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Reducing guilt is the killer app


Formula for success:
1) Take something people are typically made to feel guilty about.
2) Let them off the hook.

Can't balance your checkbook? You're irresponsible.

Trying to rent an apartment when you have pets? You'd have better luck as an ex-con with no dogs.

Can't stay organized? Your online and real-world inboxes aren't empty at the end of each day? [puts fingers in the shape of an "L" on forehead]

Can't learn [HTML/Design Patterns/Java/Servlets/Ajax]? What's wrong with you?

Forget key birthdays? And you call yourself a friend?

Can't program your new [stereo/digital recorder/clock radio]. Geez. Even my mom could do it.

Skipped your last dental checkup? [Shakes head slowly side to side]

Skipped church for the last six months? [Shakes head slowly, gets that "your soul is so busted" look.]

You don't carry your cell phone with you? WTF? I tried calling you, like, ten times yesterday!

Behind on your email? Well...Jim always answers his within 24 hours. And he has a much more important job than you, and he's an A-lister. With three kids and a lovely wife.


One of the things that made me happiest about this week's ETech conference was the number of people I talked to who were creating companies (yes, some decidedly web two-dot-oh-ish) around products or services that would reduce guilt. Not as their main feature, but as a side effect. A natural consequence of what the software or service or system does for you.

I spent a half-day (during my tutorial) talking about ways to help people kick you-know-what, and how to get them there more quickly. But perhaps one strategy for creating passionate users is to look for the places of maximum pain--especially where the pain is often associated with guilt.

Help users revolt. Help them realize that perhaps their problem wasn't their fault. Struggling to learn these tough technical topics? Maybe it isn't you. Maybe it's the way these topics are taught (or rather, the way they are not being taught). Part of our mission with the Head First books is to let learners off the hook! To say, "It is not your fault. Traditional learning experiences (including many text books) are usually not designed for the best interest of your brain..."

Can't program your VCR? Don Norman almost single-handedly let us all off the hook with his book The Design of Everyday Things where it becomes obvious just who is really to blame. (Yes, engineers and designers, that would be YOU.)

Different people have different strengths. If you can take what others perceive as an area of improvement and find a way to minimize its impact for someone with that "weakness", you have gold. I'm not at liberty to mention the details of the start-ups I spoke with who were during this very thing, but I can say that there were several things I saw that I will be signing up for the nanosecond they're in beta. Let the guilt reduction begin!

[Hopefully obvious disclaimer: no, I'm not talking about things for which we may believe people should feel guilty about. I'm talking about letting people off the hook for the things which a particular sub-culture perceives as representing character "goodness", but which, frankly, is just a culturally-specific standard that might as well be arbitrary. However beneficial that standard may be, it will always favor the strengths of some and not others.]

Anytime you can find someone's "areas of improvement" and render those "weaknesses" irrelevant, you are doing way more for that person than simply offering a needed product or service. You are freeing them.

Now, could somebody please hurry up and make the thing that'll get me to run at least five times a week? And about my dreadful lack of cooking skills...

Posted by Kathy on March 9, 2006 | Permalink


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Tracked on Mar 11, 2006 12:37:32 PM

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Tracked on Mar 13, 2006 8:16:59 PM


I agree completely.

My favorite example of this is Pandora ( www.pandora.com ).

When you get a technical problem it gives you messages like:

"Sorry but we are experiencing a technical problem and our engineers are scrambling to fix it."

or my personal favorite

"Sorry, its my fault."

Instead of making the user feel bad about not using it properly it takes the blame on itself. Instead of being angry at yourself or the program, you can empathize with it. I mean, when is the last time a program told you that an error was their fault. Instead it usually gives you some cryptic message that only makes you feel guilty.

Posted by: Scott Young | Mar 9, 2006 8:32:20 PM

I think that image needs some punctutation. I read that as Apartment for 'Rent Dogs' Required. I shudder to think what that means...

Posted by: Chris Rimmer | Mar 10, 2006 6:39:08 AM

Okay, so now I'm imagining a canine version of the hit musical, only they can't find enough apartments for all the stars. Thanks, Chris.

Posted by: Scott Reynen | Mar 10, 2006 11:50:17 AM

Hey Kathy, running 5 days a week is going to break down your knees, ankles, etc. so I hearby let you off the hook for that.

See, wasn't that easy?

Posted by: Charlie Evett | Mar 10, 2006 12:09:01 PM

Scott: "Sorry, it's my fault" I love that... I just heard a talk by danah boyd on how some of the most successful online communities put up heartfelt apologies from one of the founders (like Stewart from FlickR) when things don't work. Not quite the same use-case as this blog post, but your comment reminded me of that.

Chris/Scott: ; ) Scott... now you have ME picturing those "Rent dogs", thanks.

Charlie: you're my new hero.
OK, 3 days. I can do that.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Mar 10, 2006 9:02:34 PM

"Instead it usually gives you some cryptic message that only makes you feel guilty."

Perhaps those messages were designed to make the engineers feel bad :)

Posted by: Romulo | Mar 11, 2006 12:03:49 PM

A great place to start cookin':


There are free sample menus on the site . . . enough to keep you busy for at least a month, if not more.

Thanks so much for the thought-provoking (and thought-INvoking) entries.

Posted by: Annalea | Mar 11, 2006 9:59:02 PM

I'm glad I'm not the only one who needs the running and cooking reminder solutions :-)

Posted by: Matthew Bennett | Mar 12, 2006 12:34:44 PM

We have the answer to your exercise woes. :-)

We're working on a solution, RunFatBoy ( http://www.runfatboy.net ) that is definitely about elminating the guilt.

