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Think Young


Is there something you loved to do when you were younger but that you stopped doing? Did you stop doing it because you truly outgrew it... or because you got older? If you want to keep your brain sharp and--just as importantly--get to know your next generation of users, you might want to dust off the legos and slot cars, buy a PSP, get out your skateboard, wear something from Urban Outfitters, and start going to live shows by bands you've never heard of.

Granted, half of you reading this are young enough to still be doing these things, and most geeks tend to play more than non-geeks (the average cubicle of the typical geek looks like a Toys 'R' Us kiosk), so some of you will have to work a little harder to come up with things you did when you were younger but don't do now. Or even better, things you did not do when you were younger, but always wanted to. (Data point: The fastest-growing group of first-time horse owners today are 40-year old women.)

The Death by Dignity topic brought up some great comments about this including:

Michael Turyn: "Narrow-minded and humorless" is often mistaken for "mature"....

Tom Biggs referenced the Oscar Wilde quote: "Life is too important to take seriously."

But this post on college admissions from Julie Leung prompted my post here, especially with her last line:

"As our kids play Kick the Can, can we play with them? Even if that means kicking away our expectations?"


I've talked about the importance of knowing your users' brains, and staying on top of your next generation of users before in:
If you're over 35, do you have a clue? and when I realized that pissed a bunch of people off, I followed it with this one. But this is as much about keeping your own brain in tune as it is about keeping in touch with your users' brains. Doing things not typically done by people "your age" (whatever age that is... 25-year olds aren't doing the same things they did at 17) is a variation on blow your own mind.

Here are a few more tips:

1) Shuffle your music
Ryan Rawson, who was in my session at the Amazon conference, said that putting his iPod Shuffle in shuffle mode has completely changed the way he listened to music, and sort of "forced" him to stop listening to the same things over and over. Think about that--how many of you load your MP3 player with 5,000 songs, but still end up playing the same five playlists?

2) Have kids
If you don't have kids, rent some. Virtually any of your friends with children will be ecstatic to lend you theirs. I'm deathly afraid that once Skyler has completely moved out of the house, my appreciation for indie music will plummet, and I'll revert back to the 80's. (And not the good, interesting, fashionably retro 80's.)

3) Go to a toy store
Bring your credit card.

4) Make something
In atoms, not just bits.

5) Go to a live show
Yes, the parking is a pain, the second-hand smoke will kill you, and your high-frequency hearing is already shot from the concerts you went to in high school. Those were my reasons when I went for about five years without attending a real concert (the symphony doesn't count).

6) Attend a high-school talent show
Phone the local high schools and find out when their next talent show is. I guarantee it'll be entertaining. In a cringing sort of way.


7) Have--and play with--at least one remote control thing
Slot cars, RC hang gliders, boats, whatever.

8) Do a cartwheel at least once a month
My friend Solveig swears this is the secret to staying young. I hadn't done one for a decade when she forced me--under the influence of some microbrew--to do one in the middle of a San Francisco street after a JavaOne party. It nearly killed me, but now I make a practice of it.

9) Try to play that instrument you haven't touched for years
Guitar. Piano. Trombone?

10) Run
Virtually everyone runs when they're younger. Put an animal in a cage all day, and the first thing they want to do when you let them out is run, run, run. We should learn from that.

11) Watch movies for which you are not the target audience

12) Visit stores for which you are not the target audience. Buy something. Wear it.

13) Be in a parade... or something just as ridiculous that you would never have considered before
It's something I did a few times as a kid, and did it for the first time as an adult a few weeks' ago. The stable where I board my horse is about 75% kids, and the stable owner decided to take 20 of them to be in the parade. My horse trainer said, "you're going to come to. It'll be good for you and your horse." After I stopped laughing, I realized he was serious. I thought that was the lamest thing I could imagine -- me with the 20 kids. And to make it worse, the theme of the parade was "the beach", so we all had to wear hawaiian shirts or bathing suits with leis and beach towels. One girl even had her horse in dreadlocks. But, I did it.

14) Do something with art -- paint, sculpt, whatever it is you used to do as a kid that you haven't done in a long time

15) Play games. Monopoly. Simpson's clue. Werewolf.

16) Read a mystery/thriller. Or whatever genre you used to read but don't any longer.

Your turn. What did you really LIKE doing when you were younger, but haven't done in quite a while? This doesn't mean that you're going to get back into it... but what can you at least try?

Posted by Kathy on September 29, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (38) | TrackBack

Little bits of news

I just got the latest issue of Fast Company and saw that CPU early adopter Tom Asacker is speaking at the Beyond the Numbers conference.

