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Schrodinger's Products (ten ways to be desirable)

If a company makes a high-quality product, but user's don't find it sexy or appealing, does that product exist? Continuing our quantum physics theme, we did our own little "thought experiment" about that. One conclusion could be, "You have nothing until a user wants it."

(Shrodinger's Cat review)
[Update: trying to force this idea into anything remotely resembling real physics wasn't working, so I took it out. Consider it a very loose metaphor for this idea. A real stretch...]

So maybe that's a model for what our products are like. We make a high-quality product, but it isn't really alive/dead (hot/not, successful/unsuccessful, hit/flop) until a user finds it desirable. Unlike earlier days when there weren't so many choices and one could compete on features, product quality alone guarantees nothing. We can make a solid, bug-free, easy-to-use, feature-rich product, but we can't know it's true state until a user looks, thus collapsing the wave function. Is it desirable? Is it appealing? Is it sexy?

How do you change your odds? How do you reduce the chance of that "kill" trigger firing? It's tricky, since we already know that listening to users isn't the most reliable way to know we're on the right track. Perhaps the best we can do is stay more focused on the user's perception and experience than on the actual product itself. It's so easy to get caught up in feature lists, implementation quality, performance metrics, etc. and then miss the whole point. We focus on the trees, not the forest. We create a product that flawlessly meets a checklist, but that nobody lusts after. It's like the blind date your friends keep describing as, "Yeah, but he's got a great personality and he's smart and funny and..."

There's no denying the basic human fact that chemistry matters. Looks matter. Sexiness matters. Fortunately, we can define "sexy" quite broadly. The iPod is sexy. To a programmer, a slick, elegant framework can be described as "sexy". Some cars are sexy.

And if we're talking about desirability, sexiness doesn't always have to be in the equation. Things which evoke "good feelings" can be intensely desirable, even if those feelings are about having fun. Something that makes you say, "God, that's the cutest thing I have ever seen can be desirable. And you know I'm going to say it (Wally, cover your ears) -- something that helps you kick ass can be desirable.

So, back to the real question... what can we do so that when the user "opens the box", the wave form collapses in our favor? I don't know, but I'll throw some ideas out there and I'm hoping you will add more:

Ten ways to make your product desirable

1) Pay attention to style.
Aesthetics mean more today than they did even fifteen years ago. And don't be thinking that this does not apply to your product. Remember, this is like dating... it's not "selling out" to wear your good shirt on that first date, and first impressions matter deeply. For that cat, remember, that first look was life or death. (yeah, yeah, yeah, that was different -- radioactive decay and all that -- but I'm taking metaphoric license)

2) Pay attention to the emotional appeal.
Besides the product itself, this might include packaging, your website, documentation, anything that the user might see before making a decision.

3) Show it in action... with real people.
People are drawn to people. Brains pay attention to people. Seeing another person using the product or enjoying the service, whatever, is more powerful than just showing the product sitting there (exceptions are made, of course, if your product is inherently sexy and compelling all by itself. That's a little harder, though, for a software screen...)

4) Don't use pictures of generic shiny happy people that have become cliches.
I said, "real people." And use your most compelling testimonials. But... real doesn't have to mean unattractive or unappealing. Yes, we wish that people didn't have such a shallow perspective, but this is simple neurochemistry, and part of what makes us human is our brain's ability to seek out and respond to things it finds attractive. And many of the things that attract the brain (not necessarily the mind) are things it believes look "healthy." No, I'm not saying put a naked girl on the product page--that's way too unimaginative. But that doesn't mean it wouldn't work, unfortunately.

5) Make sure it's clear to prospective users how this helps them kick ass
The more obvious this is, the more compelling the product or service. Be sure the user can see a clear path to getting up the curve (if there is a learning curve), and demonstrate exactly how you will help the user get there. In this lifetime. This is where training and support really matter. But again, it's not enough to have good training, documentation, etc. -- you have to make sure this is clear to the prospective user.

6) Appeal to as many senses as possible.
Even if your product exists solely in software, use colors, shapes, and potentially sounds (audio is tricky, and a whole separate topic) to give users a sensation of touching or hearing something (heck, pictures of food may make them smell and taste something). Consider podcasts and video, or even song lyrics or poems. Think about rhythym.

7) Make it meaningful.
Give them something to believe in. Something real. I don't need to lecture any of you on ethics, so I won't. Something to believe in could be an approach to development, like the 37signals Manifesto, or it could be the charitable causes you support (and encourage your users to support), or it could be a philosophy that resonates with the user. (Watch the Sarah McLachlan Worlds on Fire video for inspiration.)

8) Make it justifiable, so the user doesn't have to feel guilty
We all make decisions emotionally, and rationalize them later. Helping the user with that after-the-fact rationalization makes it that much easier. Almost nobody makes a decision based solely on the hard, rational facts, but they are comforted by knowing that they "made a smart decision." Remember, even if your product does nothing more than help someone have a more enjoyable time, that's potentially a mental health/stress management benefit.