You're not going to see pictures of people with bulging biceps or women with ripped abs. We're staying away from all medical terminology.

We're concentrating on the beginners; the people who have a hard time maintaining an exercise ritual. The interface is drop-dead simple to use. Getting started is as easy as answering a few "real world" questions (e.g. "I find it easy to walk up a flight of stairs")

Posted by: Jim Jones | Mar 12, 2006 11:40:02 PM

"...it becomes obvious just who is really to blame. (Yes, engineers and designers, that would be YOU.)"

...but don't feel *guilty* about it or anything, mmkay? :)


Scott Young said, "Instead of making the user feel bad about not using it properly it takes the blame on itself."

That can be refreshing, but overkill is definitely possible here. Example: when I phone customer support for my cable company (Rogers, in Canada) I get a phone-bot which is of average intelligence but also annoyingly over-apologetic.

If anything whatsoever goes wrong, it says, "sorry, my mistake," even if it was clearly *my* mistake. It will ask me to type or say out loud my 10-digit phone number and I'm not really paying attention and I give it my account number instead, and it says, "sorry, my mistake, could you give me that number again?" or whatever. Stupid. No one wants to deal with a sycophant.

It just makes the times that the phone-bot's apology is in fact warranted completely meaningless.

Posted by: James MacAulay | Mar 12, 2006 11:47:06 PM

Speaking of messages with heartfelt apologies:

I know this is kinda off-topic, but I'd have to agree with James about the "over apologetic" messages getting carried away. It's annoying to hear everybody saying "We're so sorry...our fault...we're so sorry" all the time.

It's not the "sorry" part that people want to hear. It's the "Yep, we know there's a problem here, and we're working our nerd-asses off to fix it."

Posted by: Ben | Mar 13, 2006 7:02:49 AM

I second that emotion. Nerd-Asses-At-Work say:

Don't like picking up after your dog? No problem! Pooptopia is for you! Easy as 1-2-Pootag!... with your mobile phone and we'll send a swarm of Poombas to the location of poochie's deposit.

Fed up with dog litter on your street? Become a Poogilante and reclaim your right to tread safety. We've got you covered.

While you're at it enjoy a video: http://youtube.com/view_play_list?p=3CCE79BBDBF97243
sample some slides: http://www.flickr.com/photos/blese/sets/72057594070547086/


Posted by: Aram Armstrong | Mar 13, 2006 7:46:42 AM

Have you checked out Good Eats? I'd never thought of it before, but Alton Brown is so CPU!

I'd be really interested to hear what you think of what he is doing. 30 minute shows focusing on just one ingredient. He starts with the basics (like the history of a food with a nutritional anthropologist), but makes sure you've got all the info you need and a workable recipe to kick-ass in the kitchen.

And his 'cook books' are organized by cooking method, which is so CPU, too!

Posted by: Dave J. | Mar 14, 2006 10:33:29 AM

I've always thought that was the whole point behind the "Dummies" books -- you buy those books with the guarantee that you can read it without being made to feel bad that you don't understand or already know about a particular topic (Whether those books succeed is another question, of course).

Posted by: jd | Mar 14, 2006 11:43:55 AM

James -- you are so right about the things that just apologize. But I don't believe that this is the same as "reducing guilt". If anything, in a situation like that -- it just makes me feel even MORE stupid for having to interact with the thing.

So I guess my feeling is that the best way to take the user off the hook is to simply make a product that does not make them feel guilty. Gee... that was insightful ; ( I may be too brain dead to put it any better right now, but what I mean is that if a product or service is designed in a way that helps the user kick ass in a meaningful way, the user won't be feeling guilty about "not getting it". You made great points, though, and I agree.

Wow -- thanks for the cooking pointers! You have managed to make me at least a *tiny* bit interested to dip my differently-domestic self into the water. I've lived in this house a year and I turned the oven on for the first time three weeks' ago (to make a Valentine's Day cake and... I had to make two to get it right. Forgot the eggs the first time; apparently they're not just an option...)

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Mar 15, 2006 7:19:19 PM

"...But I don't believe that this is the same as "reducing guilt". If anything, in a situation like that -- it just makes me feel even MORE stupid for having to interact with the thing."

I agree 100%. It isn't reducing guilt at all; I guess I was just pointing out how one particular avenue of guilt-reduction can be very counter-productive *if* you let it get out of hand.

I suppose I didn't make it at all clear that I really do agree with the post.

Here's a good example of this whole guilt thing that recently articulated itself in my head:

I'm in university, taking some computer courses and social science courses at the moment. One of my computer courses is a discrete math course, and it's really the only one that I'm struggling with; all my other courses are pretty straighforward for me.

So here's the deal. The courses that are easy for me are easy because I ask questions in class. I think that's pretty much it. I was interested enough in the material at the beginning of the courses in question to start asking questions, and because I was engaging with the subject matter on a deeper level, things never got too hard for me, and it always stayed interesting.

With the math course, at some point rather early on, things got a little too hard for me and I *stopped asking questions* for the very common reason that people tend not to ask questions: I was afraid of looking stupid. In other words, I felt *guilty* about not knowing my stuff well enough, and I didn't want to be "found out."

This isn't anything new, of course. But this school term has really highlighted for me the extreme importance of engaging with the material in this way. (Partially because my cognitive psychology professor has been so focused on telling us this very thing.)

Posted by: James MacAulay | Mar 17, 2006 8:32:25 AM

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