And our pinch-hitter Matt Galloway made an audio version of Seth Godin's Knock Knock e-book, and got a mention on Seth's blog.

And our Creating Passionate Users blog got a mention in the October issue of Wired! They included quotes from my Koolaid Point post, and put in this blog's URL. That's our 15 minutes of fame, so, I intend to milk it : )

Posted by Kathy on September 29, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

"Dignity is deadly." - Paul Graham


What goes away when a company moves past the start-up phase? Living only on take-out and caffeine. Working in a [small] living room. Crazy, stupid, unprofessional behavior. Wearing nothing but shorts and ripped t-shirts.

Is this a good thing?

Hacker-turned-start-up-investor Paul Graham doesn't think so. In his keynote at the internal Amazon developer's conference in Seattle (that I was speaking at last week), he had a list of 40 bullet points of things Big Companies could learn from start-ups. He doesn't have an essay up for this, but he has a wonderful, somewhat related essay that I'm hoping you've all read by this time on What Business Can Learn From Open Source. (If you're new to Paul Graham, he can be an "acquired taste". Very smart, often controversial, rarely politically correct. Almost always thought provoking--or at least hurl-your-mouse-across-the-room provoking.)

My head was already spinning by bullet point six, but the one simple thing that stuck in my head was "dignity is deadly." Specifically this thought (I'm paraphrasing):

When you evolve out of start-up mode and start worrying about being professional and dignified, you only lose capabilities. You don't add anything... you only take away. Dignity is deadly.

At one point, Sun wasn't much more than creative genuis Bill Joy ("Oh, I think I'll just whip up BSD Unix on my own..."), and troublemaker Scott McNealy. Yet by the time I got to Sun, using the word "cool" in a customer training document was enough to warrant an entry in your annual performance eval. And not in a good way.

I cannot count the times I heard the word "professionalism" used as justification for why we couldn't do something. But I can count the few times I heard the word "passion" used in a meeting where the goal was to get developers to adopt our newest Java technologies. What changed? More importantly, was it a positive change? Was it a completely necessary change?

Why do we go from the business equivalent of the unruly-but-creative teenager to a stuffy parent? Can't we be something in-between? Why not the motivated, fun, creative 30-year old? (I'm not being ageist here -- this is a metaphor). If we're forced into becoming the "parent", why can't we at least be the cool parent from down the street? And by "cool", I mean the truly cool, not cool simply because they supplied the beer. (The 37 Signals folks always have a lot to say on this "stay small and act like a start-up" approach as well)

Some argue that by maintaining strict professionalism, we can get the more conservative, professional clients and thus grow the business. Is this true? Do we really need these clients? Isn't it possible that we might even grow more if we became braver? Seth Godin cautions that today, "Safe is risky, and risky is safe."

I'm somewhere in the middle of this. I'll use the word "ass" as in "kick-ass". But when I use the "F-word", well, there you have it. It's the "F-word", not the actual spelled-out word. hugh macleod, on the other hand, has a take-no-prisoners view. He'll do whatever the hell he pleases, always being 100% true to who he is, and when someone warned him that if he didn't cut back he'd never get the Big Clients, his response was: "Do you honestly think I'd have a good working relationship with clients who are offended that I used the word 'penis' in a cartoon?" He doesn't want those clients, and apparently... he hasn't done too badly recently finding clients who like him just the way he is--pure authentic hugh--thank-you.

Yes there is a "Business Case" for maintaining certain levels of professionalism, dignity, and political correctness. And that's cool... as long as we're all recognizing at every turn that in some ways we are losing the tools we have available to us. That this need to meet professional expectations restricts us... perhaps even more than it enables a higher level of... what? Profits? Business? Clients? Respect?

The Head First book series was an attempt to use virtually everything brain-friendly that we were not allowed to do at Sun. And when Head First Java first came out, it immediately became the number one selling Java book, and still is today, just over two years later. I'm not at all suggesting that some of what's in Head First would have been appropriate for an official Sun course document, but could they have incorporated 20% without sacrificing dignity? Maybe.

By the time we ran things through the deadly professionalism filters, the life, passion, joy, and in this case--brain-friendliness--had been sucked out.

When "we just can't DO that here" takes away more than it adds, we should reconsider. But, people scream, "we can't afford to say f*** 'em to some of our biggest potential clients!" And I wonder... can we afford not to?

Posted by Kathy on September 26, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack

Subvert from Within: a user-focused employee guide

It's one thing to talk about--and execute--a user-focused approach when you're a small company or an independent contractor. But what if you are, in fact, a fish in a sea as vast as, say, Microsoft? Can you hope to make a difference? Or does working at the "DarkStar" suck the soul from any employee with a passionate users bent?

