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The hi-res user experience


Learning music changes music. Learning about wine changes wine. Learning about Buddhism changes Buddhism. And learning Excel changes Excel. If we want passionate users, we might not have to change our products--we have to change how our users experience them. And that change does not necessarily come from product design, development, and especially marketing. It comes from helping users learn.

Learning adds resolution to what you offer. And the change happens not within the product, but between the user's ears. The more you help your users learn and improve, the greater the chance that they'll become passionate.

What does it mean to say that someone is passionate about something? It's a lot like discussing porn--there's no clear definition, but you know it when you see it. Nobody refers to the guy who knows just two types of wine--red or white--as "passionate about wine." But the movie Sideways was about people who were passionate about wine. The point was not that they drank a lot of wine (although in the movie, they definitely did), but that they knew so much about it. They knew enough to appreciate and enjoy subtleties that are virtually inaccessible to everyone else.

It's the same way with classical or jazz music--learning about the music changes the music. What the music expert hears has more notes, more instruments, more syncopation... than what I hear when I listen to the same piece. Of course I don't mean the music technically changes, but if the way we experience it shifts, it is AS IF the music itself shifts.

And it's not just for hobbies. Think about a spreadsheet, for example. Joe Excel User can do the basics--calculations, pie charts, bar graphs, some reports. To Joe Excel User, the software is a tool for doing spreadsheets. But imagine Joe were to learn the deeper power and subtleties of not just the app itself, but the way in which the app could be used as, say, a modeling and simulation tool. For Joe, now, the software itself has transformed from a spreadsheet tool to a modeling and simulation tool. More importantly, the way Joe thinks as he uses the software also changes. Rather than approaching a session with Excel as a way to crunch some numbers, he sees it as a way to do predictions, forecasts, and systems thinking.

People are not passionate about things they know nothing about. They may be interested. They may spend money. But without the enhanced skill and knowledge that adds resolution, there is no real passion. At least not the kind we talk about (and aim for) here--the kind of passion we talk about when we say, "He is passionate about photography" or "She is passionate about animal rights" or even, "He is passionate about his Mac."

And a passion for one thing can spill over into a passion for life itself. And for many people, the loss of passion/desire for once-loved things is a clear symptom of clinical depression. For writer Larry McMurtry, the loss of passion for books (he's an antiquarian book collector when he isn't writing novels and screenplays) was one of the worst parts of the post-heart-surgery depression he experienced a decade ago. He simply stopped feeling that feeling. Books changed back--back to that state the non-book-passionate experience--and were simply old books. Fortunately, McMurtry recovered and regained his passion for books.

So, what can you change for people? Or rather, what can you help others change for themselves? How can you increase the resolution of the products and services you offer--without touching the products? That doesn't mean you can take any old piece of crap and by teaching people to become expert, magically transform it into a work of art. But if there's potential for a richer experience--an experience the non-passionate don't see, taste, hear, feel, smell, touch, or ever recognize...why not see if there's a way to help more people experience that?

And since I believe that passion requires learning, and that means we all have to become better "learning experience designers", I'm working on a big "crash course in the latest learning theory" post that summarizes most of the key principles, in one place (with pictures : )

2005 may be the year HD finally arrived for TV and video, I hope 2006 is the year of HD User Experiences. And it's up to us to make that happen.

Posted by Kathy on December 30, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

The Book of Cool


Without a doubt the coolest present I've ever gotten is The Book of Cool, which is really a set of DVDs (plus a companion picture book) on how to do... cool tricks. You might not want to learn rope tricks, but how about rugby tricks, bar flairing, card & magic tricks, or my favorite--skateboard tricks?

Besides being cool--it's also a simple and elegant example of video instruction. I've been trying to learn the newer skateboard tricks for quite some time (my tricks are all from my old-school days, where I--very briefly--rode for the Santa Cruz skateboards team).

There's something for nearly everyone in this thing and it's quite a lot of fun to watch, even if you don't want to learn how to do a fake reverse thumb spin with your pen.

