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Think Sexy


If you want to create passionate users, you need to understand passion. We do it in the geekiest of ways on this blog by reverse-engineering. But we can't just study it; we have to feel it.

Sure you can conjure up your own feelings of passion for skiing, dancing, golfing, coding, photography, etc. And we'll talk about that another time because it's crucial. But right now, let's think about... sex.

Call it neurobiological research. Call it marketing research. Call it... fun.

The brain cares deeply, profoundly, passionately about survival of the species. And that means sex.

But here I want to talk not about sex, but about the quality of sexiness. And for reasons we don't have to care about now, our brains seem to attribute sexiness to things that have nothing to do with a real breathing human.

A 45-year old programmer says, "Sure, this technology is sexier, but we can't afford it now..."

A 29-year old attorney says, "That is the sexiest new sports car I've seen in the last five years."

A 17-year old student says, "That new iPod is really sexy."

I say, "I love this music... it's so damn sexy..."

A 32-year old graphic artist says, "That new package design is sexy."

A 65-year old architect says, "The curves of that new museum entrance are very sexy."

On it goes. And we're not talking about the obvious things like cologne in a bottle that's shaped like, well, you know. The unimaginative can simply use the shortest route to the brain's basic response to sex. They'll use the Coors Twins in an ad, for example, rather than come up with something more subtly clever.

But the rest of us can Think Sexy rather than relying on overt sex in our product design, marketing, adverstising, or in our case -- books (including covers).

Now, I'm guessing you spent more time looking at the picture at the top of this blog than the headline... even if you are completely unaware of that extra time. It just happens. Blame it on your chemistry. Blame it on your anatomy. But the more you personally respond to the notion of sexiness, the more likely you are to be able to conjure up the feeling when you're designing.

The iPod IS sexy. The Zen Micro is definitely not.

Given the overwhelming market share of the iPod, does that mean that most MP3-player buyers are simply shallow? Picking a product with as much sense as the 45-year old guy leaving his wife of twenty years to run with the cheerleader?


We're not picking it because it's sexy. We're picking it because sexiness is part of what makes it a better product!

Better to hold. Better to use. Better to look at. Better to give you a good feeling.

Don Norman talks about this in an essay Attractive Things Work Better, which Beth mentions in Why Cool is Good For Your Brain. (Side note: she's talking about attractive and cool qualities that aren't necessarily always sexy... sorry Beth and Eric, but however cool I think the Honda Element is, I don't think of it as sexy ; )

Whether you're designing a book, a software application, a piece of hardware, or a website... think sexy.

And have fun with the research.

Posted by Kathy on May 31, 2005 | Permalink


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We will forgive them for using comic sans, if only because it's used in the correct bubble-caption context. Creating Passionate Users talks about Sexy design. Which raises the question, what makes a design sexy? Clearly no one is lining up... [Read More]

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I'm sorry, Kathy... did you say something?

Posted by: Duffbert | May 31, 2005 8:08:12 AM

LOL @ Duffbert

I think this goes hand in hand with the story that Seth Godin keeps talking about. Apple's products always tell a story. They used to be about overcoming adversity, Big Brother, and the Majority. Now it is about being sexy and cool.

People buy Apple products because they feel good buying them. Whether to say "Down with Microsoft/IBM!" or to say "I'm with the in-crowd!" there is a story there.

Posted by: GBGames | May 31, 2005 10:21:42 AM

Sexy just works better. In studies they've shown that "Sexy" ATMs get higher ease-of-use ratings. Our biology is something that can be taken advantage of for sure, but it also produces effects that improve the customer experience. Great post!

Posted by: Aaron Dignan | May 31, 2005 10:35:35 AM

Am I the only pervert that thinks operating an iPod is exactly like fondling a nipple? I find the interface to be so obviously sexual that I wonder if I should be using it in public. ;-)

Posted by: Anthony | May 31, 2005 11:44:22 AM

I refuse to believe the iPod is sexy.

However, this article was very tasty.

Mmmmm crunchy nougat. Goooood.


More please.

