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Changing the user experience without changing the product

How nice it would be to craft richer user experiences... without doing a damn thing to the product. Usually when we talk about the hi-res user experience, we say it's all about helping the user get better... usually through improved training, documentation, opportunities to practice, etc. But sometimes there's a shortcut--where a single event changes the user's experience forever.

That's what happened to little miss MySpace Skyler at last month's Bonnaroo, a ginormous music festival with over 100 artists ranging from Beck to Cat Power to Bela Fleck. But the high point of the featival, apparently, was Radiohead.

We have some Radiohead CD's lying around--OK Computer, Kid A, Amnesiac, I think. But they weren't anywhere near the top of Skyler's list. She was much more interested in Beck and Cat Power than Radiohead.

But that's all changed now.

More importantly-- the Kid A, OK Computer, Amnesiac CD's...they changed!
Because of her experience at Bonnaroo, the CDs just up and re-recorded and re-mixed themselves. Just like that. And all because of a single event. Skyler now hears layers and unusual time signatures and extra beats and... on it goes. She won't shut up about it. It is as if by magic*, the music pressed on those CDs really did evolve.

In the coming weeks I'll talk about other ways people are giving users a higher-res experience, but today is about Live Events. But does it have to be live? There are obviously a zillion ways to host virtual events. But the brain guys (and most of us feel this instinctively) say face-to-face matters in important ways--ways not yet replicated by technological communication, so I think we should at least consider ways in which we can connect with our users (or connect users to other users, at least) in the old analog way.

If we want to give our users a higher-res experience, some kind of live event in the Real World might be a very effective tool. I don't have any special ideas, just the usual:

User groups (sponsor, host, support, encourage them)

Conferences (attend a conference related to your industry, and host a special event for your users, even if it's just a demo, talk, and then party)

Very low-budget "Camps"like BarCamp (Tara has a video up about "What Is BarCamp" here--this woman knows more about them--and has initiated more of them than anyone).

Road Trips (demos, free classes, etc.)

[* "magic" might not be that far off--I've attended enough festivals to have experienced the, ah, contact high.]

Posted by Kathy on July 8, 2006 | Permalink


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If Skyler likes Radiohead, she should check out Christopher O'Riley, who has done two "remixes" of Radiohead - he plays the songs on his piano in a classical style. Very nice stuff.

Posted by: Beth | Jul 8, 2006 3:51:48 PM

Hey Beth -- thanks for the pointer on Christopher O'Riley. You know... my experience at that wonderful Finn brothers show I went to with you (and thanks to you, since I wasn't a fan AT ALL before that) had the same effect on me as Skyler's Radiohead show. Remember that?

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jul 8, 2006 4:10:40 PM

Good lord Kathy!! Do everything you can to ween this poor Skyler off this hideous Radiohead infection - you possess the Finn Brothers anitdote and thus have the force.

Posted by: John Dodds | Jul 8, 2006 5:26:52 PM

Fascinating-- the second time in a week I've seen the same thesis: Sasha Frere-Jones wrote about having exactly the same experience with Radiohead in The New Yorker last week.

Posted by: Josh Wand | Jul 8, 2006 6:24:26 PM

Agreed, Kathy. I didn't go to Bonaroo this year (I went two years ago), but I can attest to the power of seeing a band live and how it changes your entire outlook...perhaps on the way you listen to music, or even your entire outlook on life, not just the band. Seeing Phish live at Big Cypress (their 1999->2000 New Years Eve shows) did all of the above for me. It's a true example of doing something so remarkable that most people will hate, but the people who "get it" will follow you off the ends of the Earth.

Posted by: Doug Rohde | Jul 8, 2006 6:35:45 PM

I had exactly the same kind experience with Wilco. but I didn't see them live, I just saw them play a few songs on Austin City Limits, but it completely changed the way I heard the music on their CDs. It came alive, I "got it", it made more sense, I took in more, just by seeing their live act.

Conversely, on the same evening seeing Bright Eyes perform didn't have the same effect, because his show was kind of hum-drum. I still like his CDs, but my understanding/enjoyment of them wasn't taken to a new level by seeing him live (but maybe he just had an off night or something).

Posted by: Benjamin Sternke | Jul 8, 2006 7:57:26 PM

Kathy you bring up a great point because a live concert gives a deeper connection between the fan and the band. The lines dividing listener and artist disappear and both parties become part of the same community that love the same music. When you give people that are already passionate about an artist, the chance to have even a deeper connection with them, that's when something magical happens.

Jewel does the exact opposite. She produces horrible CDs that are weak attempts at appealing to the mainstream, then turns around and gives simply amazing live concerts. At her concerts she plays music aimed at her 'core' audience, mostly songs that have never been released, and never will be, because they aren't 'radio-friendly'. But her core fans absolutely love them. I've said for years that if Jewel marketed her CDs at the same group that she promotes to at her concerts, she'd be one of the biggest musical artists on the planets.

BTW here's a great example of how PASSIONATE listeners can be for their artists, and when you read this, keep in mind that these concerts were organized over the internet in 1996:

Posted by: Mack Collier | Jul 8, 2006 8:04:22 PM

JOSH: Thanks for that pointer! Radiohead must be doing something quite amazing, although I couldn't get Skyler to define exactly what it was.