My co-author/conspirator Beth Freeman sent me this for Christmas, and I'm having too much fun with it.

Posted by Kathy on December 29, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Steve Jobs--this time it's personal

This is wonderful.

The content is in the comments--so that's where you want to look, and it is so worth waiting for the images in the comments to load : )

Posted by Kathy on December 29, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

BrainDeath by Micromanagement: The Zombie Function


The most important function for a manager is X = -Y, where X is employee brain use and Y is degree of management. To use the horse whisperer's advice, The more you use your reins, the less they'll use their brains."

If you asked 100 managers which they'd prefer--employees who think, or mindless zombies who respond only (and exactly) as ordered, you'd get 100 responses of, "What a ridiculous question. We hire smart people and stay out of their way so they can do their jobs." And if you asked 100 managers to define their management style, none would claim to be micromanagers. Probe deeper, though, and the truth begins to emerge.

Ask managers if their direct reports can make decisions as well as the manager can, and they hesitate. Ask if the manager could step in at a moment's notice and perform the employee's job, and too many managers would say--with pride--"yes."

Do you have a micromanager? Are you a micromanager? Are all micromanagers clueless or and/or evil? Of course not. Most micromanagers I've known (or had) were driven by one or both of the following:

1) Not enough time
Taking the time to give employees the same data, knowledge, and skills needed to do things right can be a luxury many managers just can't afford. Or so they think. While it's oh so tempting to just step in and DO IT, micromanagement doesn't scale. Better to:
Take the time it takes [now] so it takes less time [later]."

2) Concern for quality
Micromanagers often believe that they know more, and more importantly -- care more. Often they're right. But it's a downward spiral--

Micromanagement creates zombies.

Of course micromanagers don't actually create zombies--they simply inspire (or force) zombieism on the job. Follow those work zombies home, and their zombiness vanishes. Thier eyes light up, their brain kicks in, and their passion for playing with their kids, championing a cause, or just playing their favorite after-work hobby emerges. You see the side of them that micromanagement crushes.

Do you have a micromanager?
Or are you a micromanager? If you demonstrate any of these seemingly admirable qualities, there's a big clue that you might be making zombies.

1) Do you pride yourself on being "on top of" the projects or your direct reports? Do you have a solid grasp of the details of every project?

2) Do you believe that you could perform most of the tasks of your direct reports, and potentially do a better job?

3) Do you pride yourself on frequent communication with your employees? Does that communication include asking them for detailed status reports and updates?

3) Do you believe that being a manager means that you have more knowledge and skills than your employees, and thus are better equipped to make decisions?

4) Do you believe that you care about things (quality, deadlines, etc.) more than your employees?

Answering even a weak "yes" to any one of these might mean you either are--or are in danger of becoming--a micromanager. And once you go down that road, it's tough to return. A quote from Dune (can't remember exactly) applies here, and goes something like:
"Be careful of every order you give. Once you give an order on a particular topic, you are responsible for always giving orders on that topic."

What can you do if you have--or are--a micromanager?

Admit it, and deal with the two driving forces: concern for quality, and need for speed. Take the time it takes today. Invest in the time and training to give your employees whatever they need to make the decisions or complete the tasks you find yourself needing (or wanting) to do. And if caring is the big concern, well, you get what you create. If you treat employees like zombies, then zombies is exactly what you'll get. Sometimes all it takes is giving people a chance to develop more skill and knowledge, the space to use their brains, and a worthwhile challenge.

"But, but, but--they don't care as much as I do -- that's why I'm the manager and they're not." Bulls***. You might be the manager simply because you wanted to be a manager. Nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't necessarily mean you're better at the job than those you manage. It might even mean you're simply better at the details and support work than the actual work.

The companies I love to hate are those that allow only a single career path--the "management track". One of the things I liked about Sun was that Scott McNealy made a clear distinction between "Individual Contributors" and "Managers", and didn't penalize those who wanted to be--and stay--kick ass individual contributors. Sun knew the value of not taking their brightest engineers and forcing them to choose between doing what they love vs. moving up the pay scale. Both tracks were recognized and rewarded. (Of course, when the bubble burst, all bets were off...)