Posted by: shaded | May 31, 2005 3:00:06 PM

I've noticed that while the first two covers in your "Head First" series showed pictures of geeky men, subsequent covers show very cute women - the kind a geek would like because they also look geeky-smart. I submit, that your new covers are specifically designed to create sexual feelings in order to help sell books. You recognizing that most of your buyers are, well, men and that sexy sells. It's very smart.

Posted by: RMH | May 31, 2005 3:59:20 PM

I'm pretty sure that, in the future, a series of books titled "Sex First [topic]" would sell too well. Far future that is.

Posted by: Kevin Teoh | May 31, 2005 7:00:15 PM

When books are electronic, the Sex First [topic] will do marvelously well. For instance, we could have "Sex First Design Patterns"... or even better, "Sex First, Then Design Patterns". You'd start off in a porn movie (with accompanying 70's music) and then launch into the Observer Pattern. Heh heh. I'm all over this one.

Regarding the covers - oh dear, the secret's out. Put a cute girl on the cover - become an instant bestseller!! :-) But seriously, the design patterns girl is cute isn't she? Sexy-smart-geeky-cute, and she knows design patterns inside and out.

Posted by: Beth | May 31, 2005 7:47:40 PM

Servlets & JSP Girl's not bad neither... :-)

Posted by: Matt Moran | Jun 1, 2005 7:21:51 AM

I feel the message being passed on here is:

A human being is a 'consumer.' Its only purpose is to buy, and it's okay to do anything to make it buy more.

Of course sex sells. You know enough about brain research to know how easy to manipulate humans are. It doesn't get any easier than to use our primal urge for sex.

Freud talks about this. He says for a civilization to be successful, it must find a creative outlet for the primal urges of its people. Guided properly, the incredible energy we have for sex can be used in a constructive fashion.

Our society just crassly exploits these urges. Instead of helping its people, it hurts them. It seeks to make people feel isolated, insecure, scared, and like they don't belong to the group (this is all good for selling products). It tells them that the way to be happy is to buy more products (which has the odd effect of doing just the opposite). It wreaks untold havoc on the relationships and people without a backward glance or a thought of responsibility.

Well, what is the cost of all this?

-The divorce rate is hovering around 50%
-Obesity is around 60% (food sells almost as good as sex)
-Civic involvement is at an all time historical low
-We have the highest % of our population in prison in the entire world
-If you ask me, people just aren't HAPPY and they aren't able to MATURE

You may pick me to pieces for using anecdotal evidence, not quoting any sources, and not actually establishing a link to those points and the question at hand. Fine. I don't claim to be any great expert.

All I'm saying is: we have incredible amounts of information about the brain. Let's figure out how to use it to help people! The advertisers aren't going to do it, so it's up to us.

That is, unless you're just trying to make a quick buck...

Kevin Audleman

Posted by: Kevin Audleman | Jun 1, 2005 5:28:31 PM

Sexy is in the eye of the beholder. To many - me included - smart is sexy. I guess you've got both ends covered, huh Kathy? ;)

Posted by: Tom Asacker | Jun 2, 2005 8:18:14 AM

KEVIN: You made some thoughtful comments, and I appreciate your goals. I take a different view, though.

"All I'm saying is: we have incredible amounts of information about the brain. Let's figure out how to use it to help people! The advertisers aren't going to do it, so it's up to us."

This IS our *mission*, actually (forgive the cliche). We believe that the best way to use these tools is to help people learn more about their own brains. We don't think that using sex and sexiness is necessarily a bad thing -- sex is a natural and enjoyable fact of biological life -- one that we appreciate greatly ; ) -- and not something to be "matured" out of.

We do agree with you about manipulation, although we believe that manipulation through *fear* -- not sex -- is the greatest danger to humans. And while we don't believe that it is okay to do *anything* to get people to buy something, we are talking on this blog to people who want to create *passionate users*. This will never happen if your product sucks or is not good for people, so... this is not our concern. We assume that the goal for our readers is to give people more daily *good feelings*.

We have little concern for the completely unethical, lying, companies that try to push something that really is bad or dangerous, because their days are numbered. They are becoming less and less viable thanks to the flow of information on the internet, the increased awareness out there, and even things like this little blog, and our books, which try to help teach people more about their brains.