I spent yesterday at Microsoft. And yes, it was on a "passionate users" mission -- something even my teenage daughter found hilarious given the Microsoft we all know and love to hate. But the day was a string of surprises and challenged assumptions (starting with finding Liz Lawley in my workshop (someone I'd never met but long admired), and ending with meeting some amazing MS guys including Furrygoat's Steve Mafosky, Shawn Morrissey, and Lou (whose-last-name-I-forgot)).

It's so tempting to say that anyone who really cares that much about users ought to get the hell out of the big company. I know, having done my time at Sun. But I'd forgotten how to see Microsoft as something other than a Big Company. I'd forgotten (or never recognized) that it's a collection of individual people, and no matter how entrenched the company's views, policies, practices, values, bureaucracy, etc. are, there are motivated, smart, caring, creative people who work there.

And these folks have a chance to make a Difference (capital "D") on a scale that most of us will never touch. When Ward Cunningham (inventor of the Wiki, key player in extreme programming, etc.) went to work for Microsoft, much of the software engineering world was horrified that he'd even consider it. But he kept insisting that where better to produce positive change than going straight into the heart of one of the biggest sources of trouble for both users and developers in the software ecosystem?

But let's say you're not a Ward Cunningham or any other famous, visible, already influential industry player. You're an engineer, or maybe a program manager. In that case, you do what many of us did at Sun... subvert from within.

Here's my little unofficial guide to creating passionate users for those working in Big Companies. Most is from things a maverick (but cleverly disguised as compliant) group of us did at Sun, while we could. Only one of our original disruption team remains a badged Sun employee, but our legacy persists today in areas that won't make us famous, but do make a substantial difference in the experience that users get within the sphere we influenced.

In no particular order, here's a collection of tools used by our formerly underground User Liberation Army:

Language matters. Frame everything in terms of the user's experience.

In meetings, phrase everything in terms of the user's personal experience rather than the product. Keep asking, no matter what, "So, how does this help the user kick ass?" and "How does this help the user do what he really wants to do?" Don't focus on what the user will think about the product, focus everyone around you on what the user will think about himself as a result of interacting with it. Study George Lakoff for tips on using language to shift perceptions.

Be annoyingly persistent.

If you're relentless in the previous step--always asking the question, "how does this help the user kick ass?", it won't take that long before the people you interact with will anticipate that you're going to ask it, and that at least forces them to think about it for a moment. Over time, and over a large number of people, those moments can start to add up.

Capture user stories.

Keep a notebook or hipster PDA with you always and whenever another employee, blogger, (or user) tells you something good or bad about a real user's experience, write it down. Build up a collection, and make sure these stories are spread. Be the user's advocate in your group and keep putting real users in front of employees (especially managers). Imagine that you are the designated representative (like the public defender) of specific users, and represent them. Speak for them.

Speak for real users... not fake abstract "profiles".

Represent real people, not the abstract notion of "users". Rather than saying, "what users really want is...", refer to your collection of specific user stories and talk about real people. When you bring up users, talk about specific people with real names and experiences. Too many companies use fake "profile" characters as a way to think about real users (e.g. "The typical user is a thirty-five year old sales manager with a four-year degree and two kids who uses a computer for..."). While that's better than not thinking of users at all, it still puts both a physical and emotional distance between the company and real users. After all, it's impossible to truly care about pissing off the "fake" 35-year old sales manager (even if you give the profile character a name, like "John"), but almost everyone starts to squirm when they think about a real person becoming upset with them.

When those around you talk about the abstract concept of "users" or "customers", try to bring up specific real people whenever possible.

Be afraid of Six Sigma. Be very afraid. Ditto for most other "quality programs".

Just as using fake user profiles creates and maintains a separation between company and users, anything that treats users as statistics and abstract numbers on graphs is a problem. To treat a poor user experience as some kind of "defect per million" is just crazy. This doesn't mean Six Sigma and other quality programs aren't important and effective... but people are not widgets. When widget A does not fit properly in widget B, that's a defect. When user Barry Porter cannot figure out how to do the basic thing he bought the software for, and he's frustrated and his job is at risk, that should provoke a more visceral reaction. Again, people aren't widgets. Make sure those around you keep being reminded of that.

Never underestimate the power of paper.

Print out little signs that say things like, "How does this help the user kick ass?" and leave them lying on the copier, or the fax machine, or taped on a bulletin board and your cube/office wall. Keep changing them! (Remember, once your brain expects to see it, it stops being effective.)

Get your hands on a video camera, and record some users.

