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It's the [?], stupid!

Do you know what the "comma-stupid" phrase is for your product or service? In other words, do you know what is most meaningful for your users? Because whatever that word or phrase is (i.e. the part that comes before the ", stupid!"), it should be driving everything from product development to documentation to support and marketing.

The "comma-stupid" phrase popped into american culture in 1992, with the political message, "It's the economy, stupid." But the one that got me is from the game industry. In the early 90's, a company was founded that most agreed was a dreamteam combination of Hollywood and Silicon Valley ("sili-wood", as it was called then). Made up of some of the best and brightest from both the entertainment and high-tech worlds, "Rocket Science Games" was a cover story on Wired before their first product was released.

And they got more than $10 million initial financing. Those of us struggling to develop CD-Rom games on $100k to 300k budgets were envious and a little resentful. Sure enough, Rocket Science's first games were technologically spectacular. But...they were complete and utter failures in the market. And then a rumour started that one of the founders allegedly said something like, "Oh, we get it now. It's about the game play." I have no idea if anyone ever said that, but the meme spread throughout our little entertainment/tech game world that went "Well... DUH! It's the game play, stupid!" Of course, defining what game play meant in that context is an entirely different subject for another day... ; )

Meanwhile back at Microsoft... in the Search Champs program they talked and demo'ed and listened and demo'ed and questioned and talked and demo'ed. Throughout most of it, I saw and heard about features. Cool features. Innovative features. Sometimes jaw-dropping features. But I almost never heard any over-arching context for this collection of features. I almost never heard discussions of the meaningful benefit this collection of stuff would give the user. In fact, most discussions about the user's perspective were around usability.

Usability schmusability... where's the part where we talk about how this helps the user kick-ass? So what if the feature is brilliantly implemented and dead simple to use? Where's the part where we ask, "use it do WHAT?" Where's the part where you say, "We've decided that our mission and message is, "It's the [something-goes-here], stupid!"

Framing it this way might not change the product one bit. Or it might change it profoundly. It might mean a deep change in the way we talk about and teach and support users in our products. And yes, of course, it might mean a deep change in how we market that product or service. But if we don't figure it out and stay focused and clear, we risk heading in directions that don't serve the user's ultimate purpose. (The most obvious result of not staying "on message" is featuritis.)

We all have to figure out what the user cares most about, and drive everything from that "comma-stupid" phrase. For our books, we use, "It's the learning experience, stupid!" Not the depth of technical expertise, not the breadth of coverage, and definitely not the writing quality.

Yet, even that still isn't getting to the heart of what matters to the user. Because somewhere behind "learning experience", there is a reason why the user wants that learning experience! And it is really that reason that matters. In other words, "learning" is not really the user's ultimate destination/reason for picking up one of our books. It's simply a means toward some other goal. But what is that ultimate goal? That's what we all have to ask, uncover, and focus on for whatever we're creating/offering/teaching/evangelizing.

And that's why we're so fond of the phrase, "kick ass", because it serves as a placeholder for what the user ultimately wants. That "I Rule!" experience should drive what most of you are trying to build or promote. [Note for clarification: we mean "I Rule!" like that "YES!" feeling you get when you do something tricky, successfully.]

Some of the most common high-level answers to the "comma-stupid" phrase (and which are forms of "kicking ass") are:

It's the [user spending more time in flow], stupid!

It's the [user feeling a sense of belonging], stupid!

It's the [user having more sex], stupid!

It's the [user experiencing peace of mind], stupid!

It's the [user having more fun], stupid!

An example of a NON useful answer might be:

It's about the [user getting more work done], stupid!

While this may be the key benefit of your product, it's not the user's ultimate goal. You must ask, "how does getting more work done help the user kick ass?" The answer may be, to spend more time in flow.

But how do you know when you've arrived at the ultimate answer? After all, "spending more time in flow" isn't necessarily the end state, right? Well... given that the flow state has been linked to human happiness, we consider it an end state. Ditto with sex, belonging, peace of mind, fun, and other meaningful states that speak to deeper human needs and/or desires. But really, the way you phrase your "comma-stupid" depends entirely on what keeps you and your team motivated toward the right things.