Doing everything right doesn't guarantee passionate users, but if we--or those we manage--don't have passion, how can we expect to inspire our users?

And here's a parting thought... this obviously doesn't apply only to employees. What about parents who micromanage their kids? Teachers who micromanage their students? Ministers who micromanage their memebers? Political leaders who micromanage their, well, us? Or what about developers who micromanage their users? Hmmm....

Posted by Kathy on December 26, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (28) | TrackBack

Thank you and some Java book news

[Warning: no useful info in this post]
Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of the Creating Passionate Users blog. It's so tough to find time to read blogs, and I'm honored and deeply appreciative of those who've taken the time to read (and comment here and on their own blogs) this one.

And I also want to thank our book readers for this -- Head First Java, second edition, was named to both of Amazon's Best of 2005 Computer Book lists -- the Top Ten Editor's Picks list and the Top Ten Customer Favorites, which is their bestseller list. Our Design Patterns book actually outsold Head First Java, but it was released in the fall of 2004, so it wasn't eligible for the 2005 list.

There's some other great books on the 2005 bestseller list including O'Reilly's wonderful Make magazine/book (the adult's version of science fair projects and other DIY fun--check out the blog!), and Dave Shea and Molly Holzschlag's book, The Zen of CSS Design. The Editor's Picks list also includes one of my favorite books, Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug.

And for those of you who've waited so patiently for the way-behind Tiger edition of our Sun Certified Java Programmer book (Bert and I were the lead developers of that exam), we got a nice little present on our doorstep today -- the actual book! That means it's actually shipping, and many of you know the drill by now -- even though Amazon still still shows January 31 as the ship date, that switch will be thrown any moment now. It's sitting on a loading dock somewhere, but Amazon should be recognizing it as available within the next few days (the holidays might slow things down a little).

And while we're in such a celebratory mood around here (Yay! The book was only 11 months behind schedule!), R. Marie Cox gave us an adorable Artypapers Award for Best New Site. Er, it wasn't actually best new site... it came with a qualifier Best New [to me] Site. But hey, it's this blog's first and only award, and we definitely heart R. Marie Cox for giving it to us -- (it seems she's a fellow 37signals fan).

The more I think about that award title, though... the more it reminds me of those quotes on the back of books with things like, "Best New Sci-Fi Novel by A First-Time Author So Far This Year" (when it's January) or the classic, "Leaves you wanting more" or "This book fills a much-needed gap." (Moses Hadas, who also said, "Thank you for sending me a copy of your book. I'll waste no time reading it.")

And if you like this sort of thing, you might find this just the sort of thing you like-- a list of self-annihilating sentences. It includes gems like:

"Before they made him they broke the mold."

"This man's work cannot be underrated."

But I also like the quote from Mark Twain's autobiography:

"Wagner's music is better than it sounds."
- Edgar Nye

And Dorothy Parker is quoted as saying:

"This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force."

(and I believe it was Dorothy Parker who said "... runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.")

And then there's the 1-star Amazon review we got for Head First Java, which was followed by a 5-star review with a nearly identical headline:

"Worst book ever! Just like MTV..."
"Best book ever! Just like MTV..."

I've violated the rule here that says posts on this blog must in some way help our users kick ass, and there's virtually nothing in this but shameless self-congratulations. I hope you'll forgive us this one indulgence, and I promise a useful post tomorrow.

Thanks again everyone, and happy [whatever]. 2005 has been a wonderful year, and I'm looking forward to learning a lot more from you guys [I mean "guys" in the California non-gender-specific way] in 2006.

Posted by Kathy on December 23, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

The Quantum Mechanics of Users


People have commented that "creating passionate users" means nothing more than "listening to users like we always have--DUH!" But if it were that simple, we'd all be producing--and using--products and services that people love. That meet real needs. That fulfill real desires. That help people kick-ass.

How, then, to explain the Grand Canyon-sized gap between what users really want and what we so often produce as a direct result of our sincere listening? Maybe the physics is wrong...