This is one of the single best things we ever did at Sun... recording real users talking about the bad--and good--things they experience as a result of using the product or service. They don't need slick editing. Just simple videos that you can send around the intranet and show at meetings. Having the user advocate for himself -- in his own words -- is more powerful than when you speak on his behalf. It's very hard for people to think of users as abstract numbers and line items when they have to actually see a real living breathing one with a face and a name and an eye color.

Start a subversive club. Right there on campus, recruit and organize your fellow ULA guerillas.

But... just don't call it that. At Sun, we called it a "Knowledge Design Book Study Group", and held meetings where we picked a particular book and then met to brainstorm on "what are the implications of that book for what we do with our users?" Our first book for our study group was Richard Saul Wurman's Information Anxiety (second edition). I don't care what your product is or who your users are, if they're human, they're almost certainly dealing with Information Anxiety.

Put pictures of real users on your walls. Act like they're as important to you as pictures of family members and pets.

YOU create the culture of caring about individual user experiences by demonstrating that it matters this much to you.

When product features are discussed without taking into account how it helps (or hinders) the user kicking ass, adopt a slightly confused, mildly annoyed look...

Act like it's really weird and inappropriate that the person never brought up the user. As though they left for work without putting on a clean shirt or brushing their teeth. It's just something you do. Over time, those around you should start to become uncomfortable when products are discussed without the concept of the user at the center. This is especially effective when there is more than one of you, so that you can -- as a group -- ALL act confused and annoyed. You want it to appear that EVERYONE thinks the way you do, and that not speaking up about the user is just...weird and wrong.

Blog about it

People are listening.

Challenge user-unfriendly assumptions every day.

When someone says, "We can't do that" or "We must do it this way" question it. Every time. Don't let anything go unchallenged. And when the answer is "because customers don't like it that way" or "customers want..." or something like that, always ask, "How do we know this?" (just act curious). It might be that the data on which that assumption is based is too old or was never well formed in the first place. You'll never know until you dig deep into the thinking that's driving the assumption.

Gather facts. Build a rational, logical case that maps a user-centric approach to real business issues.

You don't want to get into an opinion war. You want facts and stats on your side. If you can point to a specific plan for a feature change, for example, and say, "Well, when we did something similar over here in this area, we had a complaint ratio of..." The more "emotional" and touchy-feely someone perceives the emphasis on users to be, the less likely they are to take it seriously as a business case. There are always going to be a lot of people in the company who refuse to care about the real people, but they will care about numbers, so you should always be trying to prove that the user-kicks-ass approach has a compelling benefit for the business (beyond the obvious one that you and any other system thinker would see). We learned the hard way that we should never take it for granted that other people in the company will even think about this idea of the user being passionate and in flow.

Look for first-person language from users about their own experience. Challenge others to solicit first-person, user-as-subject language.

Do everything you can to get user feedback phrased in first-person terms. Rather than feedback that talks about what the user thinks should be in the product, try to solicit feedback that gets the user talking about himself. Users tend to want to tell you what you should add/subtract from the product, but what you need is feedback where the user tells you about himself in relation to the product, even if it's negative.

Useful: "I tried to use the XYZ feature, and I couldn't figure out how to make it work."

Not useful: "The XYZ feature doesn't work properly."

Useful: "I was able to make a really cool image as a result of your app."

Not useful: "The app does a great job of image processing."

Set it up as a challenge for yourself and others you work with to figure out ways to generate first-person feedback where users talk about themselves. Make it a game or a contest to see who can get the user to use the "I" word the most often. What kind of questions could you ask that would lead to the user talking about himself rather than YOU or your PRODUCT?

Don't give up.

If you do, then quit at the earliest possible moment. But if you're relentless and you slowly recruit others to your cause, you can change a culture... one small group at a time. If you succeed, even in a small way, and help shift the supertanker just one degree... that one degree eventually means a profoundly different trajectory down the road. Even if your chance to make a difference is slimmer than for those of us in smaller groups (or lone wolf operations), you have a chance to make a WAY bigger impact, touching far more people's lives.

I must say that I won't ever feel the same way about Microsoft now that I've interacted with these folks. And while you might not have heard much about Brady Forrest (the guy responsible for bringing me in to do the workshop at Microsoft), that's going to be changing. I have friends at Sun, and now I have friends at Microsoft. It's hard to refer to something your friends belong to as "evil". And even if corporate Microsoft WERE truly evil, I reckon if my friends are there fighting the good fight from within to produce change, that's something I can feel good about.

