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The new geek speak / neo-marketing language


We mock the corporate b.s. speak, but have we listened to ourselves lately?
This latest Hugh cartoon I'm in love with reminded me how much the techies/geeks/neo-marketing folks (of which I'm a member) are doing just fine with our own brand (would that be a hijacked brand?) of buzzwords.

(And don't even get me started on the ones used in software architecture. I'll save those as a special subset.)

Not only are you supposed to know and use these terms, you're also not quite clued-in (or is it Hughed-in) if you don't also buy into their true meaning. That is, if you can figure out what that really is : )

There's no pot-calling-kettle-black thing here... I'm just as guilty (although I challenge you to scrutinize the archives for a single instance of my using the word "blogosphere"). I use "Hugh", and "Seth" with full assumption that their last names would be redundant. I make jokes about "transparency" assuming you've heard the Cluetrain arguments. And I do that assuming you know what Cluetrain refers to.

I even use Scoble in my blog banner! (For Robert Scoble, whose blog I adore, despite his Microsoftness.) Here are a just a couple of recent Scoble quotes, "No RSS? Lame. That tells us you don't want connectors/sneezers/influentials to talk about you..." and "Be sensitive to the leading "connectors" -- they'll be the ones who'll really kick off your viral campaign." Of course none of those words are very new but what is new is for so many geeks to be talking like marketers.

Fortunately, there's hope. Like any problem, acknowledging it is the first step, and apparently there's even a drinking game around these words (much like the old business buzzword bingo, except more festive... with alcohol.

But... (and you knew there'd be a but) there's something really interesting in all this. The goal should be honesty, true. And all the new emerging technology and ideas, we do need new words. If a word or phrase describes something new, then it's not necessarily a b.s. buzzword used simply to obfuscate or to make ourselves sound like we have a clue. So, it might be completely appropriate to use these new words so casually, if they represent what we're trying to communicate.

A bigger question might be, should we use these words without defining them? Should we assume that our readers already know what (or who) we're talking about? Is this exclusionary or clique-ish? Yes, yes, and yes... if we're talking about passion.

For one thing, most of us using these words in a blog or other online doc have links. If someone doesn't know who Hugh is, they can click to find out. It stops me from interrupting regular readers with repeats and redefinitions, and Hugh's site does a far better job of trying to explain him (or not ; )) then I ever could. And thanks to Google, we can all get a definition along with the most recent conversations about just about any word I could possibly use.

But that's still not the most important reason to use some of these words and names without referencing them...

When people are passionate (or even just "into") something, they have a shared lexicon that helps dinstinuish them from those who aren't.

And this is not a bad thing. Professionals and hobbyists have had shared, specialized vocabularies for years. Among other things, it helps them get a message across more quickly than if they couldn't use those things. But it also helps build their devotion to their passion. Just figuring out the commonly-used phrases, words, names, stories, etc. are part of what gives people a sense of belonging. A sense of being a part of something special. A sense of having learned, and earned their way in. So in this case, exclusionary isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Becoming a part of something new usually isn't that simple. You have things to learn. Show me an area where people are passionate, and I'll show you how there is virtually always a learning curve that includes ideas, concepts, terminology that are specialized. Most people have an "I Rule" experience in part because they've "crossed the chasm" (reached the tipping point?) and learned what others are talking about. Of course between Google and wikipedia, it's almost too easy these days ; )

Obviously if you use way too much jargon, and the answers are not readily found, you will restrict your "tribe" (there's another one). But that's not always a bad thing either! You may decide that raising the barrier to entry adds value to those in the group who've taken the time and effort to come up the curve. You may decide that you can't even be true to who you are (you know, "your authentic voice") if you have to make the message clear and understandable to everyone, newcomers included. Some passions are worth the trouble, and indeed better for having a certain amount of effort.

Besides, something that gets you to go off and do a little research on your own is often much more powerful than if you're handed everything without having to think about it. So... what special words, concepts, stories, people are a part of what you are passionate about? Or a part of what you want people to be passionate about? Lowering the barrier to entry, especially when it comes to conversations, isn't always the best path when you want genuine passion.

(That said, if you EVER and I mean EVER catch me sounding anything like the couple in my cartoon here, slap your mouse around a few times to slap me out of it.)

Posted by Kathy on March 31, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

The importance of seduction and curiosity


Part of creating passionate users starts with building curiosity. Inspire them to want to learn, know, and do more. A comment from John Mitchell on my motivated to learn blog reminded me about this--he mentioned the importance of being passionately curious about the topic (and I couldn't agree more).

So can you inspire curiosity? Can you seduce the user into actively wanting more, even if that user didn't start out with their own intrinsic intellectual curiosity?

Sure. It won't work for everyone and every topic... but think about things that you know have worked for you in the past:

1) Be passionately curious yourself (good point John!)
The brain is tuned to mirror the behavior of others, so if your passionate curiosity is stronger than the other person's passive disinterest, you have a chance to "infect" the other person. It's not just that you know what's exciting, wonderful, fascinating about a topic--it's that you genuinely feel it, and this is reflected in the way you talk about it, not just the actual content of your words. Passion breaks through.

