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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


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» Passionate for Knowledge from Danny Foo | Websites Made Simple
I just finished reading the Creating Passionate Users blog and their new article, The hi-res user experience is something that explains the confusion of why our passion helps us aim to be better in our work. People are not passionate... [Read More]

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From Kathy Sierra: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 o... [Read More]

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You say "passion requires learning", which sounds kind of weird to me. Does that mean that you can't be passionate about simple things? Things that are so easy that there isn't much to learn about it?

Take Backpack for example, made by 37signals. It is a very simple web application, and you pretty much learned 90% of the available functions within an hour. So there isn't much learning going on there, yet there are lots of users that are passionate about it. I see three possible explanations:
1. Learning isn't a requirement for passion
2. The backpack passion is temporary because when the learning stops, users can't evolve to the next stage of "kicking ass".
3. They are fuelling their passion by learning something other than the features of the product itself, but it still reflects on the product itself. For example: they learn that they can use backpack for keeping a new years resolution list. I wonder if that is still learning? Seems more like a process of discovery instead of a process of learning.

Posted by: Jan | Dec 30, 2005 3:59:56 PM

Reminds me of one of my favorite lines from the old "Night Court" TV show ... Bull was planning on entertaining a lady friend, and asked Harry for advice on whether to buy red or white wine.

Harry: "What are you serving?"

Bull: "Cheetos!"

Posted by: Bill | Dec 30, 2005 4:33:27 PM

Jan: answer # 3 in the case of 37signals : )
But you raise the key points -- for a lot of us, our products aren't the ultimate *destination*, but a means to doing something else that we ARE (or can be) passionate about. 37signals creates products that let users spend more time in flow -- using 37signals software to do something ELSE, which could be the thing they ARE passionate about. Some of the products people are most passionate about are simply the tools that enable and then get the hell out of the way so that the REAL thing they're passionate about can happen. But through "misattribution of arousal" (as the psychologists call it), some of that passion spills onto the product/tool that allowed you to experience that optimal experience or "flow state".

I'm passionate about skiing, not my skis. But the new skis I got last season are allowing me to learn and grow in ways my old ones didn't, so I have a stronger feeling toward my new skis (Volkl). And I'm passionate about training my horse, but the horsemanship home study course I follow lets me experience amazing things with my horse that I never knew existed (or never thought a "regular person" could do), so I'm also passionate about that training company (Parelli).

People are rarely *truly* passionate about a specific camera -- it's *photography* they're passionate about, and by extension -- the camera they most associate with allowing them to take kick-ass pictures with might also be the recipient of that passion. Nikon has an outstanding online photography course (free) to help me kick ass with my new Nikon, but that course teaches me how to be a photography expert, not a *camera* expert. When people are passionate about tools (like cameras, skis, software, learning books), it's because those tools have allowed them to learn/grow/kick-ass doing the REAL thing they're passionate about.

And the thing is, Backpack learning doesn't have to *stop*, necessarily, because some folks will upgrade to Basecamp where you suddenly have a new, much larger toolset and can spend a lot of time learning/discovering cool ways to do *the thing you're using Basecamp for*, rather than spending time figuring how to use Basecamp. That's what's so cool about 37signals stuff--it steps back and lets you do what you're REALLY passionate about. With your example of the resolution list, you're right that in the example you gave it's more about discovery, but discovery is itself a form of learning--in the end, you have more knowledge and/or skills around, say, hacking your life : )

So, if I say that 37signals (or even Nikon) has "passionate users", it's because people are passionate about what they're able to do with the tools 37signals and Nikon provide, rather than passion that's explicity FOR the products themselves. In reality, we don't have to make much of a distinction, though. Like I said, whatever tool or company helps me do what I REALLY am passionate about, is potentially the object of some of my passion.

Without learning and growth of any kind, though, then you are right that passion would be temporary (or not really ever passion at all but more of a fling ; )

Thanks for asking such a great question, and providing thoughtful ideas about it. I wish I'd thought of all the things you said while I was making the post.


Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Dec 30, 2005 5:07:13 PM

Great post, right on the money.

My perception of music has definitely changed through the years as I learned more about it, and in the past two years I discovered lots of jazz and classical that would have sounded totally different to me 5 years ago because I just didn't feel and hear music at my current "resolution".

Posted by: Michael G. R. | Dec 30, 2005 6:36:34 PM

People have different levels of passion and it could be as difficult to explain as love itself. For creative types, of course learning and shifting our perspective is important. I can't imagine being passionate about anything that doesn't involve learning new things. In fact I recently discovered that for over a year I was sinking deeper and deeper into a state of complete depression and it wasn't until I discovered a few new technologies that I snapped out of it and rejuvenated my passion for application development and design.

Then we have people who say, are very passionate about fishing and the outdoors. This passion has less to do with learning and more to do with adding a calm, relaxing few hours to their week. So this makes me think that passion can be felt for anything that adds a perceived value to your life. Obviously for us, learning is what gives us a sense that we are alive and refreshes our spirit or does whatever it is that we define as passion..

I completely agree with and share your views. There are others who need only experience something even in the absence of learning to enjoy something on a level that is so great it can only be defined as passion. So maybe passion requires experiencing and learning is the experience that can help fuel passion?

Posted by: Collin | Dec 31, 2005 3:55:18 AM

This was a great post and I agree with what you say. I would add that people are often passionate about different things (as a category). I suppose the challenge is to make people who are indifferent about a particular product more enthusiastic/passionate. The jazz examples above are a great way to illustrate this point. Best wishes.

Posted by: Gordon at Broken Bulbs | Dec 31, 2005 4:49:20 AM

damn, this is good stuff.

Posted by: kris | Dec 31, 2005 6:13:45 AM

Kathy writes, "And a passion for one thing can spill over into a passion for life itself."

If more people would replace their "flings" with passion, many therapists would be looking for a new line of work.

While reading this post with my first cup of coffee, I toasted your passion for writing.

Happy New Year and thanks for the continuing inspiraton.

Posted by: Doug Emerson | Dec 31, 2005 7:32:51 AM

Great post. I can't wait to see the crash course - I need to apply it here fast. I need a web site that can relate some contextual learning into a software product buying experience.

I have a passion for the freedom people get from using open source software, and I peddle Red Hat and MySQL commercial subscriptions by day. Salespeople will plug me into the CIO of a Times-1000 company for a 10 minute chat on the phone, and it's fairly easy to convey how "this stuff works" in a commercial sense 1:1 in that time.

The biggest business problem I have is that if I can map a capability onto a part number and price, we'll get an order in 95% of cases immediately. However, 70% of my phone traffic is "what is the part number I need for..." and while I can translate most needs into 1 or more of 242 SKUs quickly, I don't scale too well. Most web sites don't map capabilities onto SKUs very well - you get so far on a description, and then a web site will deep dive you into a morass of part numbers - none of which get cross referenced nor carry any useful context to get users on their way. Most even hand you off to reseller web sites that break the flow in the buying experience pretty fundamentally.

When I had to add three entries into a catalogue for "how much does Oracle 10g cost on this limited range of CPUs"... and Oracle gave me a 12-page price list and a 53 page "Guide to licensing" to go work it out. I've had to suss out the licensing (and support) programs for VMware, Adobe, Autodesk and BMC over Christmas, so I know Red Hat and MySQL are far from alone.

So, i'm busy learning Ruby on Rails (Agile Programming book at Christmas) and waiting for my copy of Head First HTML to come (releases in the UK on the 6th Jan apparently). Then all i'll need is some framework for guiding people down a small learning experience down to simple part numbers and prices.

Your learning experience crash course can't come fast enough...

Ian W.
Simplicity Sells!

Posted by: Ian Waring | Dec 31, 2005 1:49:43 PM

Good discussion. I guess from a users perspective it would be great to have examples of the potential of products/experience as a toehold into why to spend or waste my time learning this new thing. As a new blogger and I'm passionate about it--I am aslo overwhelmed by the amount of tools/services etc. that are available that I should be using to make my process easier and more effective but I have to sort out each one on my own to know how I can benefit by it. I have to know what questions to ask myself--how to get from A to B?

It goes beyond a glossary of terms it's someone somewhere thinking what a user needs--even if that means combining 3 or 4 steps from 3 or 4 different services/apps. Sorely lacking is any how to on how multiple software apps or services can help you do what you need to do. Taking it to the macro view instead of the micro (arrogance that means you need nothing but our product to solve all your needs).

Please, please bring on the crash course!

Posted by: Melissa | Jan 1, 2006 1:04:27 PM

Great blog, but your reply to Jan was what made it perfect.

Posted by: Johannes de Jong | Jan 1, 2006 10:31:56 PM

Kathy I agree with you totaly. In my opinion, good knowledge of subject is the foundation of passion. Learning is a kind of analysis, each step gives you one answer and a milions of questions. The play is to select one question and to give an answer. Just the passion.

Posted by: Szymon Drejewicz | Jan 2, 2006 8:08:27 AM

Fantastic post!

In the field of learning sciences and technology, there is a great interest in understanding the interplay between intrinsic motivation (a personal passion for a subject) and learning. The arrow clearly goes both ways, not just one. Researchers and experience designers for education (my job) tend to think about motivation as the foundation for learning, but I think this is a fascinating idea--exploring the full loop and how learning is also a foundation for building motivation.

Clearly the relationship is complex, not a simple dependency either way.

Posted by: Andi | Jan 3, 2006 8:54:49 AM

I agree with all you've said. Knowing the hidden features of any software gives you more appreciation for it, and makes it more likely you'll use it again. It's often been said that power-Word users see every problem as a Word solution, and power-Excel users see every problem as an Excel solution.

What interests me more is the question of whether it can be applied to people. I think yes! Think about trying to remember names. If you know more about the person, it is easier to learn and remember their name. It's not just seeing them often, it's interacting with them and getting to understand them.

Posted by: Brian | Feb 1, 2007 10:21:50 AM

Permission marketing works hand in hand with the concept of curriculum marketing. Web Monkey was a great example of curriculum marketing. Back in its prime, Web Monkey would send you an email twice a week that contained a link that took you to a tutorial. In that tutorial you would get one five page lesson on one of a handful of topics. The point was to make you into a web developer.

Unless the interface is totally intuitive, users are going to have to learn how to use the application. The question of when they learn it has business consequences. Customers pay for productivity. Teaching people the product before it is released does much to reduce the time to return and gets them productive earlier.

You could use curriculum marketing, these days with a blog or podcast, to build the learning into the product lifecycle early, ahead of the product release.

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