Light can behave as a wave, until you ask it to explain how it got from point A to point B, in which case it can behave as a particle. In other words, asking light to explain itself can change the very nature of how we perceive it. And this notion that sometimes "observing an event changes the event" comes up in many areas of quantum physics.

But it's not just the subatomic world that gets weird when you look too closely--in some cases, asking a user to explain his choices changes his choices! In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point) gives an example where students were asked to rank order 44 different kinds of strawberry jams. When compared with the rankings of experts, the students did fairly well -- "even those of us who aren't jam experts known good jam when we taste it." But--and here's where it gets weird--when the students were asked in advance to provide not just the rankings but a written explanation of their choices, the student rankings lost virtually all correlation with that of the experts. As Gladwell puts it, "By making people think about jam, [the researchers] turned them into jam idiots."

Think about that when you're asking for user feedback whether as focus groups, user questionnaires, or even usability testing (although the implications are different for each of these things).

So how can we hope to learn anything about what our users want and need if the very act of answering a question could change their answer? We have to get better at making inferences from what we observe without intervention. We have to get to the spirit of what we observe, rather than focusing on the specific details. We have to reconize that what they do says much more than what they say, especially when they're not saying anything at all.

Readers here left some great comments about this on my earlier Listening to users post:

Tim said:
The comments about listening to what the users are saying, what they're not saying, and how it's being said reminds me of the quote by Claude Debussy, "Music is the silence between the notes."

And Matthew Moran said:
It is not that we should not listen to clients/users but we should not let their limited understanding of what is possible, limit where the solution/software/project can go. It is important to listen and draw additional information into the open. In this way, we can discover what is truly desired but never contemplated from the client's perspective.

Paulo Eduardo Neves said:
Gilberto Gil, a great brazilian musician and the country current minister of culture, has a verse that says: "The people knows what they want, but the people also wants what they don't know".

Eric Stephens offered this link great post from Mark Hurst on Customer Research that includes:
"In our non-directed listening labs, we ask customers to use the Internet in the way they normally use it at home or work. While we do have a goal for the research, we try to let the customers lead us to the answer, rather than the other way around."

And Stu Max made it simple:
I guess that's how I'd wish you would reframe your point: You've always got to listen to your users, but sometimes you've got to listen beyond the words.

In addition to listening to users, we should observe them as a wildlife photographer or naturalist would--in the users native habitat, from a distance, with as little intervention as possible. We have to look for the whys based on the whats of their behavior. And when we do ask questions, the questions should be not just on specific behaviors ("why did you do it that way?") but also (perhaps more importantly) about what they value at an abstract level ("what does it mean to you to be using [whatever] in your [work/life]? How does it help you in (or prevent you from) kicking ass?")

This doesn't mean we shouldn't sweat the details--down to the last interface pixel, book font, metal finish, or drum beat. It all matters. And much of it can come from questioning users directly. The trouble is that this is where we tend to spend nearly all of our "listen to users" effort. We field complaints, solicit feedback, and accept customer requests. In other words, we focus on the trees and miss the forest.

Why not become "user naturalists" and find out what really makes our users inspired/frustrated/motivated/hopeless/passionate? Maybe the best way to find out what they need and want from our product (or from a future product we hope to develop) is by asking about something other than the product. Maybe they say they're satisfied with our product (or the category of products in which ours belongs), but we need to ask if they're satisfied with the very nature of what they're using our product for. Maybe asking about their favorite hobbies--the things they are passionate about--can help shine a light toward a new feature or capability (a new slider) we hadn't previously imagined. One that nobody ever associated with this type of product or service.

While we can still ask why they chose the blue button, we must understand that if we tell them in advance that they'll need to explain their choice, that knowledge could change the outcome. It might cause them to click the blue button when they would have clicked the green one! When you collapse the wave function, make sure that what you get is not simply what you caused by looking. : )

Posted by Kathy on December 21, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Interesting Moments

Industry analyst James Governor (whose blog I really like) wrote an interesting post linking my "is it interesting" post with something Yahoo Ajax Evangelist Bill Scott is talking about. Bill's post is Storyboarding Interesting Moments and right now, all I can say is that I'm very, very interested. He had me at the word "storyboarding", a concept we use around here almost as much as mind mapping.

