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...but is it interesting?


Is your product interesting? Don't think--just answer. You probably said "yes." What about your documentation? Your training or support? What about your blog?

My friend Solveig Haugland (aka OpenOffice blog goddess) and I both did a stint in Sun's course development group, and were looking for ways to raise the quality without pissing off the entire department. So, with our manager's blessing, we created The Checklist. The Sun courseware already had elaborate "style guides" and strict technical requirements, but we didn't seem to be asking the simple questions that could make all the difference. If the course was technically correct, properly formatted, grammatically correct, satified the localization police, and all the deliverables were in the proper file formats and directory structure--then it was ready for beta.

The Checklist we made included all the other, less technical but equally (or more) important attributes like, "Does it manage cognitive overload?" "Do the exercises reinforce the key points?" "Does each chapter include a 'if you remember only one thing from this module...' at the end?" "Does it include opportunities to learn from mistakes?" "Does it include redundancy to support memory?" "Does it include exercises to support the higher levels of Bloom's Taxonomy?" and on it went.

No big deal... just making sure the bases were covered.

But when we presented it to some key players in course development, one of the upper managers said, nice idea, but we don't need all of these. We nearly fell out of our chairs to see that he crossed out the simple question: Is it interesting? He said, "Whether the content is 'interesting' is completely irrelevant. If we get the topics right, and it's technically accurate, the content will be inherently interesting to programmers."

And the word "interesting" doesn't even set the bar very high--it's the word we use when we can't think of anything complimentary to say. "He is...well...interesting" or "Hmmm... interesting perspective." The words we actually wanted to use in the checklist were compelling and engaging, but we thought interesting would be an easier sell.

But even if he'd left "Is it interesting?" in, I now realize that many people would automatically check it off without really stopping to consider whether something really is interesting. Or that people would assume that given a certain context, "interesting" is irrelevant. Think about it. Even if your actual product is interesting (but still, stop and ask yourself if that is really true), do you have docs, FAQs, specs, articles, learning/support blogs, etc. that are NOT interesting? Should they be?

Obviously my opinion is YES YES YES. Because regardless of what the product is, whether it has passionate users may depend almost entirely on how quickly users can get past the Suck Threshold and the Passion Threshold. You may have a product that doesn't require a manual or support docs, but for most complex and sophisticated activities, docs or articles or books are needed as the user starts to explore more advanced uses. And it's those more advanced uses that lead to improving skills and knowledge and meeting challenges -- the whole "kick ass" thing that is a prereq for truly passionate users. [We believe that nobody is passionate about something they suck at.]


Why does "interesting" matter in getting past the suck/passion thresholds?

Isn't "technically accurate" or "high quality" enough? Well, how many technically accurate, high quality documents or training courses have you been exposed to that you dearly wished were a little better at holding your attention? The simple answer is:

The brain pays attention to--and remembers--that which it feels.

We've talked about this before...even if the reader/learner wants to pay attention and is interested in the topic, if the content itself is not offered in a reasonably interesting and engaging way, the brain keeps looking for something that will matter. Taking the time and care to make something interesting is simply being brain-friendly.

Your users won't learn and get better at whatever it is they're passionate about (or that you're hoping to help them become passionate about) unless their brains pay attention. And brains pay attention to what brains care about, not necessarily what the conscious mind cares about. And to the brain, "interesting" is just the most basic prereq. The entry fee.

So, how do you make things interesting?

If you were a brain, and you'd been evolving for a very, very long time... what would you find interesting?

* Surprise, novelty, the unexpected

* Beauty

* Stories

* Conversation

* Emotionally touching (the whole kids and puppies thing)

* Counterintuitive failures or mistakes

* Fun, playfulness, humor

* Varying visuals

* Faces of people, especially with strong expressions

* Sounds, music

* Shock, creepy things

and of course...

* Sexiness

One fairly straightforward way to make documentation/training/articles interesting is to crank up four sliders Conversation, Variety, Visuals, and Story. I've talked before about conversational writing, and visuals, so in a post very soon I'll look at story and variety.

If you're really interested in story, you might want to look at Robert McKee's Story (if you saw the movie Adaptation, you'll recognize it). And if you haven't read Dan Pink's book, A Whole New Mind, there's some good story stuff in there (as well as a lot of other good things--I loved this book).

And for variety, well, just do it in whatever way makes sense. It's a lot more powerful than many people believe, because it's what your brain is tuned for. When the brain sees what it expects, it knows it can happily leave that thing behind and start hunting for something else to pay attention to.

So, when you're making that checklist for your product, blog, article, book, documentation, training courseware, podcast--don't forget to include, "yes, it's all these wonderful things, but is it interesting?"

[Yes of course there's the big disclaimer that what is "interesting" to one is not interesting to another, but I assume we're all factoring that in : ) ]

Posted by Kathy on December 13, 2005 | Permalink


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Kathy Sierra has a great blog (Creating Passionate Users). Ive only been following it for a couple weeks, but Im really impressed. She writes about (predictably) making people passionate about your subject matter. In her case, that’... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 15, 2005 3:53:05 PM


Yesterday I convinced a co-worker to pick up a copy of Eric and Beth's Head First HTML with CSS & XHTML book. He showed me the CSS book he was currently reading; it was technically correct, properly formatted, and boring. Thank goodness for The Checklist! :)

Posted by: Bill Mietelski | Dec 13, 2005 8:30:50 PM

Kathy, have you seen or heard of "Why's (poignant) Guide to Ruby" (at http://poignantguide.net/ruby/ ) ?