I believe we all should spend time--a lot of time--figuring out exactly what should be in our "comma-stupid" phrase. We can start by asking, "What does the user care about?" Followed by, "OK, but WHY does he care about that?" Follwed by, "And why does he care about that? until we get to the heart of it. Then we pick a phrase... a message that expresses this in a way that everyone on the team can understand. Then from that point forward, every decision should include two questions:

1) How will this [thing we're about to do] support, enable, or amplify what the user cares most about?

2) How will this [thing we're about to do] potentially hurt or stand in the way of what the user cares most about?

And I actually believe that for 90% of us (my work included) the answer to the "comma-stupid" question is "the user kicking ass", but of course it's up to us to define exactly what "kicking ass" means for our particular context. So that's my challenge to you--ask yourself if you have a clear, "It's the [something], stupid!" Then ask yourself if it gets to the real heart of what is most meaningful to the user. In other words, if you say, "It's the usability, stupid", you aren't there. You could have a highly usable tool that doesn't help the user in something they can kick ass at. And once you have that clear message, take a hard look at your product or service and see how much of what you have supports, enables, or amplifies that user goal, and see how much--if any--stands in the way.

Most importantly, keep asking yourself, "How can I help my users kick ass?" And to answer that, you'll have to know the context in which users interact with your product or service. Chances are, whatever you provide is NOT their ultimate goal. It's just a tool to get to something that is meaningful.

Posted by Kathy on February 1, 2006 | Permalink


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» On Ass-Kicking from Bokardo
Kathy Sierra, soft-spoken in person, kick-ass writer, on her time at Search Champs: Usability schmusability wheres the part where we talk about how this helps the user kick-ass? Kathys doing great work: Here... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 2, 2006 8:29:20 AM

» How does this help my user kick ass? from Escape from Cubicle Nation
Kathy Sierra over at Passionate has the right idea as she explains in excellent detail what we need to keep in mind when developing, producing and marketing our products and services. In her post It's the {?}, stupid! she [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 2, 2006 8:30:55 AM

» Keeping Users In Mind from nerd
Kathy Sierra has a really great article about designing for users rather than features. (Thanks Josh for linking to the Creating Passionate Users site.) The closing paragraph really sums it all up: Most importantly, keep asking yourself, Ho... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 4, 2006 7:55:54 AM

» It's all about the users, stupid from The IT Training Doctor
Isn't it irritating that software developers keep putting features before user experience? (Yes, is the answer. And see this blog for a great argument about that: http://headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/2006/02/its_the_stupid.html) What's... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 9, 2006 9:53:00 AM

» It's the employees, stupid! from The AntiSyphus Effect
First off, let's note that it's called an annual performance review and not annual performance news. The word "review" is the key here; it implies that you will be reviewing feedback that you provided throughout the year. You must never, under any circ... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 18, 2007 7:03:04 AM


I'm printing this, time to find our "comma-stupid" before our users rip us a new one later this spring...

Posted by: Jared Teems | Feb 1, 2006 4:28:31 PM

Kathy, you need to go on a world-tour, where all CEOs are *required* to attend a 5-day conference with you, so they FREAKING GET IT!

This post resonates with me so strongly I want to cry. (Actually, almost all your posts do that...)

But! What can I, as a leaf node, do to help the person (<- singular!) in charge of making decisions GET IT?

Keep in mind, I've worked for this company for almost 3 weeks, and have only talked to the owner on the phone; never seen him in person. =/

Posted by: Rabbit | Feb 1, 2006 5:36:40 PM

Not *all* Rocket Science games were crap:


Rocket Jockey was pretty amazing, as was the Dick Dale surf guitar soundtrack.

Posted by: Jeff Atwood | Feb 1, 2006 6:47:32 PM

Creeping featurism is a symptom of the times. How do we change things? Rabbit asks the question perfectly: "What can I do to help the decision-maker GET IT?"

These issues are largely "undiscussable," to use a word Chris Argyris invented (See www.infed.org/thinkers/argyris.htm). He also invented the phrase "skilled incompetence" to describe how managers and executives can become so skillful in their communications that virtually any topic can be avoided. And, one last one, he uses the words "self-sealing" to describe organizations where people can't talk about what they can't talk about. I believe risk aversion is code for these dynamics. To break the code requires a different use of our intelligence and skills. My limited brain says that there has to be both an awakening of leadership (we're the leaders) and a combined social movement powerful enough to rock the institutions out of denial. Your posting is one great start.