2) Be seductive
That means knowing when--and what--to hold back. Don't hand them all the answers... take them part way and tease and tantalize them into going the rest of the way. The brain wants to find out what happens next. It's what keeps you watching the movie until the end, staying up late at night with a page-turner, tuning in next week (especially if last week's episode was a cliff-hanger), and hoping for that second date... NPR refers to the phenomenon of wanting to hear the end a driveway moment--where you're listening to an engaging story (like on This American Life, or a radio diary) but arrive home before it's over. You can't get out of the car. You just have to hear how it all turns out.

3) Make them curious by doing something unusual, without an obvious explanation (a variation on #2)
In the Parelli natural horsemanship program, I learned a new way to "catch" a horse. I walk into the big pasture holding the halter and instead of walking straight toward my horse, I kind of meander around not even looking at her. Then when I come close enough for her to know I'm there, I stop and turn around so my back is to her... and I might even start walking away while fiddling with whatever I'm holding. Eventually, she can't stand it and has to know what I'm up to and why I didn't try to catch her. So she'll come over and "catch" me. (For all you pet people, I'll mention that we are not allowed to use treats as an enticement. They're coming because they're curious and it triggers their play--rather than fight or flight--instinct). In the book/movie "The Horse Whisperer", Robert Redford's character spends hours sitting in an open meadow until the terrified, escaping horse finally walks up to him. Curiosity can beat fear.

4) Offer a puzzle or interesting question... without giving them the solution.
It's almost impossible to turn away from a TV game show when a question has been asked but not yet answered. But it works for almost anything that engages the brain's strong desire to find solutions.

Here's an example (many of you will know the answer to this already, so it won't work for you... but it works quite well on most people who don't know this problem):
Kevin, a college student, walks into the cafe where he spots Reese, the gorgeous math whiz he's seen around campus. He works up the courage to walk over to her, "Hey Reese, I'm Kevin, and I heard you're the only one to ever get an A in Bozeman's Stats class... I'll buy you dinner if you help me study for the exam."

Reese look up skeptically then says, "I need to know if you're worth helping. Tell you what, I'll write my phone number on the back of one of these three business cards. I'll mark them on the front A, B, and C, but you won't know which card has my number on the back. If you pick the right card, you can call me and we'll schedule a study/dinner date."

Kevin's not happy, "But what does that prove about me? You're not even giving me a 50/50 chance... but OK, if that's the best I can do... I'll pick card 'B'".

Reese is left with cards 'A' and 'C', and says, "Before we look at your card, I'll give you another chance. I've just turned over card 'A', so you can see it doesn't have my number. That means my number is either on the card you picked, 'B', or the card I haven't turned over, 'C'. Do you want to switch your card 'B' for my card 'C'?"

Kevin cocks his head and thinks to himself, Ah... she's trying to see if I recognize that the odds are the same for both cards (duh), since they both began with a 1 in 3 chance. She probably wants to see if I'm decisive and confident... He looks at Reese and says, "No thanks; I'll stick with my original choice 'B'. It's just as likely to be the winner as your card 'C'."

Reese flips his card 'B' over and shows that it's blank. Her phone number was on card 'C'. Kevin laughs and says, "Well, you didn't give me a fighting chance. All the cards had a 1 in 3 chance of being the right one, and at least I didn't fall for your little swapping trick... you should still give me your number."

Reese rolls her eyes, shakes her head slowly, and says with a frown, "You know Kevin, if you would have agreed to swap cards when I gave you the chance, I would have given you my number even if it wasn't the card with my number. Switching cards would have shifted the odds in your favor, and I was really hoping you knew that. Sorry, but I don't want to waste my time trying to help you."

Unhappy and a little angry with Reese, Kevin leaves the cafe and tells the story to his roommate Manny. Kevin says, "Reese is just wrong... there's no way that switching my card for hers at the point would have made any difference. Both cards started with a 1 in 3 chance, and nothing changed that."

Manny looks at Kevin and says, "Dude... Reese is right. Switching cards would have changed your odds from 1 in 3 to 2 in 3. You blew it."

So... are Reese and Manny right?

Yes, they are. Swapping would have changed his odds of having the winning card.

Your job is to figure out why it works that way... and if you want to learn it here, you'll just have to wait for another blog entry (later this week, I promise) to find out.

[Note to those who recognize what the Kevin/Reese puzzle is about: don't reveal the true "name" of this problem, so we can make googling for the answer a little less easy for everyone else ; )]

People who don't immediately understand the problem and don't believe it, will often set out trying to disprove it (they're curious to find proof that Reese, Manny, and you are wrong), or they believe it but they're so puzzled by it that they try to find out what's going on (curious to understand).
The brain wants it to make sense. : )

There are obviously lots of ways to get people curious, but it's been a highly underrated strategy for getting people engaged, hooked, motivated... all prereqs for passion. Think about ways you might use curiosity as a technique in everything from user documentation and tech writing (including books) to teaching to dating to product development to marketing to horse training to parenting and even delighting your significant other.