This is quite possibly the ultimate example of technical writing's ability to be 'interesting'. And communicitave at the same time. Sure, it's not for everyone, but it's quickly become a staple of the Ruby community, something we can point to and say "yeah, but does your language have THAT?"

Posted by: Matt Lyon | Dec 14, 2005 1:09:39 AM

Thanks for the great post - i've referenced it in my blog (http://tynerblain.wordpress.com/2005/12/14/getting-past-the-suck-threshold/).

In consumer apps, if you can't clear the suck-threshold quickly, you won't have a good viral marketing effect. In enterprise applications, you won't get the user adoption needed to drive ROI.

Love your chart too!

Posted by: Scott Sehlhorst | Dec 14, 2005 6:45:30 AM

Perfect! And I just saw an awesome PDF that illustrates the whole brain and "feelings" thing over here:

Posted by: Shawnie Benda | Dec 14, 2005 9:24:14 AM

with regards to the comment about "Why's Poignant Guide To Ruby"...yes its a fun read, but its also probably the most inefficient guide for learning a programming language i know of. read it if you want to laugh, but don't read it if you really want to learn Ruby. try PLEAC instead.

Posted by: leGrump | Dec 14, 2005 10:44:06 AM

its not often i think you havent gone far enough. but surely the question - was it fun? is in some regards the most important.

my favourite compliment from a client at the end of an engagement is "that was fun"...

invariably that means two things
1. I had fun too.
2. Repeat business

Posted by: james governor | Dec 14, 2005 10:56:20 AM

Mmmm. This post was as tasty as the post lunch chocolate truffle. Somewhat longer to chew through though. I think I shall have to eat more truffles.

It seems to me that adding variety is particularly good as it increases the chance that a broader audience will find something interesting. I've been using visuals and easter eggs in docs, but I think I will add a slider for incorporating multiple levels of Blooms taxonomy in docs - should help my users move to the more advanced levels more quickly.

Posted by: Cathy | Dec 14, 2005 12:41:11 PM

I used to work with Solveig in her pre-Sun days, and I'm not the least surprised that she was in on something like The Checklist.

Your post reminded me of an episode from The Phil Silvers Show, in which Sgt. Bilco and crew were tapped by the brass to appear in a training film. The script as given to them was like most other Army training films: dry as dust and boring as hell. Of course, Bilco changed it into a music, comedy, and dance extravaganza. When the officer in charge saw the results, he was incensed--until he discovered that his wife loved it and actually learned something.

So the idea is at least as old as the Phil Silvers Show, and people STILL don't get it.

Posted by: Roy Jacobsen | Dec 14, 2005 1:46:03 PM

A bit of googling revealed that it was episode 36: Platoon In The Movies. Oh, and it's Bilko with a K, not Bilco with a C.

Posted by: Roy Jacobsen | Dec 14, 2005 2:03:21 PM


Wow, after eight years we run into each other on Kathy's blog. Amazing.

Love the Bilko story. Kathy and I have an instructor friend in common who does in fact burst into song sometimes while doing Java training. He gets great scores, so maybe there's something to that. Roy, do you think Kara would be free to help me liven up my OpenOffice.org training? ;>

Kathy, good points as always. I feel newly justified in slipping Princess Bride and Spinal Tap references into my books and training manuals. (Oh, and pointing out how a feature is useful and/or cool. That tool. ;> )

Posted by: Solveig Haugland | Dec 14, 2005 7:03:53 PM

For different reasons you have paralleled and identified what makes everything in the end user universe suck. Imagine creativity, user experience(at all levels), real communication of ideas, and entertaining? If you are a customer(user), that means anybody that interacts with or uses, the importants of the experience needs to really, really be understood. If you venture into the realm of learning dynamics, you will find that presentation is everything in understanding, absorbing, and using content. In business, its the quality of communication and the quantitative experience of the user makes or breaks any iniative or sale. I hate technichal writing because in most cases it sits in the suck zone. Yes I read, but it is not on my top 10,000 list of best loved books. Thank you for lifting its head into the light. This is a perception that businesses in general could use in customer management.

Posted by: Tim Whelan | Dec 14, 2005 7:26:22 PM

We've built our product, MindManager, with exactly this view of the human mind...in mind. At its most fundamental, a MindManager "map" distills ideas, concepts and information to their essence so the user doesn't have to slog through pages of text (who has time for them, do we really remember anything after having read them?.

We enable users to create very active, easily changed visual documents that delivers information in ways the brain likes to receive them: with chunked language and images and colors and spatial orientation. People all around the world (and we have more than 600,000 customers) are starting to see the value of using nonlinear, visual documents like ours instead of the usual, plodding word documents and slide shows.

Why even Bill Gates commented on this kind of "mind mapping" in a column in Newsweek last week:“…advanced software and Web services can help us trace, slice and dice thie information [available to PC users] in ways tha were impossible only a decade ago. But while we’ve gone a long way towards optimizing how we use information, we haven’t yet done the same for knowledge…On another level, OneNote and a new generation of ‘mind-mapping’ software can also be used as a digital ‘blank slate’ to help connect and synthesize ideas and data—and ultimately create new knowledge.”

And isn't that one of the biggest challenges these days: turning information into knowledge?

Posted by: Hobie Swan | Dec 19, 2005 5:16:07 PM

Yes it’s definitely a good post, very useful information to consider. Good work keeps it up!

Posted by: Sale | Jan 2, 2006 11:37:46 AM

[quote]The brain pays attention to--and remembers--that which it feels.[/quote]

How true. And how easily forgotten! This is such a good post!

Posted by: Vahishta | Dec 16, 2006 3:12:26 AM

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