[Be warned, though, that I was asked or rather urged to leave Sun as a result of some of what's in here so... I wouldn't be taking advice from me if I were you ; ) I finally got the "you're not a team player" warning and put on probation (and eventually asked to leave), but my response was, "Oh, I AM a team player. It's just that I'm on the user's team." (I left out the part about, "Since clearly nobody ELSE around here is...") ]

Posted by Kathy on September 23, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (47) | TrackBack

In Seattle this week

I'm leaving for Seattle today, so if you're in the area and want to meet up, please email (headrush[at]wickedlysmart[dot]com). I'll be speaking at Amazon on Tuesday, and Microsoft on Wednesday, then my co-conspirators and I are all going to the DJ LTJ Bukem show Wednesday night at Chop Suey:
(We LOVE this guy)

From Thursday through Sunday, I'll be on Bainbridge Island, doing our version of a three-day-book-jam with Bert, Eric, and Beth--we're all trying desperately to meet deadlines on three books between the four of us. We found on two other occasions that when the four of us are all locked in a house with our four computers, Eric's killer stereo, take-out food, an illegal amount of Bawls, and 72 hours worth of ambient/techno/electronica/drum&bass, we can get a ton of pages done.

So, if you're at Amazon on Tuesday or Microsoft on Wednesday, stop by and say hi. And if you're on Bainbridge, I'm considering moving there (part of the reason for going), so we will be taking some time to explore the island. (We're hoping to meet up with fellow Bainbridgers Ted and Julie Leung.)

If my sources are correct, y'all in Seattle/Bainbridge don't lack for broadband, so I can still check in and post to the blog during this trip.

Posted by Kathy on September 19, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

The worst way to calm someone down

Think back a time when you were really angry, frustrated, freaked out, and someone told you to, "Relax. It's gonna be fine. Take a deep breath. Chill." Did this advice make you want to:

A) take a deep breath and relax


B) Take a crowbar to that person's head and THEN relax

If you're like most people, and you're being honest, the answer is "B".

But it's the most intuitive thing we usually do -- either out of an honest attempt to calm them down, or because we think they're being irrational, ridiculous, over dramatic, type-A, or immature. In other words, we don't think their state is justified.

One of the most fascinating things I saw last week at the Parelli conference was a demonstration of taking three different extremely nervous (what they refer to as "right brain") horses--fearful, pacing, tense--and bring them to a relaxed state. What I expected was what we're all taught to do (or do instinctively with both pets and people)... a process of trying to be as calm and reassuring as possible. After all, becoming excitable ourselves can't possibly do anything but add more feul... right?

But what I saw was just the opposite.

The trainer, Linda Parelli, Lindabio walked near the first horse and started pacing with him. When he turned, she turned. When he stopped to look at something he was afraid of, she stopped to look. When he started to run, she started to run. When he was tight with h is head up, she tighted her body as well. She just kept mirroring him like that for quite a few minutes, and then ever so slowly she started to "lead" just a little by getting to the point where he would normally turn around and taking just one step past it. The horse would follow, but then that was his limit and he'd turn, and she'd turn.

Over the course of 15-20 minutes, she eventually got him to a point where he was paying attention to her and letting her help him go past his earlier limits. Most importantly, whenever he relaxed--even if just for a split second--she would relax as well. But the instant he tensed up, she'd tense her body as well. Soon you could see a dramatic transformation--where the horse was eventually trying to figure out how to get her to calm down... and learning that if he relaxed, then she would. So the horse was believing that it was his job to "get this crazy human to relax."

Linda did variations of this with three different horses, all dramatic examples of how this seemingly counterintuitive approach could work a small miracle.

Obviously horses don't think like people. They have prey animal brains, and operate largely on the instincts of life-preservation. But still, I couldn't help but think how much more pissed off I get when I'm really upset and someone tells me to calm down. How completely unhelpful it is when I'm nervous and worried about something and someone tells me to "chill".

The foundation of many customer service training programs is to give an angry customer your full attention but remain as rational and cool and calm as possible. We're taught that if we match the customer's right-brain emotion with an emotional response, we'll make things worse. And that's true... at least if we respond defensively and especially if we get angry in response.

But still... maybe instead of always being the one who is "more rational than thou" when the other person is upset, maybe sometimes in some scenarios it would help to at first be a little less calm in response. (Not angry at the person who's complaining--that definitely WOULD make things much worse.)

But there is another aspect of this that Linda also uses at times, and it goes beyond rapport and into something a little stranger (and deliciously tempting). I am NOT suggesting that this is a good, useful, ethical idea for people, but I'll mention it anyway because I think it's both funny and--with horses--seems to work. The idea is that you not only match the horse in "craziness", but even exceed him in some cases by just acting even MORE crazy (not angry or aggressive, just nuts)... so that the horse thinks, "Geez... I was scared but THIS human is crazy. I'm going to back away slowly and..." So with this approach, the horse calms himself down because you gave him something new to think about ("how can I get HER to stop being so crazy?") and that breaks his emotional pattern.