Having a passionate curiosity is a true gift, and anything you can do to help give a little of that to another person is enhancing their life. If you want to truly delight someone, then seduce them (not the same as coerce or manipulate, if we make ethical distinctions--I realize some people don't like the word "seduce", but we love it) into being curious to learn more, grow more, stretch their mind, become more skilled, or just find out what it's like to be better at something.

Posted by Kathy on March 30, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (29) | TrackBack

Incremental vs. revolutionary improvements


The true art of product or service development might come down to this:
Knowing when it's appropriate to make incremental improvements and knowing when you need a revolutionary leap.

Do you continue to patch, tweak, tune or do you throw away the old assumptions and start with a completely fresh approach?

This is obviously a complex issue, but the metric we use is this:

If you're competing for market share, with products or services that are hard to differentiate, incremental improvements might be a waste of time and resources!

That's how we looked at the computer technical book market. We set out to write just one book, Head First Java. We said, "There are over 2,000 currently-selling Java books on Amazon. We have very little name recognition, especially among people who don't yet know Java (the audience for our book), so what can we do?" And in fact most publishers, book reviewers, etc. were saying, "Does the industry even need yet another intro to Java book?!"

We saw that there was a big gap in usability/learnability for a lot of programming books, and knew from our backgrounds in artificial intelligence, learning theory, and interaction design that there was an opportunity to make a major difference, if we could find a publisher willing to let us make the leap. So we proposed the idea to a major publisher (not O'Reilly). The publisher said, "That's way too radical and people won't accept it, but we'll let you do 10-20% of what you want and we can see how it goes..." In other words, they wanted us to make incremental improvements to the learning model used in the books we were going to be competing with. We declined, even though we were really anxious to have a book published, because we believed that without a revolutionary jump in the learning experience, we'd be in for a horrendously bloody fight, kicking and clawing for market share in an overcroweded field against successful competitors who were much better known.

A revolutionary improvement was taking the commonly-held assumptions and tossing out as many as we could if they stood in the way of a good learning experience. The thing is, there isn't anything revolutionary about Head First books if you view them in the context of all learning experiences, or even just the subset of "books designed for learning." You've all seen books that use visuals, surprise and novelty, strong metaphors, different learning styles applied to the same topic, etc. The difference is simply that you didn't see that in programming books.

So "revolutionary" often just means "revolutionary in THIS context." And that's also a way to think about where to find ideas for revolutionary improvements... look at what's being done in other domains, that might work in yours. In our case, we looked at trying to replicate as much as possible the things that make up a good classroom experience, and apply that to a book. In other words, instead of studying what's good about books, we looked at what's good about classroom experiences, and then we looked at books (largely children's books) for more ideas on the ways in which classroom learning could be mapped into a book. We didn't do a great job, either. But the leap was enough to make a significant difference to the majority of the market for those books.

In fact, when we look at it now, we realize that a lot of what we did in the Head First books was still mostly incremental improvements, and that we were still basing a lot of what we did on the way it's usually done. We chickened out in a lot of areas. (Which is why we designed another new series that you'll see the first books in near the end of this year.) But it's really hard not to make only incremental improvements, because the natural tendency is to focus on improving what's already there. You ask the question, "How can we make this thing better?" Instead of, "What are we really trying to accomplish for our users?"

One of the hardest things to do is throw away what you've worked so hard on. That could mean throwing away real stuff--physical products or software code--or throwing away ideas. There's a certain amount of unlearning that usually has to happen, as well as letting go of things you might be especially proud of. ("Killing your babies" is the expression many writers use.)

The biggest problem with incremental improvements is that they often lead, eventually, to an impenetrable wall that stops you from ever ending up where you really need to be. You can't get there from here. In the good old days, you could solve that by simply out-advertising/out-marketing the competition. Well, that's out. (See Hugh, Seth, and other neo-marketing folks for thoughts on that.)

But today, there's more supply than demand of just about everything, and the competition is fiercer than ever. You certainly don't want to go down that road of competing solely on price, but if everyone in the game is trying to make incremental improvements, the liklihood of anyone breaking through in a significant (let alone lasting way) is slim.

FYI -- I'm reading a book somewhat related to this, based on the idea of creating Blue Ocean Strategies (the book link is on that site). It's premise is that competing for market share is the "bloody red ocean" and that what you really want is the "blue ocean" where the competition is simply irrelevant, because you've created "uncontested market space." I was quite skeptical of the book ("Oh, yeah, it's really simple -- just make the competition irrelevant") , but having gone halfway through the book, I'm starting to be a believer. Their approach really does offer a variety of different, concrete, do-able strategies for looking for ways to make this possible.

And while we're on the subject of incremental vs. revolutionary improvements, I wouldn't assume that this applies only to products or services (or, say, a legacy school system). It applies to your whole life. I've known marriages, for example, that were failing with patches, tweaks, and tunes--but who survived and eventually thrived by taking a revolutionary step (moving away from the meddling in-laws, quitting the stressful job, choosing a simpler life, throwing away the television, etc.) And I've known people who gave up on incremental career improvements, made the revolutionary personal leap and changed their life in a dramatic way. Remember, thanks to what we now (and only very recently) know about the neuroplasticity of the brain, it's never to late to create You 2.0".

