearly always "cheat sheet" cards with keyboard shortcuts rather than "here's how to do this specific thing..."
The Parelli system assumes you can't take a frickin' manual out to the arena with you, so they give you small guides that literally fit into your pocket, so you can use them in real life on the job. But even in software, why assume that it's easy for users to have a big manual beside their desk? Why not a smaller series of booklets based around specific sets of tasks an end-user might want to do?
More importantly, the guides group the problems you might hit in a particular task right there with the instruction for that task. Forcing a user to go to a separate "Troubleshooting" section of FAQ list is just...wrong. That doesn't mean you shouldn't have those separate sections, but you should duplicate pitfalls and problems and include them in just-in-time job aids (physical or online).
Context-sensitive FAQs--done right--can make a dramatic difference in software, and greatly reduce the user's cognitive load.
Motivational bridge between levels
Each "level" includes a preview book from the next level, even color-coded to the new level, that helps motivate and prepare you for moving up. The assumption--and message to the user--is, "Congratulations! You finished level one! Now look at the cool things you'll be able to do in level two, and... let's get started." The motivating message is, "You can't stop now... you have all these new tools and NOW you'll be able to put them to use in these reallly interesting ways..."
In other words, they help the user map their level one skills to things they can now use to get new benefits (but only if they keep going into level two).
Skill/Savvy-based "Reminder Aids"
While level one is about completing tasks -- the user is just trying to get something done correctly and safely--level two is about improving overall skill and knowledge. In Parelli, level two is more about doing things well regardless of the actual task.
For a software app, this could be general reminders and tips. For a programmer, this might be design patterns and best-practice idioms, etc.
In the Parelli level two, you get a big pile of these cards, and you can customize your caribiner (hooked to your belt loop) each day with the things you want to remember, as well as tasks for that day. Each card includes a reference pointer for getting more info (which chapter of the DVD or section of the manual, etc.)
Motivational Progress Map
The best way to keep someone on track is to do two things:
1) Show them how far they've come
2) Show them where they can go next
The Parelli system has three different types of progress charts:
You get a wall poster checklist that lets you see the entire set of skills for this level, and over the 30-90 days they expect it will take, you can continue to check these off. The checklists are color-coded, too, so the "bridge" items from the level two sneak peak are in blue, rather than the level one red color.
Although I didn't show it (mine's at the barn), the level two progress map is much cooler than a simple checklist. In level two, you can take the cards that are on the caribiner and place them in a big fold-out map--that has slots--which you move across depending on where you are with that particular task. For example, in "riding without a bridle", I might start with that card in "just starting" and then as I progress move it into the "working on it" slot, and so on. It gives you a clear visual in one glance for where you are in the entire level two program (which is much more involved than the simple tasks of level one).
The Parelli Official User Group
If you join the monthly-fee official Parelli Savvy Club, you get a "passport" -- a booklet that lists accomplishments from the first three levels, with color-coded stickers to place on those tasks or capabilities as you complete them. Flipping through this booklet is another easy way to see where you are, and it's very motivating to want to keep checking off those tasks (in this case, by writing the dates and placing the stickers).
Motivational Practice Game
This learning game costs users an extra $100... and they're happy to pay it! Besides giving you a zillion practice tips and tricks, the game encourages you to get others involved. And as we know from reverse-engineering passion, the more people connect and engage with others around this activity, the more likely it is to lead to (or reinforce) a passion for that activity.
Bottom line: never underestimate the value of providing fabulous training materials in getting--and keeping--users motivated to get better. And the better they are, the more likely they are to appreciate (and buy) your higher-end versions, evangelize, buy and create accessories, etc.
And remember--if you view these pictures as examples of typical user manuals, they look absurd. But if they were marketing materials for the same product... they might not look so strange. Think about that. (And re-read my previous post on the great gulf between before-and-after the customer pays for something.)
Just imagine... what would it be like if you had learning materials like that? Not in the budget? Charge extra. Why not? Look how much money O'Reilly, Wiley, Prentice-Hall, etc. are making thanks to all the missing/useless/painful docs. Better yet, be the first in your market to blow minds with world-class user learning materials. How long will it take before the companies that do this can start slashing their marketing budgets...