Just think about it... imagine what would happen if someone "goes off on you" and rather than reacting in a purely calm and rational way (or getting angry), you just suddenly act completely nuts. ; )

Posted by Kathy on September 18, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (33) | TrackBack

We joined the 9rules family

Paul Scrivens invited us to become members of the 9rules network, and I couldn't resist. Molly.com had already done due diligence on joining, so that helped our decision. But there were really five main reasons for our joining the 9rules community:

1) Killer content on their member sites ("we're not worthy!") makes it a wonderful group to be a part of.

2) I'll get to learn from the other members--most (if not all) of whom are much more experienced at web content than we are.

3) Paul invited me despite the fact that within 24 hours of one another, he and I posted almost violentally opposed views on the same topic (37 Signals-- he slammed them while I held a lovefest, complete with 9 hearts ; )

4) In their benefits of joining, they include:

* Admission to a growing community of slightly-too-happy people who share similar goals.

(one of the things I've been criticized the most for is being slightly (or sometimes way) too happy... )

5) It puts the pressure on to keep doing what we're doing and work on improving... a requirement for joining the group. From their Membership Responsibilities:

  • Good content. Great design is nice but it's content that draws people in and keeps them coming back.
  • The desire to actually work more on your site than you do now.
  • The commitment to share your knowledge on what has made your site successful and what hasn't worked.
  • Your advice and experience passed on to other members who have questions that you can answer.
  • The ability to take a risk now and again to try something new.

So, we're honored Paul asked us to join such a stellar group, and hope we can hold up our end. I highly encourage y'all to spend some time with some of the wonderful sites on the 9rules network, and consider joining.

In other news, I want to thank Matt and Shaded for house-sitting the blog while I was gone. It matters not that they would respond the same way I would, what matters to me is that I trust them... something pretty amazing about the internet/blog world, given that I've never met either of them and not entirely sure they're even human ; )

Thanks also to everyone who has been commenting and sending me links and email -- I'm still catching up, so if I haven't responded to your email, I probably just haven't seen it yet.

Posted by Kathy on September 16, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Listening to users considered harmful?


Is "listening to users" really the most important way to keep them happy and -- if we're lucky -- passionate? Is giving users what they ask for the best way to help them kick ass? Or should you create or modify a product based solely on what you believe in... even if it doesn't match what users tell you?

Last weekend I attended the sold-out Parelli Natural Horsemanship conference. I was surrounded by 2000 passionate fans (at least 75% of the people were wearing at least one Parelli-branded shirt, jacket, or hat). The conference was amazing (more on that in another post), but the real reason I went was to interview the founder/visionary Pat Parelli, for the Creating Passionate Users book. His hugely successful, multi-million dollar company is one of the few we've found that does virtually everything on our "reverse-engineering passion" checklists, without having first waited for the fans to do it themselves.

In the equestrian world (total annual impact of the horse industry on the US economy is $112 billion [yes, that's with a "b"]), Pat Parelli has so greatly outstripped the "horsemanship" competition that it doesn't even make sense to talk about competition. Software engineers will appreciate that horse training doesn't scale. So Parelli decided to teach others to do what he does, and of course sell those folks a ton of high-end equipment and training products to help them do it. Nobody -- absolutely no other individual "horse whisperer" or company -- comes anywhere near Parelli in size and scope of the business - Parelli has two training centers, one in Colorado and one in Florida (combined over 700 acres for the facilities), and hundreds of thousands of participants in the home-study programs, clinics, and club membership. Their Parelli Horseman's University is one of the only state-accredited "natural horsemanship" programs in the US.

So that's the backstory. I have weeks' worth of posts to make on what I learned from Pat about the ways in which they've become such a passionate user success story, but today's post is about something I had completely wrong when I interviewed him:

Me: "So, you've recently made drastic changes to your program--a program that was already extremely successful. It's obvious that you've been really listening to your members and taking their feedback and using that to make these sweeping changes."

Pat: "No, listening to our members was maybe 20% of it, but the other 80% was something else."

And then he said it:

"We changed our entire program because WE knew we could do better. Because WE were still frustrated that people weren't learning quickly enough or progressing through the higher levels as well as we thought they could. People still weren't having the kind of relationship with their horse that we knew they could have, even though our students were delighted with the progress they were making. So we changed it all."