Posted by Kathy on March 28, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

How do you thank your loyal users?

Wow -- I may have just had the best "customer love" experience of my life. Over the last five years, I've been spending way too much money buying prescription glasses from one of those foofy overpriced mall "eyewear" boutiques (The Eye Gallery in the Flatirons mall outside Boulder CO). I keep going there because the optometrist is amazing, helpful, nice to be around, treats you like a friend, and most importantly--spends a lot of time educating and motivating you about what's really going on with your eyes, how to take better care of them, what it means to your eyes to be living at such a high altitude, etc. And best of all (for me), the folks there take the time to help me find something at least half-way flattering (or at least they do a great job of making me believe that... by the time I leave they have me thinking I look like Heidi Klum. Of course that wears off completely once I'm in, say, the dressing room at Nordstroms).

So I just lost my last pair of glasses and went in all desperate, 20 minutes before closing. My normal doctor was out on maternity leave, but her new husband, who'd never seen me before was there and he decided to do the exam right then, after closing time. Then he and one of his assistants spent 45 minutes helping me while I agonized between the two "designer" frames I'd narrowed it down to. On one hand was the very fun, very french, very expensive pair of purple frames that I dearly wanted... and on the other were the tortoise shell ones that were still cool, but way more practical. I wimped out and went with the tortoise shell.

Now the good part...

I came back in the next day when they were ready, and the optometrist's husband pulled out the tortoise shell glasses with my new lenses, and did all the adjustments. Then just before I got up to leave, he said, "Oh, I talked to my wife last night about you, and you've been such a great customer that we decided you might want to have some fun... so we went ahead and made those purple ones for you as well. They're on us."

I was stunned. Those very festive, very french suckers cost over $300, and here they were saying, "Here, go have some fun!" Talk about endearing me for life--I'll never buy glasses anywhere else as long as I still live anywhere in this state. And I'm dragging everyone else I know down there too, armed with all the knowledge they've given me about how important it is to have regular exams, the right UV protection, etc.

Yes, I spent a lot of money there over the last few years, but that's nothing compared to what I've spent on, say, my computers, stereo equipment, hell--I've spent more on Amazon just for books! But I've never had a personalized or even remotely special thank-you. Would it really kill most big companies to do that?

(I just remembered another fun example--two weeks after my father bought a new Honda, he got a huge shock when someone from the dealership showed up at his doorstop with a basket of fresh-baked cookies as a thank-you and follow-up.)

But the best part of the thank-you I got from the Eye Gallery is that they gave me an "I Rule!" experience. They weren't just creating a loyal customer, they were helping ME be more playful. They were helping me kick-ass. (Assuming you're willing to buy into my delusion that wearing those cool purple frames makes me smarter, more clever, and definitely more fun ; )

So, how are you thanking your users? How are the companies you do business with rewarding or at least acknowledging you for your loyalty? Next time you think about how to thank your users, see if there's a way to do something else for them, in the context of showing your appreciation. See if you what you do for them makes them have more fun.

They'll love you forever.

Posted by Kathy on March 25, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Motivated to learn?


Think of a time when you wanted to learn something because there was something you needed to do. It could be as simple as figuring out how to transfer a call on your new (and insanely complex) phone system at work, because your boss' wife somehow ended up at your extension and you SO don't want to hang up on her. Or it could be that you just realized that you're really tired of copy-and-pasting your contact info onto every one of your web pages, so you need to figure out how to dynamically include a snippet of HTML in every one of your JSP pages.

Now think back to most of what you learned in high school. How much biology do you remember? I mean, really remember? (Assuming you aren't a medical student or biologist today.) I am 100% certain that I'd fail some of the exams I took when I was 16... including some of the ones I aced at the time.

OK, so that was a pretty long time ago, and no matter how well you learned something, there's a little bit of a use-it-or-lose-it for a lot of topics. You might still have it all in your brain, but the mechanism for recalling it is too rusty to be useful.

But think about something more recent. Think about the last technical topic you learned from either a class or a book. How much of the details do you remember? The answer probably depends a lot on whether you knew that you needed to be able to do that particular thing you were learning. And that's huge. Because if even at a high level you know you need to learn PHP, if the parts your studying don't seem directly related to what you know you want to do, the learning will be weak.

And that's the problem with a huge chunk of learning today, from schools to colleges to corporate/IT training to books:

Just-in-case learning sucks compared to just-in-time learning.

That doesn't mean there aren't a lot of problems with just-in-time learning, too... usually just-in-time learning is also just-what-you-need to survive the current problem, and you might not even understand why the thing you're doing works. But there's a hybrid solution that we try (not always successfully) to do sometimes in our books or in the classroom, and it's this:

Give a compelling, personally motivating reason/benefit for the thing you're teaching, before you teach it!

In other words, try to make just-in-case learning feel more like just-in-time learning. In our Head First books, for example, you'll see a lot of things like, "Imagine you've just finished working on this project when suddenly the spec changes, and your boss says..." We try to give scenarios up-front, that at least provide a tiny bit of just-in-time motivation. That feeling of, "OK, I really need to be able to do this, so I need to figure out how..." vs. "I'm sure this is relevant or it probably wouldn't be in the book, but it's not something my brain needs to pay attention to right now..."

