« Think... or be afraid | Main | Reverse-engineering passion: part 1 »

They Want To Believe...

In the beginning, it was about features. Products were new, barriers to entry were high, and there just wasn't that much competition. By the eighties, it had become all about benefits, and any salesperson (or advertiser/marketer/brand manager) worth his Mont Blanc pen knew he had to answer the customer's "what's in it for me?" question.

The brain scientists (and marketing research) convinced us that despite what users and customers claimed, they made decisions based NOT on logical feature-for-feature comparisons, but on an emotional response. So we focused our "unique selling propositions" on benefits that we knew (or hoped) would touch the right button, implying that what we offered made you richer, slimmer, sexier... someone others would respect, love, or envy. We called those "meaningful benefits", things that the prospective customer valued.

The idea of "meaningful benefits" still applies, but something has started to shift.

Something big.

What our users/customers/learners/visitors consider meaningful has evolved into something deeper.

While the goals we consider "shallow" are certainly still there for most of us--things like "will these jeans make my butt look smaller?" or "will Suzy sleep with me if I get the red Porsche?", the search for meaning seems to be taking hold. The evidence is all around us from the rise in spiritual practice, to the increased appreciation of beauty and aesthetics. When a man hits midlife and is just as likely to take a month off for a Zen retreat as he is to get hair plugs and a new sportscar, you know something's up.

The fastest growing group of new first-time horse owners is women over 40, and it's being attributed not to an interest in the sport of riding but rather the idea of horse as a means for transformation.

So how do we add more meaning? My co-authors and I believe that the small things are just as important as The Big Things... that small moments of more play, joy, happiness, and especially--kicking ass--are more meaningful to a user than, say, a false attempt at "building self-esteem". We believe one of the easiest ways to help add meaning to a user's life is by helping them grow. (I wrote more about this in Upgrade your users, not just your product.)

If users want to believe in something more... something bigger, what are you doing to support that? Some people wonder why so many others are "duped" into paying more for an iPod when other products appear--at least on the surface--to have more features and benefits for less money. They're baffled by the overwhelming numbers (like, nearly the entire market for MP3 players) is throwing away money for a fashion statement or trend. But there's more to that story then just trends and fashion (or ignorance).

When Steve Jobs wanted to hire Scully away from Pepsi, he asked, "Do you want to keep selling sugar water to kids, or do you want to change the world?" A whole lot of the Apple faithful feel that they're part of a world-changing movement, even if the rest of us might not understand how, exactly, is an iPod changing the world in any meaningful way???. That's not the point. If Apple has managed to provide people with an experience that feels more meaningful, that's what matters. And it isn't always about the experience with the product... sometimes it's about the company itself.

Some feel, for example, that the cause of "sticking it to Gates" is worth paying for. The uproar over Microsoft's reversal, and then re-reversal of a position on the anti-discrimination bill is another example of how a company can no longer remain neutral in emotionally charged issues that are deeply meaningful to both employees as well as community leaders and current and future customers. It's not enough today to say, "Our responsibility is to our shareholders" if your employees and customers feel otherwise.

Of course, taking a stand on some of these deeper issues will mean alienating some of your market. That's a good thing, of course, lest you fall into the dreaded Zone of Mediocrity.

Lots of people are talking about this in different ways, of course, but our favorite take on this is from Hugh Macleod's finding meaning comments on Gaping Void.

But if you haven't already checked them out, here are a few places to visit: Michael Pollock at smallbusinessbranding, Evelyn Rodriguez at Crossroads Dispatches, and the Passion Catalyst Curt Rosengren.

Most of us have gotten to the stage where we have ways to extract "benefits" from the list of features we get from engineering. But how do we come up with the questions that transform benefits into meaning? One way is to just keep digging. When someone gives you a benefit, play the Why Who Cares So What game, and don't stop asking until the answer touches something a little deeper. In other words, when the engineer says, "This feature will let users add data more quickly...", don't stop asking "and this matters... how?" until the answer has to do with the quality (and shortness) of the user's life. The answer to the "why entering data more quickly matters" question might be something like, "because carpe diem matters to our users!".

The idea that a user's life has significant meaning beyond his work is an important one. And remember, this isn't about you. A lot of companies are jumping on the "add meaning" bandwagon by trying to find ways to align themselves with causes or charities to show what good socially responsible citizens they are. This is definitely a positive step, but the orientation is still 180 degrees off if the company is thinking, "What can WE do to appear more meaningful?" as opposed to, "How can we help add value--and possibly meaning--to the user's life?" When the question is focused on the user, not the company, the answers start to change. At first, that difference might seem subtle--but it's actually HUGE.

And hey, anytime you get the developers talking about the quality of the user's time when the user is NOT interacting with the product, you're getting somewhere : ) And when you're thinking about the user's perspective, perhaps Mulder nailed it with the poster hanging in his X-Files office...

Posted by Kathy on May 11, 2005 | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference They Want To Believe...:

» Kathy Sierra on Meaning from seattleduck
Kathy yet again figures out how to write inspirational and yet useful bits for us marketing-types. Today it [Read More]

Tracked on May 11, 2005 6:42:27 PM

» Know what your customers believe. from larry borsato
Kathy Sierra at Creating Passionate Users is searching for meaning:What our users/customers/learners/visitors consider meaningful has evolved into something deeper.I would generallly agree, except that I think that there are two categories of products... [Read More]

Tracked on May 12, 2005 11:49:55 AM

» TVOs Diffuse! from Digito Society
Kathy Sierra, over at Creating Passionate Users has discovered the magic world of transformation value offerings. Welcome Kathy! [Read More]

Tracked on May 12, 2005 8:04:44 PM


Hey - great post. Thanks for the mention too. This question is greate: "How can we help add value--and possibly meaning--to the user's life?"


Best - Michael

Posted by: Michael D. Pollock | May 11, 2005 7:56:26 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.