It turned out that most of the major changes they made to their program came not from user requests and suggestions, but from the Parelli team's own innovations. He went on to explain that their members/students/users had no idea what was needed to make better, faster, deeper breakthroughs. In fact, many of the changes went against what their user feedback seemed to suggest. In other words, in many ways the Parelli team deliberately did not listen to users.

They trusted themselves, and did what they believed was right for their users, even if it meant doing things that on the surface seemed even less user-friendly.

Most of us realize that focus groups are notoriously ineffective for many things, but we still assume that listening to real feedback from real users is the best way to drive new products and services, as well as improve on what we have. But there's a huge problem with that -- people don't necessarily know how to ask for something they've never conceived of! Most people make suggestions based entirely around incremental improvements, looking at what exists and thinking about how it could be better. But that's quite different from having a vision for something profoundly new.

True innovation will rarely come from what users say directly.

This doesn't mean that you don't listen to users--because the truth is embedded in what they say...but you have to look for the deeper meaning behind what they ask for, rather than always taking them at their word. If they ask for "D", as an improvement to "C", you might have to dig deeper to find out what it is about "D" that they want. And in that answer, you might find the nugget that leads you--and only you--to come up with "S" as a solution. And the "S" solution looks nothing at all like "D", but gets to the heart of what users really wanted and needed when they asked for "D".


In the end, you might have to trust yourself, even in the face of users who either want more than you know would be good or something less or different than you know you can offer if you keep innovating in revolutionary--not just incremental--ways. Our Head First books are among the top-selling computer books today, virtually all of them occupy the #1 slot for their topic category. But not only did nobody ask for such a bizarre format for a technical book, we were warned that it would never work. We were told that people would hate these books. That they were too different, too pictorial, too... tacky to be taken seriously. But we knew the brain science and learning theory behind the format, and trusted that the principles worked. That for most (not all) readers, this format really did lead to faster, deeper learning. We trusted that people would look beyond the surface aspects of the implementation, and that if they got real results from the book, they'd tell others.

Two other publishers turned us down for the series before O'Reilly took the chance. And I was nearly fired from Sun for trying to sneak 5% of what's in Head First into Sun courseware.

Are users/readers too clueless to know what to ask for? Of course not. But it's not a potential Java programmer's job to be a learning theory expert, anymore than I could have helped conceive of the iPod. I could make incremental suggestions about most of the tools I use, sure, but I don't have the background, skills, or vision to suggest the kind of revolutionary changes that create breakthrough products and services outside of my own very narrow domain.

What sparked this post was a somewhat contentious (and bold) 37Signals post, but I also remembered this post by Wiley editor Joe Wilcox.

This is tricky, of course, because it's not always obvious which user complaints/suggestions are based on real problems with your product, vs. naive feature requests that would do more harm than good. (Don't forget the Happy User Curve)

And this is NOT about giving them simply what we know is good for them but that they really don't want, because they probably won't stick around. This is about giving them what they really DO want... but simply don't realize it because they had no way to imagine it.

So maybe the key is to listen not only to what users say, but more importantly to what is motivating what they say. The rest is up to us. If we really care about our users, they'll just have to trust us... but more crucially--we have to trust ourselves.

Posted by Kathy on September 15, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Blow your mind in Z-space

The Billy Harvey website is one of the most engaging sites I've ever experienced. Be sure you explore, and click the "HEAD CONTROL" link to see what the Billy Harvey world looks like.

I've played around with z-space interfaces in the past, but I haven't seen many websites that use it like this. An even deeper into z-space interface is the one by the web design firm that built billyharvey.com, sofake. Just... keep clicking.

And if you want to think a little more about narrative and space and, well, comics I recommend Scott McCloud's I can't stop thinking.

A huge thank you to Dan from the porterdavis band, for sending me the billyharvey.com link.

Have fun!

Posted by Kathy on September 14, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

You can out-spend or out-teach


Imagine you're trying to launch a new software product, book, web service, church, small business, social cause, consulting practice, school, podcast channel, rock band, whatever. The most important skill you need today is not fund-raising, financial management, or marketing. It's not knowledge management, IT, or human resources. It's not product design, usability, or just-in-time inventory.

The most important skill today is... teaching.

Whatever it is you're launching is probably not in short supply, and there's always someone who's doing it better, faster, and cheaper (or will be within weeks). Most of us authors, non-profit evangelists, indie software developers, small start-ups (the soon-to-be Fortune 5,000,000) can barely afford broadband let alone a "marketing/ad campaign". We can't hire a publicist. We aren't going to be on Oprah.

But you're not interested in using deception and bulls*** to manipulate someone into buying a product, membership, or idea that you don't believe in yourself. And that's your big advantage over even the biggest and best-funded competitors: your belief.