We try to get our authors and teachers to really work on this, but it's not always. I've had learners in a Java class who had no idea if they would ever actually use Java in the real world. So I try to help them imagine what they might want to do, and I try to come up with things that might be inherently motivating, to make it more like a game. Almost anything can be made interesting and even compelling if the book/teacher doesn't suck the life and joy out of it by making it boring, academic, or too comprehensive and difficult (like when the book tries to be both a learning and reference book, so it covers absolutely everything about any given topic, including the stuff that even the author can't imagine actually using in the real world...)

I think I gave a few tips on doing this in a much earlier post on Show-dont-tell applied to learning.

A good goal: figure out ways to make just-in-case learning feel almost as motivating as just-in-time learning.

Posted by Kathy on March 23, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Interaction vs. one-way communication

So a funny thing happened at ETech...
I was doing my tutorial on Monday when Gina, in charge of all the O'Reilly conferences, walks in to the room for the first time. It just happened that at the moment she came in, we were in the middle of a group discussion exercise. In groups of six, all 130 people were brainstorming on ideas for things they could teach their users. The room was really lively except for me, standing around at the front writing some notes.

Gina walked up to Bert who was managing things from the back of the room, and she said (with apparently great concern), "What is going on in here?" Bert didn't know who she was and said, "Oh, we're doing a tutorial." She gave him the equivalent of the "duh" look, and said, "I know that, but why isn't Kathy talking?"

Bert realized how it must have looked (out of control chaos), and laughed and told her that group interactions were part of the tutorial. She looked again, realized what was happening (and that it was a really good thing), smiled and said, "Ohhhhh...."

Twenty minutes later in walks conference chair, Rael Dornfest. Again, we're back in a group exercise. Repeat the Gina scenario all over again.

Bert and I laughed about this later, and then realized that their reaction must have meant that this whole group interaction thing was not normal for the conference. And that brings up a key difference between the notion of "teaching" vs. "presenting" or "speaking". I was referred to as a speaker/presenter, but to me--my job was to help the attendees learn. And that means I can't just stand there for three and a half hours and push information out of my mouth and into their heads. (See my earlier post learning isn't a push model)

I figured 130 of the smartest and most interesting people on the planet were there, and I wanted to make sure that they could get ideas from one another, not just me. Yes, the wisdom of crowds : ) 130 different ideas was too valuable an opportunity to waste.

But it did strike me as funny a few times when I'd be in a session that was specifically about interaction, community building, moving from a one-way broadcast to a network model, etc. and then I'd realize that the session was strictly a speaker-talks-attendees-listen model. Definitely one-way push, at least until the formal Q&A at the end.

So why does this happen? Why aren't sessions more interactive? Three main reasons:

1) It's just not the way it's done.
2) The speaker doesn't have the kind of classroom-management skills needed to pull of group exercises, especially in a large room.
3) The session is really more of a briefing than an actual learning experience or tutorial, so it's not really appropriate.

When I do a 45-60 minute talk, I rarely do full group exercises. There's usually not enough time when people are coming specifically to get new info. Still, as a teacher, I cannot imagine even a 15 minute talk that wouldn't involve some form of attendee participation. I almost never explain something big without asking for others to contribute what they think. So it's still interactive, but between me and them rather than the attendees interacting with one another. But it's still better than a pure I-talk-you-listen thing.

Again, that requires some experience/skill at managing the group--we've all been to talks where the speaker lets one person in the room dominate the discussion or lead it off track. You're all sitting there wishing SOMEBODY would tell the guy to shut up and let the speaker continue. Teachers handle this without thinking, but not all speakers are teachers (or professional "presenters").

Some of this just comes down to my role in all this. There are people at ETech or other conferences who are there because they have something valuable to say or because of who they are... you just want to hear them talk (like George Dyson : ) But for me, I was there because I have something to help people learn. In other words, it wasn't about me. It was about what happened between the ears of the attendees, and that was less likely to happen if I did all the talking, than if I helped them interact, brainstorm, share ideas, debate, question, and create the start of a plan.

And just to somehow bring the whole women-at-conferences thing back in one more time, I did notice that Shelley Powers (who is a wonderful writer with a lot to say, although I disagree with most of her view on this issue) had a really interesting and I think valuable take about why the SXSW (South By Southwest Interactive) festival happening last week had more women:

"In fact, I think the same could be said of the entire SxSW conference — it encouraged participation, even from the audience. Lively discussions in the hallway aside, O’Reilly’s ETech conference is fairly passive. People sit in rows and listen to a speaker. People go to birds-of-a-feather sessions for interactivity, but these are an aside to the whole experience."

Maybe some women aren't going to tech conferences because they have a higher standard about whether the experience is good for their brain : ) Because interaction is virtually always better for the brain if learning is the outcome.

Again, that's not necessarily the purpose of all conference sessions. So it's important for speakers/presenters/conference organizers/panelists/teachers to try to define the real goal of their session -- if it's a briefing, to convey as much new data/info as possible, then low interaction is probably appropriate. But if it's meant for real learning--to produce a change in the brain of the attendee, than one-way push is a much less effective choice.