We cannot do much to stop unethical advertisers and especially governments, etc. from exploiting the way the brain works. But what we CAN do -- and ARE doing here -- is help people learn and understand more about how and why it works.

There IS no other practical and decent way to combat exploitation and manipulation by the media, advertisers, etc. than through EDUCATION. And that's what we're about.

But we also believe that this can be put to really good use by harnessing these ideas to create better learning and better products. If attractive products *work* better, and the quality of sexiness is sometimes a part of that, then this is a good thing. If throwing in some sexiness keeps your brain awake when you're trying to learn something, that's a good thing.

Unless... we didn't tell you that you're being manipulated. But we DO. It's all there in the introduction of our books (and on this blog) where we say, "Hey, here's how we're going to try to trick your brain into having a better learning experience."

We're NOT ashamed of our approach;we think it's helping people in three key ways:

1) They ARE learning more, and more quickly
2) The quality of their time spent on learning is more enjoyable (and we greatly value people's time... they only have so much to spend, and if they choose to spend it with one of our books -- we want to do everything we can to try to show our appreciation and respect by keeping it interesting and productive and, yes, fun.
3) They are learning not just the topic (like Java), but also more about how their own brain works

And it is #3, we believe, that can change the world.

But truly, we don't share the belief that using sex in movies, television, ads, video games, whatever is the big problem. We believe that using overt sex and body parts is simply... tacky and unimaginative.

And the world IS changing. People in many parts of the world are steadily becoming FAR more sophisticated today--and cynical--about the ways in which they're being manipulated. They're more likely to be complicit than numbly, blindly, brainwashed into wanting something. The typical teenager in the US is way more savvy (and cynical) about advertising, and that means far less subject to the same kinds of manipulation. That doesn't mean there isn't still a huge problem, but it's changing in the right direction. The direction of smarter users! (Customers, guests, visitors, clients, etc.)

In my perfect world, people see something, *feel* something, and then say, "Oh, that's just my amygdala talking : )" or something like that. But I would hate to live in a world where we reduced sexiness by "maturing" into a world where we're all on a higher plane of intellect and rational thought.

In a nutshell, I think:

* sexiness in all its forms is something to be appreciated and valued, even if we'd love to see it implemented sometimes in a more sophisticated, clever, and subtle way.

* it is not "sex sells" but the lack of *mindfulness* that is hurting people.

Television and alcohol are far more responsible for encouraging people to stay asleep and subject to manipulation (and by "television", I don't mean the actual programs, but the activity of "having television on" as a backdrop and MOST especially -- the *news*).

If more people wake up -- they could all look at a sexy-but-tacky ad campaign and simply laugh at the lack of creativity, then make their own CONSCIOUS choice about whether the product is worth a look anyway. And they could look at a sexy-and-beautiful or sexy-and-fiesty-and-fun ad campaign and think to themselves, "Thanks for that ad -- I quite enjoyed that."

And yes, I say this as a woman with two teenage daughters. But when I look and listen to them (it was them, not I, that brought "Adbusters" into the house), I see the future... and it's a fun, stimulating, exciting, sexy, somewhat defiant, deviant-in-good-way, SMART one. I just wish it would get here a little quicker...

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jun 2, 2005 1:46:29 PM

Speaking of manipulation, I saw an interesting article today about research on oxytocin (*not* to be confused with oxycontin please!) which is a chemical in our brain. Recent research has shown that this chemical plays a big role in bonding and attachment (such as that of a parent and a child), and even more recently, a role in trust. Apparantly, if you sniff oxytocin (the researchers spray it into the noses of the people in the study), you are more apt to trust.

The article immediately brought up the potential misuses of something like this (e.g. car dearlerships with oxytocin laced air, etc.). Clearly, the more we learn about the brain and the ways it *can* be manipulated, the more ways we will have to manipulate people... but at the same time, hopefully the public will also be more aware of the manipulation going on - they will become smarter consumers as the sellers become more manipulative.

Posted by: Beth | Jun 2, 2005 10:20:07 PM

Sexy sells yes.. but who can define sexy? Guess that's the true art.

Posted by: Dave | Jun 5, 2005 6:05:40 AM


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Posted by: mamad | Jun 18, 2005 11:55:21 AM

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