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What can software learn from kung fu?


What do Photoshop, martial arts, church, the military, accounting software, Star Trek, video games, digital video, web programming, online forums, chess, and cooking have in common? The Next Level. There's always something new to aim for and as you progress through each level, the motivation to go higher keeps growing. How many of you have felt the seduction--where you go into something thinking you'll never care about anything beyond the bare minimum entry-level, only to find yourself sucked in?

Next thing you know, it turns out you did want to learn CSS. Because once you know CSS, then you can do... (and on it goes). Turns out you did need something beyond what iMovie could do, so you just had to get Final Cut Express. Turns out you did want to earn the rank of "bartender"-- full forum moderator status on javaranch. Turns out you did decide to go for your SCWCD certification in Java. And why not get a brown belt?

Where there is passion, there is always the idea of a "next level".

The next level doesn't have to be explicit, like belt levels in martial arts, the specifically numbered levels in a video game, or a military rank. Sometimes the next level is simply a new, more advanced capability. The key point, though, is that even if the next level is implicit, everyone recognizes it. Or at least everyone involved in that activity. If you're at a Star Trek convention and the guy behind you in line starts speaking conversational Klingon, that says something. For that audience--the hard core trekkies--this guy has achieved an implicit high level of trekness. (Not that I'd know ; )

Even with something as seemingly mundane at work, you see it. The one woman in the office who truly "gets" tables in MS Word. Although she might have reached table mastery status simply because she was forced to, more often it was because she started down that path and found herself hooked on learning just a little more.

No matter what the job task, the feeling is something like this: "If I could just do [insert some capability just slightly beyond what you know now], then I'd be able to do this one cool thing." And just as with any video game, once you've got that new "superpower", the next natural desire is to learn the next thing... If you can find a way to give your users something to reach for... that next level... in terms of new capabilities that allow them to do still cooler things, you have a much greater chance of inspiring passion. Because reaching for that next level is what leads to greater engagement, and improves the chance of having users stay in flow (FYI: the August issue of Fast Company has a nice little article on Flow! It's not online yet; they still show July as the current issue.)

It's all about kicking ass.

Of course, some companies do exactly the wrong thing by making what should be, say, a level 2 task feel like a level 8. In other words, you shouldn't have to feel like you must "get to the next level" to do the most basic thing. The point of the next level concept is that users should feel like it's worth the effort to get there. That it's challenging, but for all the right reasons. That the new cool thing they'll be able to do justifies the time and energy spent learning, researching, practicing. So the featuritis vs. the happy user peak plays a role here.

Remember, learning is like a drug to the brain (actually, it is a drug). The best user experiences--combined with a clear path to greater expertise and the promise of more time in flow--are like a healthier, happier form of crack. One of the best examples of this drug-dealer model in software is Apple.

With iMovie, for example, the first one is free. But once you're hooked, you find yourself wanting capabilities found only in the $299 Final Cut Express. You find yourself wanting, no needing to do things you never even imagined before you started playing around with iMovie. And for a certain percentage of users, even Final Cut Express will have limitations. Now you need the $999 Final Cut Pro or--for just a few dollars more, what the heck--might as well go for the whole Final Cut Studio. They've managed to teach you to want the most expensive versions of their products. Then they do the same thing with sound (Garage Band --> Logic Express --> Logic Pro). It seems Apple has figured out the optimum price points for their "next levels", in order of FREE, $299, then $999.

But even if the goal is not to teach or inspire users to appreciate your higher-end products, just having goals to strive for is what matters. Whether the promise is that you can become a first-level moderator, a church usher, one who can use the RAW features of Photoshop, a CSS guru, a Sun Certified Business Component Developer, a double black diamond snowboarder, or a 3-dan go player... never forget that where there is passion, there is always a next level.

Software--or any product--can learn a lot from the martial arts, and I suppose the idea of rankings/belts/levels is probably the least of it. But it's a great place to start.

So what's your next level? Do your users know what the levels are? Too often, users could get excited and motivated if only they knew more. If you hear a user say something like, "But I never you could do that!", consider that a problem. How many more people would have stuck around if they'd known? With your software, product, service, club, subject you teach, whatever... is there a steady series of new possibilities out there worth reaching for, and more importantly, are you doing something to help users get there?

Posted by Kathy on July 19, 2005 | Permalink


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I've seen this "next level" feeling in gymnastics and diving. There's always the desire to 'get' the current skills you're working on to move to the next skill in the progression. I think one component that drives this is the community your surrounded by. I've found that I push myself the hardest when I'm surrounded by really talented and skilled people. This applies to either of those sports as it does to my career as a software engineer. Its a form of collaborative competition, not about seeing who wins, but about the community (typically tacitly) encouraging people to improve by an agreement that all members of the community are committed to performing at their best.

Posted by: Frank | Jul 19, 2005 8:19:56 PM

"It seems Apple has figured out the optimum price points for their "next levels", in order of FREE, $299, then $999."

Just downloaded my free iPod, working to get to the next level! ;-)

Posted by: Joe | Jul 20, 2005 3:47:36 AM

It's indeed about kicking ass.
It's like this.
o I have a database, then I'd say can I scale it,I scale it up, then I scale it out, then I spread it on the network, then I make it generally available in thin air(P2P).

o It's such a good thing and you really don't have to be hi-fi. My wife does some great wonders with Indonesian,Italian,Spanish and Indian food.And everytime it's something new. People have started using her recipes at her work. funny how it catches on...

You can be on any level wanting to move over to the next one.
(hope I don't have too many typo's here ;))

Posted by: Tarry Singh | Jul 20, 2005 6:05:14 AM

It's worth remembering that there are only two industries that refer to their cusomers as 'users'.

Posted by: cameron | Jul 20, 2005 12:58:46 PM

Kathy, you've yet again made me look at everything in my life with a new perspective and understanding (Duh! THAT's why I do that!)

I've continue to be a faithful reader of this blog but have commented a little less because I've been working on my own blog (which Kathy graciuosly mentioned a few weeks ago in her Free Range Post). Actually I'm a little obsessed. Now I know why - because I want to get to the next level - couple more links to me, a few more subscribers, etc.

As a blogger, having links to your blog leads to increased readership. How do we make this happen? We link to other bloggers that we enjoy and respect - because this helps them get to the next level. This makes them feel like they kick ass and as such link back to you later on (we all like the people that make us feel like we kick ass).


Posted by: Matt Galloway | Jul 22, 2005 10:03:42 AM

I think RPG games are where I've seen the most of this.

"I'll go to bed right after I reach level 25...."

"If I could just get this final Limit Break...."


Posted by: Phil | Aug 19, 2005 11:12:42 AM

It could be said for just about anything but much of this in buried deep within. An addictive persona is subject to no self examination as it relates to the addiction. A logical mindset even after seemingly 'sucked in', should be able to discontinue the cyclical behaviors and then break the dreaded pattern. It is a mind over the matter of fullfillment that the addiction supports.
Anyway you look at it, humans are all weak in some capacity and to what that attributes is generally unique to each individual.
Love your writing!
Keep up the great work!

Posted by: Brian | Dec 13, 2005 8:04:39 PM

learn kung-fu

Posted by: Major Zero | Dec 20, 2005 2:59:55 AM

I thought that software can learn nothing from kung-fu ,but after I've read you post I understand what.
Interesting post:))

Posted by: steven davies | Aug 7, 2007 7:28:40 AM

A great post! I completely agree with you vission concerning software.

Posted by: michael jones | Aug 21, 2007 9:44:33 AM

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