Ask yourself, "am I doing a talk or... something else?" I think too often people (including teachers) do "talks" when they should be doing "interactions". I'd love to hear ideas for how others are using interaction in their presentations/classes/whatever, and tips for how non-teachers can use this effectively even in a shorter format. I'll add my tips a little later.

Posted by Kathy on March 22, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

One of us is smarter than all of us


You've heard the saying "none of us is as smart as all of us", and you've felt the pressure. A group of individuals working together as a team can do better work, reach better decisions, etc. After all, two heads are better than one. Right?

Given how much I can't stand (with a passion) that idea, I almost skipped the keynote talk by James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds. And that would have sucked. Because what he said was amazing, and I had his perspective (mostly) wrong.

He started with a few thoughts on how ants (and so many other creatures) are quite simple and stupid, but that their intelligence and complexity grows with the number of interactions between them. More ant interaction equals more sophisticated behavior. It's similar to flocking behavior, of course, where birds follow very simple rules but complex behavior emerges.

And that's all great and intuitive... until you get to humans. Humans, he said, demonstrate the opposite principle: more interactions equals dumber behavior. When we come together and interact as a group seeking consensus, we lose sophistication and intelligence. Ants get smarter while we get dumber.

So how does this track with the name of his book?

Where I had it wrong is that his book's premise (wisdom of crowds) comes with qualifiers.
The wisdom of crowds comes not from the consensus decision of the group, but from the aggregation of the ideas/thoughts/decisions of each individual in the group.

At its simplest form, it means that if you take a bunch of people and ask them (as individuals) to answer a question, the average of each of those individual answers will likely be better than if the group works together to come up with a single answer. And he has a ton of real examples (but you'll just have to read the book for them ; )

He makes other really important points including one that's related to my previous post on the lack of women at ETech--diversity increases the quality of the aggregated wisdom of the group. If you have too many people who are alike, then no matter how smart they all are, they may not come up with the same quality of answer than if you have less smart folks who have a very different point of view. Diversity brings new information. And that new information is valuable.

Which leads me to... my previous post where I talked about the missing women at ETech. According to Surowiecki's formulas, the more alike the attendees of these tech conferences are, the less likely it is that you have the diverse opinions and ideas that lead to better ideas.

In order for the crowd to have wisdom, the crowd has to be made up of individuals who argue! Or as he puts it in the book, "Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise. An intelligent group, especially when confronted with cognition problems, does not ask its members to modify their positions in order to let the group reach a decision everyone can be happy with. Instead, it figures out how to use mechanisms--like market prices, or intelligent voting systems--to aggregate and produce collective judgements that represent now what any one person in the group thinks but rather, in some sense, what they all think."

And my favorite line that sums it up:

"Paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible."

The last time I posted about individuals vs. teams in The Power of One, I took some heat in comments and other blogs for glorifying the person who is willing to stand up against the rest of the team. Although that wasn't my intention, I believe that group think and the overemphasis on happy productive teamwork has done more harm than good to innovation. Somewhere, there's a good balance, but right now it's too far in the favor-the-team-over-the-individual side. And this book explains exactly why and how the diversity and dissent--which are usually considered bad characteristics in a team, can (under the right circumstances--managers, don't freak out here--all disclaimers apply) lead to something much greater than what the team can do when everyone must agree.

Interestingly, others speaking at the conference had similar messages. Bran Ferren of Applied Minds talked about software development and made a point that "art isn't the product of a team." I'll leave that to you to think about what he meant by that. I have my own ideas... ; )

Posted by Kathy on March 21, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (24) | TrackBack

My First ETech Comments


So I'm back from a wonderful week at ETech (and time off for other unexpected emergencies). I have a ton of individual posts to make on various ETech-related topics, but here's my first cut of some highlights:

No women. (No surprise)
(I'll say more on that at the end of this post).

LifeHacks by Danny O'Brien and Merlin Mann rocked.
I was so motivated I had to join the crowd and bought a copy of David Allen's book, Getting Things Done. I'm also making 43 folders a daily visit. The fact that these guys talked about the whole productivity thing in terms of "protecting your flow state" was what really did it for me. I'm all about flow : )
Here are Cory Doctorow's notes from the talk.

James Surowiecki talked on The Wisdom of Crowds and I had to rush out and buy that book as well.

Danny Hillis' Applied Minds is probably the most fun place a person could ever work.
Cory has notes on that one as well.

I could listen to George Dyson talk for 24 hours straight...
Wow. Here are David Weinberger's notes from George's talk.

I managed to do my entire 3.5 hour tutorial without once using the word "remix". I should get a prize for that... I'm pretty sure I'm the only ETech speaker to make that claim.

I loved Joel Spolsky's talk on making people happy.
Other attendees weren't so thrilled, given that they thought it was going to be about "community building." He came close to what we talk about here on passionate users, and I went away delighted (and humming "Sweet Home Alabama") and with a few new ideas. He rocks.

Oh yeah, we won the Jolt Award!!
(This took place not at ETech, but at the Software Development Conference happening at the same time in San Jose.) Head First Design Patterns took the top spot in technical books. Way to go Team Head First, and especially Eric and Beth!! Our Servlets book was one of the finalists, but didn't win. Winning the top award was a big shock for us...

I'm horrified to admit that I now want a TabletPC.
I know, I know. But when I explain it all in another post, you'll see. The guy responsible for this is Brady Forrest, who I may never forgive for making me lust--for the first time in my life (and hopefully last)--after a device that runs Windows. I must stop reading Robert Scoble, because I'm pretty sure he slips subliminal Tablet PC messages into his blog.

The Maker Fair made me seriously want to learn how to solder.
It was inspired by O'Reilly's new DIY Make magazine. I've never been one for meat-space projects (I like building virtual things instead), but I'm not sure that anyone didn't come away from this "grown up science fair" with a few project ideas.

OK, now back to the where-are-the-women thing...

I try to avoid this topic because I have such strong (passionate?) opinions about it, and they don't seem to be very popular views. In a nutshell, I am intensely against the view that tech conferences are somehow female-unfriendly. All I am willing to agree with are a few facts:

* There are far fewer women attending tech conferences than men
* The imbalance of men-to-women at these conferences is greater than the imbalance that exists in the working world. More men who work in IT attend conferences than women who work in IT.
* There are fewer presentations given by women. To me, this is a pretty direct reflection of fewer women involved PERIOD.

What I do NOT agree with:

* The idea that there is even the slightest hint of some attempt to keep women out of this world. I can't imagine a single geek at ETech saying, "These things are really best when it's just us guys..."
* That women are made to feel uncomfortable, pushed-out, or that it's all a boy's club at tech conferences. In fact, as a woman who's probably been to about 50 tech conferences over the last decade (I'm kind of an addict), I can't imagine a more ridiculous idea. I'm not saying that there aren't women who feel that way, but if they are, it's most likely their own perceptual problem. I'm definitely not going to accept the charge some women have brought against me that I'm either too clueless to even notice when I'm being disparaged, discounted, whatever, or that the fact that I don't notice all these slights just proves their point that it's so pervasive I can't even see it. I'm not stupid, clueless, or insensitive. But I'm also one of those who has a glass-half-full attitude and it takes one hell of a lot to "offend" me. I give everyone the benefit of the doubt and don't assume the worst. When I have had trouble at a tech job, it has never been something I can honestly attribute to being a woman. It might have been because my boss was an idiot, or I was an idiot, but whether either of us was male or female really isn't the cause.
* That women aren't attending because there aren't enough women presenters. Sorry, but I think that's bullshit, although any conference would benefit from more diversity of thought, I just don't believe that this is why women aren't attending conferences.
* That women aren't being selected as presenters because they're women. While I can't honestly say that this has never happened at anyconference, this just doesn't make any sense. The conference presenters are pretty damn motivated to offer topics attendees want to attend (and are willing to pay for), as opposed to some conspiracy (or even subconscious motivation) to keep women out.

Having said all that, I have no idea why more women aren't attending. I love love love attending conferences. I'm not there for my career, or networking, or anything other than the pure joy of learning and getting new ideas. And I get those both from the sessions and from interacting with other excited, passionate, smart people. Having more women--or actually just more diversity of thought would make any conference better for everyone, but that doesn't stop me from having a fabulous time.

I think one of the most damaging things is when people spread this meme that "women don't go to these conferences because they aren't made to feel welcome." The more we say this, the less likely it is that women will go. (Self-fulfilling prophecy and all that.) We need a serious reframing. And often the same people who make this claim (and for very good intentions, and based on their own passionately-held beliefs), would bristle at the notion that women can't get out their and kick ass. If women need to "feel welcome" before they'll attend a conference, then what does that say?

Now, if the conference attendees were all huddled over their machines and pulling one another over to check out their latest porn sites, then yeah, that would be uncomfortable, and I'd stop going. But that's not how it is!. So far, the people at conferences who talk about porn are usually women. And remember--we're talking about geeks here. Sexy as she is, I think Boing Boing's Xeni barely turned a head at ETech... because the guys were all too busy gawking over the feral robots.

And did I mention the whole bathroom perk?

In a market-driven economy, it just makes sense that if more women attend, and if it turns out (although this is often not the case) that women want different kinds of topics, then they will speak with their dollars. Show up at the conferences, pay your entrance fees, fill out your evaluations, and then we can talk about whether there really is a problem with women deliberately being turned down because they're women. Life is too short not to be out there soaking up all the great things that happen at these conferences. I think it would be far more productive to just go to conferences as a participant. Talk to attendees. Get to know what people are interested in. If nothing else, it'll up your chances of submitting a proposal that'll be accepted. But any person (male or female) who wants on as a presenter should make sure they have paid lots of attendee dues--to really learn and understand the paying attendee's perspective.