Because what you believe in, you can teach. And teaching is the "killer app" for a newer, more ethical approach to marketing. While in the past, those who out-spent (on ads, and big promotions) would often win, that's becoming less and less true today for a lot of things--especially the things designed for a younger, more-likely-to-be-online user community.

Kind of a markets-are-classrooms notion. Those who teach stand the best chance of getting people to become passionate. And those with the most passionate users don't need an ad campaign when they've got user evangelists doing what evangelists do... talking about their passion.

But passion requires real learning. Nobody is passionate about skiing on their first day. Nobody is passionate about programming in Java on their first day. Or week. It's virtually impossible to become passionate about something until you're somewhere up the skill/knowledge curve, where there are challenges that you believe are worth it, and that you perceive you can do.

Nobody becomes passionate until they've reached the stage where they want to grow in a way they deem meaningful. Whether it's getting better at a game or helping to save the world, there must be a goal (ideally, a continuously progressive goal) and a clear path to getting there. It's our job, if we're trying to encourage others to become passionate, to enable it. And the only way to do that is by teaching.

I've talked about all this before, but I wanted to consolidate the links and the "story" in one place:

1) The importance of learning/teaching your users:

Upgrade your users, not just your product

Kicking ass is more fun
(The better your users are at something, the more likely they are to become passionate.)

What software can learn from kung fu
(the Next Level is extremely motivating)

2) Teaching techniques:

Crafting a User Experience
(It's all about flow... balancing challenge and skill)

Keeping users engaged

Learning doesn't happen in the middle
(Have lots of beginnings and endings)

Just-in-time vs. just-in-case learning
(If you don't provide the "why", they may not listen to the "what" and "how")

Is your message memorable?"
(You have to get past the brain's crap filter)

Getting what you expect is boring.
(The "oh shit/oh cool" technique)

The users's journey
(take your user on a modified hero's journey)

The case for easter eggs (and other clever user treats)
(let the user discover "surprises")

Many of us would be better off if we ditched our marketing budget (hah! like we have one...) and put it all toward something that helps the user kick ass, have more fun, and want to learn more. And to be honest with myself here, part of the point is that people who want to learn more are more likely to want more of your tools, services, community, and "tribe/pride items" around whatever it is they're learning.(So make sure you and your wake can support that.)

There's no way I can ski as well on my $100 skis as I can on my $600 skis. That's a fact, not a marketing manipulation or my imagination. That I wouldn't have known the difference (or needed the difference) had I not learned to ski better is an important point, but even if the ski maker had been responsible for teaching me to improve to the point where I needed their more expensive skis, it makes me happy to ski better. I'm grateful that I've improved enough to benefit from better skis (and thankful I was able to get them). To use the lamest cliche--it really is a win/win.

I can process graphics and video much more quickly on my iMac G5 than I could on my old iBook G4. Thanks to Nikon's free online training, I now can take much more interesting photgraphs with my Nikon 5700 than I could with my old point-and-shoot digital Nikon. Nikon taught me to appreciate aperture control, something the clueless recreational snapshot taker I was before wouldn't have wanted and wouldn't have paid for until Nikon gave me a reason. It's not a b.s. reason. It's not a fluffy "coolness" reason. It's about me taking better pictures--something I don't need, but really really enjoy. (And no, it certainly didn't hurt Nikon either ; )

I'll say it again -- if you're marketing-through-teaching, and helping your users kick ass, and in the process teaching them to appreciate your higher-end products or services, this is not a bad thing. I do respect that old-school marketing has done plenty of evil and horrifically damaging things to people and communities (even whole countries). But we are not those who pushed products without a conscience. We will be mindful, and we will not promote that which we don't believe in. This is about creating passionate users, and that can happen only if we help our users learn and grow and spend more time in flow.

These moments of flow you can help enable are some of the happiest moments in a person's life. And yes, this applies not just to hobbies and games and sports but even to work. After all, a big part of the success and passion around Getting Things Done, 43 folders, and 37 Signals software is about people being in flow... just getting their daily work done.

So, who can you help find flow today?

[Footnote: I'm leaving for the Parelli conference tomorrow morning, and internet access will be very limited (it's basically a cowboy ranch). I won't be back until Tuesday night, so if there aren't any more posts until next week, that's why. Matt Galloway and Shaded, you're in charge of comments while I'm gone (I'll make it up to you, I promise ; ) No food fights.]

[Update: gulliver left a wonderful, important comment for this post, and as a result I added a few more links into this post. But you really must read the whole comment. Thanks gulliver!]

Posted by Kathy on September 7, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack