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The real secret to a successful blog/book/business...

For the last three years, Bert and I have tried to explain the "secret" to the success of the Head First books. We've tried to explain the "secret" to how a little non-news, non-scandal blog could land in the Technorati Top 100. We've tried to explain the "secret" to why Javaranch is one of the largest, most active, and well-loved developer communities on the internet. One big clue: we're not that talented. There is a secret, yet, but it's mostly a if-WE-can-do-it-ANYONE-can-do-it thing.

I've revealed the Big Secret before, but perhaps the bigger secret is that almost nobody takes it seriously. It seems too simple. Business books make it complicated. Consultants make it complicated. Those who don't want to try make it complicated. But it's not. Hard work? Yes. But the hardest part is simply taking it seriously. After that, it's implementation details. The details matter, but it's what drives the implementation that matters most.

So, on this Valentine's Day, I thought it was time for a reminder to myself and my co-authors:

Success no longer has to be a meritocracy (or advertocracy), today it's just as much a loveocracy.

The secret is simply this: you have a much better chance for success when your business model makes what's good for the users match what's good for the business, and vice-versa. Our books are best-sellers not because we're better authors or teachers (a meritocracy), but because they were literally labors of love. We wrote them with one very clear goal:

* The only way the books will be successful is if people actually learn from them.
* The only people will actually learn from them is if they actually read them.
* We must do everything we can to get people to read more than most people read in a tech book, and in such a way that they learn--and realize how much they've actually learned.

What's good for the readers is what's good for the books. Where I think so many potentially better books go wrong is that they're really good books (meritocracy), but they're written with a focus on Being A Really Good Book. (Which is often completely at odds with a book that's good for the reader.)

And why do you read this blog? I always ask myself, "how can I help my readers in some way?" Whether it's a tip or trick, a post you can use to help make your case to your boss, a new way of looking at something, a potential source for an idea, a pointer to something useful...I try to make 90% of the posts here for you. And you in turn respond with the most amazing, insightful, inspirational, and often entertaining comments.

What's good for you is what's good for the blog. And for me.

This is not to say you still can't succeed with a business model where what's good for the business is bad for the user and vice-versa, but next time you're in a product design meeting or a business development meeting or you're planning a book or a blog or... ask the question we keep bringing up here, "What will this help the user do?" Not, "How can we make a great product?" Nobody cares about your company, and nobody cares about your product. Not really. They care about themselves in relation to your product. What it means to them. What it does for them. What it says about them that they use your product or believe in your company. You're still just the delivery guy, and your package helps the user kick ass at something. However, when you DO have a product that truly helps the user, they might just love you for it. : )

Happy Valentine's Day.
I heart my readers : )

Posted by Kathy on February 14, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (33) | TrackBack

How much control should our users have?


We all know Featuritis is bad, but what about User Control? Is more always better? The notion that a user-centric focus means putting users in control of everything--their software (and other tools), their learning, their conferences, the companies they support (the now-over-used "community")--is pervasive. But even when users do have the expertise to make good decisions, do they want to?

In some scenarios, of course. But when applied with abandon, user control can mean user suffering. In the 80's, the big thing in education was Learner Control. With hypertext tools came CBT programs and learners were finally put in charge of their own paths through material. The learner was empowered! Just one problem: most people pretty much suck at making sound learning decisions, especially when they don't already know the material. So, the era of more-is-better-for-learner-control was over.

Then in the 90's -- Whoo-Hoo! Interactive Movies! Interactive Television shows! Interactive Fiction! Outside of rare novelties and a few good story-driven games, most of us would rather leave our storytelling to Steven King or Steven Spielberg, thank-you. A huge part of the point of movies and novels is to be swept into another world--a world we do not have any responsibility for.

Worst of all, though, is the ongoing trend toward more-is-better for the products we purchase. More choices, more options, more control. In the book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz looks at how the overabundance of products today makes buying even toilet paper stressful. We shut down when we're faced with too many choices, even when those choices are about relatively simple things.

Yet we expect people to make decisions over some of the most complex things, regardless of whether they have any knowledge or training in those areas. I look at product checklists and comparisons for electronic devices and think, "WTF are they talking about?" I have no idea what this thing-with-the-check-mark-next-to-it is or why I'd want it. And we don't just agonize before we choose, the vast array of possibilities has us agonizing afterwards as well. Second-guessing ourselves, continuing to check reviews, etc. Like we don't have enough stress.

And in software programs, especially, we expect users to choose their workflow configurations way before they have the slightest idea why they'd care. Or we give them ten different ways to do the same thing--so each person can do it in the way that best suits them--when the new user just wants to do the thing -- not grapple with the cognitive overload of ten ways to do the thing they still can't do.

How much control should users have?

Obviously this is a big "it depends", but the main point is to focus on the relationship between user control and user capability. As user capability (knowledge, skill, expertise) increases, so should control -- at least for a lot of things we make, especially software, and especially when we're aiming not just for satisfied users but potentially passionate users. The big problem is that we make our beginning users suffer just so our advanced users can tweak and tune their configurations, workflow, and output. [For the record, I'm a big fan of splitting capabilities into different products, or having a really good user-level modes--where you use wizards or simpler interfaces for new users, etc. Yes, they're often done badly, but they don't have to be.]

The simple rule we so often forget is:

The amount of pain and effort should match the user's perceived payoff.

In other words, the user has to think it's worth it. Yes, another "duh" thing... but if it is that "duh", then why oh why haven't some of the biggest producers on the planet taken it to heart? How come I still can't tune my Denon receiver? Or adjust my home thermostat properly? How come I find myself in hotel bathrooms staring at the shower faucet, wondering how annoyed the front desk will be when I ask them to help me take a bath. How come I can't turn off automatic Capitalization in Word? (trust me, it's not as simple as it seems...)


But we'll accept (and sometimes even value) pain and effort when it's worth it. Apple's Final Cut, for example is much more difficult than TextEdit. But I expect Final Cut to be hard... and it's worth it. The pain-to-perceived-payoff ratio works. My stereo receiver, on the other hand, just pisses me off. The sad thing is, I'm probably just two button-presses away from success, but I swear the possible combinations of button-presses on my remote exceeds the number of particles in the known universe.


On the other extreme is Apple's iMovie. It gives you almost no control, but the payoff is high right out of the shrinkwrap. It exceeds my expectations of pain-to-payoff. But pretty quickly, anyone who gets into iMovie--and is bitten by the movie-making bug--starts wanting things that iMovie doesn't let you control. So... Apple says, "not to worry -- we have Final Cut Express HD for just $299". The problem is, the learning curve jump from iMovie to Final Cut Express is DRASTIC. There needs to be something in the middle, to smooth that transition.

User Control in Web 2.0
I realize that part of the Web 2.0 "sensibility" is that users are in charge, but I'm pretty sure even Tim O'Reilly doesn't mean that Web 2.0 means the inmates should be running the asylum. There's an ocean of difference between user contribution and user control. I'm sometimes afraid that the Age of User Participation will lead to the Age of Too Many People Doing Things They Are Not Qualified To Do But That Everyone Is OK With. Amateur Mash-up videos on YouTube? Hell yes. But what's next... amateur minor-surgery mash-ups? (that is actually, scarily, already happening, and I won't even link to it).

Putting users first does not necessarily mean putting users in charge.

I believe with all my heart in working with the user's happiness in mind (i.e. helping the user kick-ass), but part of my role is to use my specialized skills and knowledge to make that happen.

Even the poster kid of community-based business, Threadless, does not really put its community in control. In charge of voting on t-shirts, yes. In charge of whether Threadless is successful, yes -- but no more so than most businesses--they all live or die on whether customers want their product, experience, or both. But the Threadless community does not do the company's books, decide who to hire, choose their factory location, etc. The community has a very strong voice, and the Threadless guys listen--and respond--much better than most, but the company still controls the company. User contribution, not user control.

User Control and Capability enables Passion

In the end, though, having more control and capability represents a higher-resolution experience. It's part of what makes being GOOD at something so much better than being bad or even average. And it's that high-resolution experience that inspires people to passion. (A passionate snowboarder is usually on black-diamonds, not the bunny slope) So we should be trying to give users more capability and control...and encouraging them to take it. But we must balance that with the learning they need to take that responsibility without being overwhelmed.

Like everything else, it all comes back to user education. The more we help them learn and improve, the more control they can handle... and appreciate. By putting the user first, it's our job to give them the responsibility they want, but only when we know they're ready to handle it.

Posted by Kathy on February 13, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (30) | TrackBack

Marketing should be education, education should be marketing


Do you want passionate users? Educate them. Do you want passionate learners? Sell them. If ever there were two groups who ought to trade places--and especially research -- it's teachers and marketers. Our mantra here is, "Where there is passion, there is a user kicking ass..." and by "kicking ass" we mean "being really good at something." In the post-30-second-spot world, the marketing department should become the learning department. Meanwhile back in schools, teachers should become...marketers.