And having said that, I will say that there are people much smarter than me who have a lot more to say about it, even if I disagree with much of it, they do get me to think. More discussions of women and ETech are at David Weinberger's blog and the outspoken (and very WELL spoken) Shelly Powers blog entry on ETech. Have fun : )

Posted by Kathy on March 21, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Your brain on multitasking

If you're a programmer, you know that context-switching in a multi-threaded system isn't 100% free. There's overhead with tiny bits of time lost on each switch, as a new thread takes control. Well, it's the same way with your brain. Only a lot slower. And it doesn't look like
Brain 2.0, Now... with Multi-Processor Capability!
will be coming anytime soon.

And although there have been plenty of studies to show otherwise, the belief that multitasking will let us get more done continues. Think of how many times you've been on the phone with someone when you hear that little click-clack of their keyboard. (I hate that. I do it to other people, but I hate it when they do it to me.) And it makes me crazy when I'm trying to have a conversation with someone in the same room, while they're saying, "Uh-huh... yeah... I'm listening...sure, I can do this and talk at the same time...". You know who you are ; )

Our brains can't do even two independent things that require conscious thought, especially if those two things involve different goals. But that's OK, you might think, since multi-threaded systems on a single-processor aren't technically doing two things at the same time.. they're simply switching back and forth so quickly that they just appear to be processing simultaneously. But that's the problem... the brain isn't a computer, and in many cases the brain works much more slowly than a modern processor.

With each context switch, say, from the phone conversation to the email, there's a hit. And it's not a subtle hit. One of the things I really like about stress-management expert Jon Kabat-Zinn is that he sometimes offers seminars and workshops on time-management, but when you get there, it turns out his approach isn't about how you manage your file folders, but about mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness is like adding more hours to your day. If you're mindful, time slows down. You get more done, enjoy things more, and feel less stress. These are big claims, but anyone who's practiced mindful meditation or, like me, mindfulness-hold-the-meditation-thanks, will swear it's true.

So if you're stressed for time, do everything you can to resist the seemingly-intuitive notion that doing several things at once will save time. I know how hard it is to let that go, but study after study proves this wrong (here's another article from CIO magazine). Obviously there are exceptions, especially if you're quite content to let the quality of the work go down, or to be rude to the person you're talking to.

But imagine what it would be like if every time your co-worker, friend, spouse, lover, child wanted to say something to you and you turned and gave that person all your attention. End of story. No television sucking you into the event horizon. No glancing at the computer. No talking on the phone or checking your watch or reading a report... just 100% mindful, totally there, perfect eye contact, YOU. If you already do this now, that's awesome. If not, then if you try it--and I mean really try it--your family might think something's wrong with you. (One of those, "Who are you and what have you done with my husband?" moments.)

One tip: the brain finds it almost impossible to not turn to look at a television that's on (more on that in another post). So turn it off. If you must have television, make it a destination event. Something you do consciously like choosing to go to the theater. One of the worst things you can do to your brain (and family) is just have the TV on when you're doing virtually anything else but sitting down to watch a specific show. In other words, have a damn good reason for turning it on, and I swear you'll get more done (and have more energy... remember, television acts as somewhat of a temporary sedative to your brain. It literally sucks your energy, while simultaneously making you feel like it's helping you to relax. There's a great issue of Scientific American special edition on the Mind (volumne 14, number 1) that goes into a lot of technical detail about this).

If you want to get more done, be mindful.
If you want to have more time, be mindful.
Mindful means one thing at a time.
It's how the brain works, no matter how you try to convince yourself you can do it (although there is evidence that fast media/video-gamer kids are a little faster at switching. Not because they have a younger brain, but because their brains were more wired for this pace at a younger age).

As the Buddha might have said, when you're answering email, don't try to talk to someone at the same time. Be the emailing. ; )

Posted by Kathy on March 9, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (27) | TrackBack

What's in your wake?


Does your product or service support plug-ins and add-ons? Does it lend itself to follow-on products, accessories, support and training, etc.? Does it inspire others to be part of your wake?

Whoever competes with the iPod has to compete with a lot more than Apple's device--it has to compete with this great wall of stuff riding in the iPod wake. And these things all make the iPod a lot more appealing and flexible.

Inspiring a wake--where passionate people add value to your product or service with new things--is one of the fabulous side-effects of having passionate users. And your chances of creating passionate users just keeps going up the larger the wake gets. So it's a great big happy reinforcing feedback loop.

Some marketing folks have talked about user-created ads, but if you let users enhance what you offer, by adding more features or even just by creating cool fan t-shirts, you're much further up the passionate users curve.

Are there ways in which you can encourage others to add value to your product? If it's software, do you have an API that supports plug-ins? Do you encourage others (even if it means no direct revenue for you) to provide training and support? Are people likely to write books about it? (More books on the shelf about your product=more visibility for your product, and more chances that someone will have a successful experience with it.) How many new businesses were started by users who liked something so much, the decided to start their own business around it. So what are you doing to help others build in your wake? Being closed, or trying to keep others from capitalizing on what you provide (in other words, trying to keep the wake for yourself), is a bad idea.

The more interesting and valuable your wake is, the more likely it is that you'll create more passionate users. And the more passionate users you have, the more likely it is that your wake will grow.

Posted by Kathy on March 8, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack