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Crafting a user experience

There's a pretty simple formula for keeping users engaged; we call it the spiral experience model. It's based on four parts:


1) Get their attention (get past the brain's crap filter).

2) Give them challenging, engaging experiences. (Experiences designed to keep them in the flow state.) This part is a spiral, where the user gets a payoff for their interaction (getting to the "next level"), and the payoff, in turn, creates new interest (seduces them) to want to use their new knowledge/skill/superpower to keep going... and on it goes.
The keys are challenge, meaningful payoff, and creating new interest by giving them clear, cool new goals. ("Now that you reached this level (or now that you know this new tool, or understand this new issue), look how you can use that new knowledge/skill/superpower to do this even COOLER thing...").

This spiral is in some ways at the heart of game design, good learning experiences, pacing in many novels and films, sports that keep you in the flow state, and is the model we try to use in our books. But you can use it for just about anything you communicate—the idea is to inspire users to want to learn more (or at least do more), so that they want to keep progressing. The payoff/reward for their involvement should be a meaningful lead-in to yet another round of wanting more...

3) Leave them with the "I Rule!" feeling.

Remember, it doesn't matter what users think about YOU. All that matters is what they think about themselves as a result of interacting with your [whatever it is you make or do].

We're on a big deadline to finish the Tiger edition of the Head First Java book (supposed to be done tomorrow!), so this is the Cliff Notes version of the model. More later...

Posted by Kathy on January 20, 2005 | Permalink


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I have to disagree a little bit. I fully agree with 1 and 2, but 3 is a little if-fy. I think you should leave your victim, (I mean, person you're selling to), with a good feeling all around.

I have a firm belief in selling yourself first. Once you've done that, you can sell anything to that particular person and they'll buy it, because they bought you first.

Posted by: Don | Jan 21, 2005 1:08:13 AM

"Once you've done that, you can sell anything to that particular person and they'll buy it, because they bought you first."

Don, I have to disagree with your statement :-). Nowadays a user can pick and choose from a plethora of options in practically any field. It's no more "choose your color as long as it's black". My opinion is that the producer indeed has to sell her or himself, but has to keep up with expectations in a changing environment (which is a hard bit as well). Time will strenghthen the relationship, but consumer and producer don't get married directly :-)

Posted by: Gian Franco Casula | Jan 21, 2005 3:10:07 AM

I just bumped over your entry, and I love it.

And I fully agree with what you are saying. In fact, we just implemented such a system as a means to get users engaged in building up a travel community here in Germany.

The site is user-administered (a little like wikipedia) but users have to earn their rights. You do something, you get promoted and have access to new fuctionalities. You use them, and if you do it well, you get promoted to the next level etc. We have only been online for a couple of weeks, but as we can see, the users just love it. Best regards, Stephan

Posted by: Stephan | Jan 21, 2005 4:06:32 AM

Gian Franco, I still have to argue. While you're right in saying you need "to keep up with expectations in a changing environment", that will obviously come with the package, if you're confident in what you do.

I wasn't implying that you can be good, and your work crappy. I was arguing the point of "It doesn't matter what users think about you." In my environment we need to be on top of our game, constantly coming up with new ideas, new technology and new ways of thinking. Also producing better quality products in a shorter timeframe, and believe me, we have. So keeping up expectations is a given with us, without that, you lose clientele. But to get them first, and for them to like and "buy" you, the person, is a very important aspect of how I see a business running.

But hey, each to their own, eh?

Posted by: Don | Jan 21, 2005 8:16:42 AM

Don, I think if you'll follow the link in Kathy's post you'll get the full context. In brief, the experience that led her to develop this philosophy was that only when she stopped focusing on how she could get her students to recognize how great she was, when she concentrated her efforts on showing them how great they were -- she got the best teacher ratings from those students.

Kathy, since reading your initial post I've been applying this philosophy whenever I can, with exciting results. When I'm not being a geek, I'm a choir director and theatre director. I used to run rehearsals with an eye to proving how much I know about music and theatre. I'd throw in lots of technical terms and correct people in a (mildly (mostly)) condescending tone. The net result was that I irritated people. They had to admit I knew what I was talking about, but they didn't have to like it. Or me.

Now that I've seen the light, I talk up to my choirs / casts as much as I can. I praise them when they do well -- and not by saying "look how well you did because of me", but "man, that was a difficult passage and you guys nailed it. You should be proud of that achievement." As a result, whenever I approach people about a new project they tend to be excited to sign up again because they associate working with me with feeling good about themselves. It's a total win-win.

Posted by: David Rupp | Jan 21, 2005 9:21:15 AM

Stephan: I love that idea! I really hope you keep us posted about this as it progresses.; I'm very interested in how it's going, and maybe this is something we can talk about in our book. But I can't read a word of what's on your site (nice looking, though : ) so I'm hoping you'll tell us more. This whole "next level" thing with all the user involvement sounds very cool and unique for this kind of site.

David: what a great story about your choir. And FYI—your Java.net blogs really make me smile (and laugh). I wish you'd do more! And I just noticed you're here in Colorado as well. So you're probably enjoying the unusual southern California style weather this week; I actually used the phrase "it's too hot to go for a run" yesterday. But then I'm always looking for an excuse...

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jan 21, 2005 11:40:48 AM

Thanks Don:-), I was aiming at the fact that not everybody has the means and/or ability to and/or will to keep performing after the first good impression they make.

Sorry Kathy, I sincerely hope these sidesteps are not considered as hijacking the blog.

Posted by: Gian Franco Casula | Jan 21, 2005 1:45:54 PM

Thanks for finally articulating in simple terms what I have been trying to explain to the suits for the past three months. :)

Posted by: Olivier Blanchard | Sep 9, 2005 9:08:06 AM

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