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Users shouldn't think about YOU

Do you care what your users think of you?


Our best advice for creating passionate users is:

Care ONLY about what your users think of themselves as a result of interacting with your creation.

That's a major shift for a lot of people, especially our tech book authors (and instructors). It's so natural to write with a critic sitting on your shoulder representing the person who isn't even in your target audience anyway, slamming you for leaving something out, or not being technical enough, or not proving how smart you are. I have a little story about this...

One of my jobs at Sun was to help raise the customer ratings of the Java instructors--to help instructors find more strategies for making every student/customer happier with the classes. A big mystery was why some of the most technically proficient instructors, who really knew their stuff and were good at delivering it, were getting average scores in after-class surveys. Meanwhile, the technically stronger instructors were pissed off that some of the less-competent instructors were getting fantastic scores.

The typical response was, "The instructors getting the good scores are just better entertainers. The post-class scores aren't a good reflection of what's REALLY important--delivering technically correct and advanced material." They'd complain that there was no line item on the survey that measured the things that mattered like, "Does the instructor know the material?" or "Is the instructor competent with the technology?"

See the disconnect? The instructors wanted the scores to be all about them. And that's the problem. It's the same one we have sometimes with tech book authors. What we tried to tell the instructors was this: "Most of the time students don't CARE how smart you are. They come in assuming that you're supposed to be here, so stop trying to prove how smart you are and get on with helping them get smarter."

The instructors didn't have an ego problem; they were absolutely convinced that students were coming to class to hear from an expert.

So I decided to conduct an experiment. One of the first things instructors were originally told to do was "establish credibility". Many believed that the longer and more detailed the instructor's resume, presented during introductions, the more receptive--and confident--the students would be. I'd audit classes, and sure enough, the instructors devoted a lot of time at the beginning of the class to introducing themselves. (Followed by a brief moment where the students each had a turn to say their name and a one-sentence self-intro.)

I was determined to prove that the "establishing credibility" thing was not just unnecessary, it was a harmful misconception. I had evidence that students come IN believing you're credible, and as long as you don't do something to screw that up, you don't need to convince them. In other words, you start the class with a pre-established credibility balance. Points will be deducted if you do or say something stupid, and most especially--if you get caught LYING by pretending to know something that you don't, or failing to admit when you're guessing. What I needed to prove was that by working hard during the class to make sure the students know how smart you are, you have a negative impact on the students' experience. They end up recognizing how smart you are, sure, but that's not why they took the class! They took the class so that THEY could be smarter, and with very few exceptions, they couldn't give a crap about you.

To prove this, I took it to the extreme in my own Java classes--I stopped introducing myself completely. At first, I simply cut down my own introduction, while simultaneously increasing the time devoted to their introductions. But eventually I went all the way and simply walked into class and started, without ever saying my name or anything at all. I just jumped into having them introduce themselves, and then we were off and running.

Somewhere, usually during the first day of class, some student would ask my name because they needed to ask me for help during a lab. When that happened, I would walk over to the board and say to everyone, "Oops -- sorry, guys--I forgot to tell you my name", and I'd write my email address on the board (which was then [email protected]). So even when I did give them my name, it was in the context of a way in which they could contact me for help. I made even my own introduction about what it meant to them.

The I-don't-matter-so-don't-introduce-myself plan was just the beginning of the "it's not about YOU" experiment. I would conduct the rest of the five day course with ALL of my energy devoted to making THEM smarter, rather than trying to make sure they knew how smart I was. (A clever and necessary strategy on my part, since I'm NOT all that smart ; )

The year-long experiment was a success, and I won a nice bonus from Sun for being one of only four instructors in north America to get the highest possible customer evaluations. But what was remarkable about this is that this happened in spite of my not being a particularly good instructor or Java guru. I proved that a very average instructor could get exceptional results by putting the focus ENTIRELY on the students. By paying no attention to whether they thought I "knew my stuff", etc.

And when I say that I was "average", that's really a stretch. I have almost no good "presentation skills", and when I first started at Sun I thought I was going to be fired because I refused to ever use the overhead slides and just relied on the whiteboard (where I drew largely unrecognizable objects and unreadable code). But...I say "average" when you evaluate me against a metric of traditional stand-up instructor presentation skills. Which I believe are largely bull**** anyway. Assuming you meet some very minimal threshold for teaching, all that matters is that you help the students become smarter. You help them learn... by doing whatever it takes. And that usually has nothing to do with what comes out of YOUR mouth, and has everything to do with what happens between their ears. Of course this means you, as the instructor, have to design and enable situations that cause things to happen. Exercises, labs, debates, discussions, heavy interaction. In other words, things that THEY do, not things that YOU do (except that you create the scenarios).

Remember that learning isn't a push model.

One important question our authors and instructors ask sometimes is, "how do you KNOW when you're successful at this?" That ones easy--users will talk about themselves, instead of talking about YOU. To check how we were doing with our Head First books, we did an analysis of just under 200 Amazon reviews of our books, and compared them against the Amazon reviews of our closest competitors. We looked only at the positive reviews, and we looked only at books that had similar ratings of 4 to 5 stars.

What we were looking for, and found, was a simple reflection of the "it's not about YOU" concept. What we expected, and found, was this:

When compared to our competitors, fewer readers mention how smart we (the authors) are.

When compared to our competitors, far MORE readers use first-person language to talk about themselves in relation to the content. In other words, they talk about THEIR new understanding, etc.

When compared to our competitors, far MORE readers use our first names in the review.
This last one might seem irrelevant for this discussion, but to us it isn't. We assumed that when readers/learners are in awe of the author/instructor, it sets up a more traditional master-student feeling, where the "teacher" is granted a level of respect, and that this would be reflected in readers' use of the author's last name rather than first. And this is exactly what we found. By not being ABOUT us, readers have had a greater tendency to see us as simply helpers rather than professors or gurus. That more casual relationship shows up in reviews.

It's about them, not us.

How does that drive what goes into our books? In a ton of ways discussed in other blog entries, but perhaps the most dramatic is in what we leave OUT. When an author or instructor is worried about whether he'll come across as smart, he'll tend to include things that get in the way by adding cognitive overhead. It takes a certain amount of bravery to leave things out, but by ignoring what critics will do to us, and thinking only about what's good for the learner, the decision is easy. If it doesn't support the learner, cut it. And that goes not just for topics, but for the kind of language we use as well.

Too many learning experiences and books leave the learner feeling impressed as hell with the instructor/author, but... stupid. Next time you read a technical book or take a class that's daunting and difficult, and you're starting to get that sinking feeling that you're not smart enough... remind yourself that it's not your fault. That the instructor or author is simply proving their own technical prowess (in what we believe is a misguided attempt to help you), but at your expense. [Disclaimer: what we're saying applies to LEARNING books, not reference books.]

And when you take a class or read a book that leaves YOU feeling smarter, letting the instructor or author know the ways in which YOU have improved is the most wonderful thing you can do. To know that we've helped you better understand and do something new is the most motivating thing for us. And to all those who HAVE let us know, we cannot thank you enough. You are why we do this, despite the drastic drop in the tech book market. And when you write a review, please PLEASE talk about yourself, and not us. We want to hear what cool thing YOU are doing.

Posted by Kathy on January 3, 2005 | Permalink


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Great stuff, Kathy... I referenced it over at my blog: http://hostit1.connectria.com/twduff/home.nsf/plinks/TDUF-68B2TR

With a Lotusphere presentation coming up in 20 days, this is the type of information that can make the difference between success and failure.

Posted by: Thomas "Duffbert" Duff | Jan 3, 2005 5:49:18 PM

That was a very insightful article. I can definitely make use of this information in future talks I give. It is a very interesting perspective as well when thinking about software. Users don't care about me, but they care about the software (or whatever) I produce and its impact on their lives.

If we all just removed a little bit of hubris, we'd see how much sense this makes...

Posted by: Dan L | Jan 3, 2005 10:40:17 PM

Really interesting stuff, Kathy ! I give classes sometimes and would like to read more about teaching classes on this blog. It'll help me make my students feel better about themselves after my classes... ;-)

Posted by: Jef Cumps | Jan 4, 2005 1:06:15 AM

Wonderful post. It's also a lesson that marketers continue to learn and that the blogosphere is/will be one of our greatest teachers.


Posted by: Toby | Jan 4, 2005 8:47:39 AM

Thanks, this is really helpful! I will use it in my trainings and instructional websites.

Posted by: Ruby Sinreich | Jan 4, 2005 11:22:28 AM

Don't sell yourself short. Focusing on what the students get out of your instruction makes you far better than just some "average instructor".

Posted by: Some lurker... | Jan 4, 2005 1:36:26 PM

> I proved that a very average instructor could get exceptional results by putting the focus ENTIRELY on the students.

Love it. Great stuff!

However, can we tone down the use of caps? Your writing is GOOD ENOUGH that it doesn't need any ARTIFICIAL EMBELLISHMENT to make it STAND OUT.

Posted by: Jeff Atwood | Jan 5, 2005 1:10:49 AM

Geez... OK, Jeff, I know you're right. But I'm still reeling from having to get rid of *asterisks*. As I complete my five stages of grief on letting THOSE go, I swear I'll work harder on the caps. I am deeply grateful for your comment about the writing being good enough, but I'm not sure anyone else would agree. I am SO keeping italics and bold though. You'll have to pry those out of my trying-not-to-hit-the-caps-lock hands. But a sincere thanks, Jeff-I especially appreciate getting a tip from someone whose blog (http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/) I REALLY (I mean really) like (except for the whole .NET thing, but we are trying to recognize that there is life beyond Java).

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jan 5, 2005 2:30:04 PM

It's easy to see why you were such a good instructor-- you have a genuine sense of enthusiasm about what you're doing. And that enthusiasm comes across loud and clear in the body of your writing.. even if it was in all lower case plaintext. I guess what I'm saying is that you don't need artificial crutches like CAPS or *emphasis* when you have the real thing.

Thanks for the compliment, but you guys are the ones with the best selling books and the top Java instructor awards-- I'm just a random guy! Which reminds me, I need to stop messing around with blogs and go read my copy of Head-First Patterns..

Posted by: Jeff Atwood | Jan 5, 2005 8:51:24 PM

I really enjoyed reading this and will definitely take this approach with future teaching interactions.

Posted by: ario | Jan 16, 2005 3:25:33 PM

Hi Kathy

I really enjoyed this post, and all the related ones too.

It's great to hear from someone whose views I quite definitely share.

I wrote an ebook with exactly your viewpoint - make the reader feel smarter and know they've learnt something they can use.

It's great to find the reasons why it works ...

Posted by: Jim Symcox | Oct 17, 2005 9:46:26 AM

Are Computer Programming Books Too Hard To Study?

Posted by: Kingsley Tagbo | Mar 4, 2007 9:20:07 AM

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