9) Support a community of users
We all want to belong. Products and services with affinity groups are a HUGE added value for users, whether it's the confidence of knowing you'll get technical help/support, or the joy of being part of a "tribe" we can be proud to belong to. (Make sure you give users a way to "show off" their affiliation--practice T-shirt First Development)

10) Never underestimate the power of fun.
Humans--all mammals--have a very strong play drive; it's crucial to our survival. Show someone how you can help them have a little more fun in their life, and you might be irresistable.

Remember, desirability does not necessarily mean we'll have passionate users, but it's a crucial first step. The more desirable the product, the more likely the user is to want to spend more time with it getting better. And it's the getting better and better part--the learning and growing--that is the foundation of passionate users.

Posted by Kathy on February 15, 2006 | Permalink


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» Schrodingers Products (ten ways to be desirable) from Tipstyria - Useful Tips from Around the Internet
Kathy Sierra at Creating Passionate Users has posted tips for 10 Ways to be Desireable. She asks, If a company makes a high-quality product, but users dont find it sexy or appealing, does that product exist? - and answers, You have not... [Read More]

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Love the blog. Very cool, entertaining and informative. I'd just like to point out that Schrodinger's cat and quantum physics don't work that way. In fact the point of the Schrodinger's cat thought experiment is to illustrate an absurdity when applying quantum physics on the macro level. I'm not doing this justice but there are many places to find more info on this. I just want to point out that it's not quite fair/correct to say that quantum physics gives a weird answer to the Schrodinger's cat question. It doesn't, people are misconstruing the point of a thought experiment.

Posted by: Watt | Feb 15, 2006 6:54:23 PM

Some influence by Guy Kawasaki, eh? ;)

Posted by: Rimantas | Feb 15, 2006 7:01:28 PM

"Some influence by Guy Kawasaki, eh? ; )"

Hah : ) we were there first...

Watt: So I'm playing fast and loose with the physics, I could use some more pointers on revising it. It's not easy trying to fit "passionate users" into a "quantum mechanics" model, but I was determined to try. You made me realize that I better rethink the whole Heisenberg thing I was going to abuse next...

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Feb 15, 2006 7:22:20 PM

Man, I have to show this to my husband! He's a particle physicist, and he doesn't think that what I do has anything to do with science!

Actually, Watt is right about Schrodinger's Cat, but even though I know that, I still loved the illustration...and more importantly, so will my hubby!

Go on, abuse Heisenberg. Please?

I double dog dare you :-)

Posted by: Cyndi L | Feb 15, 2006 8:10:57 PM

You guys are definitely applying Step 4 to your Head First book covers. The girls on the covers of "Design Patterns" and "Servlets" are the hottest programming women I have ever seen!

Posted by: Rich | Feb 16, 2006 7:50:58 AM

> (Wally, cover your ears)

I set privoxy to replace "kick ass" on your pages with some other phrase. Not sure there's an exact translation but pro tem I'm using "Kathy's Americanism which roughly means 'perform well' ".

Ok that's a thought experiment - but I could!


Posted by: Wally | Feb 16, 2006 8:08:22 AM

Interesting things here. I love the ideas on this site and use them exhaustively. Uh... about the Shrodinger's Cat. The way the analogy plays out, it isn't, "really alive/dead (hot/not, successful/unsuccessful, hit/flop) until a user finds it desirable." doesn't really fit the analogy. That's fine, but I think there is a big point here to be made. According to the analogy, it isn't until the maker of the product FINDS OUT if the product is desirable that the box is open. I think this says a lot about measurability in consumer satisfaction, which is near impossible to measure unless they are completely sold out and passionate about the product. That's the point, right?

Posted by: Paul | Feb 16, 2006 8:20:02 AM

I'm reading your checklist and I'm admittedly skewed right now by that inescapable "availability heuristic" in psychology that basically means, "when you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail." I've been immersed this past week in launching a project called "Grid7 Labs." I have to say I'm just now coming up for air and catching up on blog reading and I think we nailed each point on your list. Grid7 is a movement that we think will change the way people work together and allow everyone to "kick ass" in their own way. It's definitely the thing that excites me most right now. Check it out when you have a chance-> www.Grid7Labs.com


Posted by: Sean Tierney | Feb 16, 2006 10:57:25 AM

I've been wondering whether certain products, those intended to be en-calming, should *not* go in this direction....


Posted by: Bill Seitz | Feb 27, 2006 3:49:43 PM

If you think the blog is interesting, entertaining and informative, well you should see her speak. What a dynamo! (Happy "customer" from SXSWi)

Posted by: Lorin Rivers | Mar 22, 2006 9:21:51 AM

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