Posted by: Dan | Feb 1, 2006 7:24:42 PM

I've subscribed to your blog yesterday and I must say it's outstanding, Kathy! You're one of us. People all around the world who 'get it'. Cool!

Posted by: Michael S. | Feb 2, 2006 12:00:15 AM

I think the spammers are reading your blog. For a couple of months now, I've been getting spam with subject lines like "71% of members got laid!" ; )

Posted by: Deirdre' Straughan | Feb 2, 2006 2:07:58 AM

it's hard to make those ppl get it.
Finding that "comma-stupid"requires honesty, which in turn requires putting aside the bs corporate talk. It's amazing how many people are stuck trying to make something out of bla-bla-istic mission statements, just because they are too shy to call things by their name.

however, as mr roy williams put it - the risk of insult is the price of clarity.

Posted by: Eugen | Feb 2, 2006 3:54:05 AM

I was researching an article on gender differences in design recently, which covered gender differences in approach (to touch on navigation design) and I was comparing to marketing advice as a way of sending effective messages. The most interesting advice was all about marketing the customer experience, not the company: why does the Revlon site have pictures of the bottles the makeup comes in rather than what it looks like on someone's face? You want me to remember what the package looks like? If you haven't sold me on how it will improve my life, I'm hardly going to go look for it!

Posted by: mary branscombe | Feb 2, 2006 4:15:59 AM

I'm one of the non-techie artist-types that reads your blog regularly. I was feeling pretty smug, since my major website's tagline hits on *exactly* my users' "comma-stupid" ~ getting noticed in a crowd. I don't make or sell pieces that are particularly subtle. But then I realized that I had failed on my newer site, and had slipped back into the realm of taglines that merely describe the cool product features! Shock, horrors, what is *wrong* with me???!! Gotta go fix that...like right NOW!!

Posted by: Cyndi L | Feb 2, 2006 8:08:56 AM

There is a great little exercise that I learned in the martial arts. I think it came from buddhism or a similar sect. It involves two people. One person is the questioner and the other the answerer. The answerer makes a statement like, "I want to make a great web browser." (or whatever). All the questioner does is repeat the listed benefit in a "why" question. "Why do you want to make a great web browser?". This goes back and forth for at least 2 minutes (can be extended longer).

The questioner must pay absolute attention to the answerer - it is an exercise in listening and focus for the questioner.

The answerer must answer each question without hesitating - it is an exercise in self-searching for him.

Unfortunately, this exercise finds out why *you* want to do something and not why the user does. I think it could be tweaked with adding "for the user" or a similar line to the question OR by getting a user to be the answerer. Either may yield interesting and unexpected results.

Posted by: BB | Feb 2, 2006 8:16:55 AM

Very interesting. I never thought of it in those terms before.

Posted by: Terry Mitchell | Feb 2, 2006 1:19:30 PM

"kick-ass" - oh dear!


Posted by: Wally | Feb 3, 2006 4:21:46 AM

I have to say the ", stupid" has been around in American culture longer than the 90s. I recall my Mom always telling me "Keep it Simple, Stupid" (KISS) in the 70s and 80s. Of course, applying it to other things is relatively new...

Posted by: Berin Loritsch | Feb 8, 2006 9:48:20 AM

I offer an updated translation of "KISS" - Keep It Simple & Sufficient! Albert Einstein is widely quoted as saying, "Everthing should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." (circa 1933)

Posted by: Ken Ritchie | Oct 19, 2006 11:25:29 AM

No doubt about it, Kathy and all, you are right on with the focus on an "I Rule!" User Experience.

"Effective designs should empower users and create a greater sense of control, mastery, predictability, and clarity." --Ben Shneiderman

Ben is one of the world's long-standing gurus of user experience and human-computer interaction. The quote comes from "Human Values and the Future of Technology: A Declaration of Empowerment" (his Keynote address for ACM SIGCAS Conference on Computers and the Quality of Life - Sept 1990).

Posted by: Ken Ritchie | Oct 19, 2006 11:37:25 AM

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