The tragedy is this: the amount of money spent in the US each year on marketing research is orders of magnitude more than the amount spent on learning theory research. Big business probably spends more in a week on brain research than the US Department of Education spends in a year.
[I don't have the real data, but I've been trying to piece it together enough to make wild-ass estimates like this.]

The good news is this: in the he-who-does-the-best-job-of-getting-his-customers-past-the-suck-threshold-wins world that's beginning to emerge, companies may need teachers more than marketers. And in my perfect world, marketers and teachers exchange research and techniques, and by applying marketing to teaching and teaching to marketing, everyone benefits.


What Marketers Could Do For Teachers

Marketers know what turns the brain on (currently, not last week). Teachers need that more than ever today.

Marketers have access to fMRIs. Teachers rarely do.

Marketers are dangerously close to finding the Buy Button in the Brain. Think what teachers could do with that research... after all, that Buy Button could be modified into a Learn Button with very little effort.

Marketers know how to motivate someone almost instantly. Teachers could sure use that.

Marketers know how to manipulate someone's thoughts and feelings about a topic. Teachers could use that to 'manipulate' a learner into thinking, say, "math IS cool."

Marketers know how to get--and keep--attention. I know some teachers who'd give a kidney for that research.

Marketers spend piles of money on improving retention and recall. Teachers--and students need all the help they can get.

[Yes, I'm aware how horrifying this notion sound -- that we take teachers and make them as evil as marketers? Take a breath. You know that's not what I'm advocating, so keep reading.]

What Teachers Could Do For Marketers
(Marketers who want passionate users, that is)

Teachers know the importance of honesty and integrity. The good teachers care. Some--perhaps many--marketers could use a lot more of that, especially now that the internet has made it far harder for marketers to get away with deceptions. Those damn users talk! They email, they youtube their bad experiences, they blog it.

Teachers know how to help people think on a deeper level, to get beyond the surface level of understanding. In old-school advertising, only the most superficial attributes were used ("This product will make your neighbors envious!") Clearly, those days are dwindling.

[And don't even get me started on how bad most product manuals are--where the difference between pre-sales and post-sales material is huge, and completely backwards. "Yes, once they've actually paid us and become a customer, who cares how the manual reads or what it looks like?"]

Teachers help people think about thinking. In fear-based (or any emotion-based) marketing campaign (especially politics!), thinking was inhibited. But people can't learn and improve without thinking, so any marketing approach based on helping users get better needs to use emotions to enhance thinking, not prevent it.

Teachers know how to help people through the rough spots... where the learner is still firmly in the suck zone. Marketers need that more than ever, since so many of the most sophisticated products can't be mastered in 5 minutes.

Should we be worried about the hot new research known as neuromarketing? Yes. But it's going to happen regardless of what we do. Why not start demanding that marketers be transparent about the research and their applications? Big Marketing is not about to stop using techniques to manipulate us into wanting things, and about the only defense we have is to know that this is happening.

If we're to be smart consumers (and voters), we must stay one step ahead of those who are trying to manipulate us without our knowledge. And for that, we must know as much as possible about how our brains work, and how we're being tricked, spun, and seduced. We should all be comfortable thinking, "Oh, that's obviously my amygdala talking."

But rather than rail against the research and bemoan the fact that the marketers (and politicians) have these "secrets of persuasion", we can put these tools to good use--one of the main goals of this blog. To help ourselves, our students, and our users learn!

Of course, there should be full disclosure everywhere in which these techniques are used. We should demand it from marketers, and expect it from teachers. In the Head First books, for example, the beginning of each book describes exactly what we're trying to do to your brain (i.e. how we try to trick your legacy brain into thinking the code is as important as a tiger).

Public education in the US is in a pretty sad state, but I'm reminded of an old anti-war bumper sticker that went something like:
"It Will Be a Great Day When Our Schools Get all the Money They Need and the Air Force Has to Hold a Bake Sale to Buy a Bomber" "

I don't have anything clever, but I like the idea:

"It Will Be a Great Day When Our Schools Get all the Brain Research the Marketers Have, and the Marketers Have to Hold a Bake Sale to Buy an fMRI."

Posted by Kathy on February 11, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (28) | TrackBack