Also, Living Code's Dethe Elza coded up an interactive version of the Breakthrough Ideas equalizer thing. It's wicked easy -- you just type up to eight slider labels in a single text entry field, and it generates the equalizer where you can move the sliders. Given that this is much easier than the way I've been doing it, I'm going to just use this on his website, and then take screen shots. Cheers Dethe!

There's a lot of other interesting news but I'm still way behind on things so it might take a while to catch up. But if you haven't looked at the comments/great advice in the "Career Advice for Young People" post, I encourage you to do so. It seems I left out one of the most obvious and important ones--completing something!. (Always Be Closing)

Posted by Kathy on December 21, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

... but is it memorable?


So your product, training, documentation, presentation, blog, whatever is interesting, but is it memorable? Do you want it to be?

Where were you when you heard the news about 9/11? Chances are, you remember. What did you eat for dinner last Tuesday? Chances are, you do NOT remember (unless dinner involved a hot date, your birthday, a fist fight with the waiter, or some other emotionally-charged event). Just as emotions can tell the brain that something is worth attention, emotions also tell the brain that something is worth recording.

According to neurobiologist (and Nobel prize winner for his work on memory) Eric Kandel, a "switch must be thrown" to convert a memory from short-term to long-term storage. But a neurochemical smackdown is happening inside your brain--two competing agents fighting for control of that switch. In one corner we have CREB-1, the essential component for throwing the switch that starts converting short-term memories to long-term storage. But in the other corner, we have CREB-2--CREB-1's arch rival. CREB-1's big goal in life is to throw the switch, but CREB-2 guards the switch saying, "Not so fast. If you want to throw that switch you'll have to get past me." CREB-2 is the gatekeeper!

If they gave you a drug that suppressed CREB-2, you'd remember everything the first time. While I would have killed for this the night before college exams, those for whom CREB-2 doesn't do its job are not having a good time. Think of all the things you're exposed to each moment, and imagine how awful it would if you remembered them all...

[Disclaimer: I'm playing fast and loose with the metaphors and science here]

If CREB-2 inhibits memory, then how do you inhibit CREB-2? How do you stop it from protecting the switch? There's the slow, painful (or at least boring) way we all used in college to get through some of our exams. We just kept rereading the same damn chapter over and over. With enough time and repetition, just about anything can be saved to long-term memory.

But there's a more efficient way--EMOTIONS. Scientists have confirmed (and you know it from experience) that emotions play a major role in memory. And it's thought that the chemicals of emotion must be telling CREB-2 to back off and let CREB-1 do it's work.

Just as the brain pays attention to that which it feels, the brain remembers that which it feels. If you can help your users trick their brains into thinking that something is important enough to store, you can help your users learn more quickly. Learning = getting past the suck threshold faster. And learning also means gaining the kind of skill and expertise that can meet the challenges needed to reach the flow state. And that's where you hit the passion threshold.

Remember--your users don't have to be passionate about your product in order to be passionate users. Sometimes--often--users are passionate about what they do with your product. And it's that thing they do where you can help them kick ass. Users who "kick ass" are those who get good enough to reach a state of "optimal experience" doing whatever it is you're helping them do (through your product, service, support, learning, whatever). And that can happen with almost anything. It's the reason that the GTD system has become so popular--it helps us spend more time in flow!

If you want them to remember, make it memorable.


The number eight is arbitrary, but the numeral "8" overlaid on a picture of the spider (which brains are preprogrammed to react to), helps "burn in" the link between spiders and the number 8.

Emotions aren't the only things that improve the memorability of something--pictures, patterns, chunking, and all sorts of "memory tricks" can make a huge difference in whether something is recorded or--sometimes more importantly--whether it can be easily recalled. But I'll save those tricks for another post.

For now, think about how you can use the brain's built-in memory "tagging" system to help users learn/remember more quickly. Link the thing you want remembered with something likely to evoke at least the tiniest chemical reaction. And what are those things? The same things that the brain finds interesting:

* Surprise, novelty, the unexpected

* Beauty

* Stories

* Conversation (including conversational writing)

* 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

The difference between whether you use these things to help focus attention or to support long-term memory is in how (and for how long) you use them. A picture of a spider will get your brain's attention, but by linking that spider to something (like the number "8"), you greatly increase the chance that the link between spiders and 8 legs is remembered. A fact is more likely to be remembered if that fact is being "stated" by the face of a person with a strong facial expression. Getting what you expect is not nearly as memorable as when something you thought would work fails. On it goes...

Oh yes, there is one "emotion" that has the opposite effect on memory. The chemistry of anxiety (the stress of worry) is the one feeling that works against memory. So whatever you can do to make users/learners feel comfortable about the learning experience goes a long way toward supporting memory. If people are made to feel stupid for "not getting it", the chances they'll learn it (let alone remember it) drop. And unfortunately, way too many technical manuals, tech support FAQs, books, and poorly designed product interfaces DO make us feel stupid.

So, "interesting" gets your foot in the door, but "memorable" is what helps build and support passionate users.

Posted by Kathy on December 19, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Career advice for young people?


Would you encourage your kids to take up programming? Would you discourage them? Engineering? Architecture? Science? Medicine? Music? Design? Art? Social work? Writing? What advice would you give to a 14-year old today?

This discussion came up this morning on a technical book author's list I'm on, where someone said his teenage son was expressing an interest in programming, with a goal of writing games. Someone else brought up the obvious question--"Is that something you really want to encourage your kid to pursue?", with the implication that a career in programming wasn't as promising as it used to be, and the subfield of game development even less so.

You can imagine the responses, ranging from, "Who cares about the career prospects? He's 14!!" to "The game industry IS a healthy industry..." to, "If it ain't illegal or dangerous, then go for it...", but the consensus was that "The skills of game creation are going to be beneficial regardless of what the kid ultimately does."

My advice was predictable, and was along the lines of:

"How many of us over 30 are working in the same field that looked attractive to us (or our parents) when we were 14? I'd encourage anything that requires thinking, creativity, and focus."

But really, I'd encourage anything the kid is interested in. And this is where the controversy is... whether "good parenting" is about taking a heavy hand in steering your kids toward a responsible means of making a living, vs. being supportive of their passions that might ultimately lead to a life of being, well, a starving musician. (Or whatever the equivalent is for any other pursuit that my parents would have considered a "nice hobby, bad career choice.")

Parents will probably always be fighting over this, largely based on their own experiences which range from, "If only my parents had prevented me from following this silly pursuit... I'd have a mortgage and my kids would go to good schools, etc." to "If only my parents had encouraged me to follow my dreams at any cost, rather than becoming a slave to the man (etc.)" And you always hear the story of the guy who, on his deathbed, doesn't wish he'd spent more time at the office.

Whatever our personal philosophies, there are new realities. The parents of the 1950's believed we'd have not just a career for life, but potentially a single job for life. Today, that's absurd. And one thing is certain: the rate of change is accelerating.

The advice I would give (with the disclaimer that Skyler will not be nominating me for any parent-of-the-year awards) is that the most important preparation skills/orientations today are:

* Creativity

* Flexibility

* Resourcefulness

* Synthesis

* Metacognition (thinking about thinking)

The future is unpredictable, but not optional. Unlike my parents, I assume my kids can be jobless at the drop of a hat, and had better be ready to deal with that. Or better yet, to make the idea of joblessness irrelevant by starting their own business or being independent contractors. And I'll give one more plug for Dan Pink's advice to develop "a whole new mind."

What's your advice? As the parent of a teen, I can use all the input I can get.

Posted by Kathy on December 15, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (52) | TrackBack

...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 | Comments (14) | TrackBack