JOHN: Come on, tell us what you really think about Radiohead...
; )

DOUG: I didn't want to say it in the post, but Skyler did describe the festival itself as a "life-changing experience". Granted, as young as she is, she says that about a lot of things!

BENJAMIN: I agree that a live show can lower your impression of the band if it sucks, or even if it's just a straight recreation of the CD, only louder.

MACK: "When you give people that are already passionate about an artist, the chance to have even a deeper connection with them, that's when something magical happens." Well said!
And I had a Jewel experience of my own... I *hate* Jewel's music, and could not believe they had her at last year's Telluride festival. I had completely packed up my chair and tarp and was heading back to the cabin when she started and I had to turn around. She was the only artist I've ever heard there who challenged the show's mixers (who are AMAZING). That potential gap between live audience and CD audience can apparently be crucial... the story of what happened to Kenna is an interesting one. I'd been waiting for his CD for over a year after seeing the Hell Bent video (the animated one) and had no idea why he/it just disappeared. I was happy to finally get it, but didn't understand why it took so long until I read "Blink", which talks about what happened.
And thanks for the pointer to the article about the Jewel concerts. We can all learn something from that.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jul 8, 2006 10:27:58 PM

I've definitely had this experience at geek conferences. The obvious example is that this weblog is way cooler after seeing Kathy's presentation at SXSW...

Posted by: Michael Moncur | Jul 9, 2006 12:59:21 AM

The relationship between band and audience is cyclical. If the audience suck and are completely non responsive then the band suck as there's no energy to feed off. In my opinion studio albums always pale compared to a live gig. King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp compared studio work and live gigs as, "Which would you prefer, a love letter or a hot date?". The studio album is a calling card, "this is what we sound like in a controlled situation, but if you really want to hear us shred wallpaper at three miles... well you need to come to a live gig".

PS: Can we do an Anglo American trade. You can keep Radiohead and the UK will gladly accept Bela Fleck in return.

Posted by: Jason Bell | Jul 9, 2006 2:30:18 AM

mmmmm..... not always.

I recall a Billy Joel concert many years back (the trouble and strife is a big fan) after the Storm Front CD was released. The performances of the songs from that disc were awesome: high power, energetic, emotional.

When we left the concert, I said, "I don't remember songs on the CD being that good."

They weren't.

Billy Joel really, really needed to fire his producer, and capture some of the energy of the live show. Now perhaps the songs developed on the road, but I don't think so. The CD recordings were flat, lifeless and dull, all of a similar style, like recording them bled all the spirit out of them.

Posted by: joelfinkle | Jul 9, 2006 6:38:23 AM

Michael: thanks : )

Jason: Sorry, you can't have Bela. Thanks for Travis, though. And please PLEASE keep Belle & Sebastian. Locked away, preferably.

Jolefinkle: This is sad -- I've heard that some non-fiction authors have the same issue, where the publisher sucks the soul out of it. This idea of trying to make something more "commercial" (palatable? safe? formulaic?) seems pretty stupid. Maybe it prevents absolute failures, but it also prevents magic.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jul 9, 2006 8:11:55 AM

This post reminds me of myself in the 80's. Back then the group Poison was big, and a friend and I decided to make the trek to Des Moines IA to "Iowa Jam" where Poison was headlining. We couldn't wait to see them play live! Finally they got on stage, stumbled around, sung off-key and blew an amp in the first set. They sucked big-time. Neither of us had anything good to say about the band after seeing that, and would even switch the radio station when their songs came on.

Now that I've totally dated myself... I can translate this to today, to business. I can see where we can make-or-break our product by the vibe we give while we are face to face with the users. If we're arrogant or dull, or if we talk too technical and over their head, they've just had a bad experience. I also see it going the other way. If we didn't translate our passion for our product into the design, the people using our product see it as cumbersome or dull, and without even meeting us they decide we totally lack charisma and ability. They've just had a bad experience.

I guess we just need to convey our passion in every way possible - through design and during face-to-face meetings - so our users will "get" what we're trying to do for them. Now I just need to be sure our managers/'publishers' don't come and suck the soul out, huh? ;-)

Posted by: LanaB. | Jul 9, 2006 10:03:14 AM

The experience you talk about as a lot of similarities with what I'm living since I'm learning music (play it, compose, maybe one day record it).
For me it's the kind of experience you get when you are deeply involve with what you do. You have to love what you're doing to get this.
I don't know if it means somethings?

Posted by: Arcanum-XIII | Jul 10, 2006 2:42:45 AM

One note, the video on Tara's website was created by Ryanne Hodson.

Here is a link to her vlog:


She is an author of the book, Secrets of Videoblogging:


Just thought you should know that Tara didn't actually create that video. She just starred in it...

Posted by: Laura Moncur | Jul 10, 2006 7:06:41 AM

Great post, Kathy! (as usual)

Right on the mark. The only thing I would have changed would have been to put "Bruce Springsteen" on the spot. But that applies to many different things in life. Once you've interacted with Richard Branson and you get to know him, buying Virgin is obvious. Same with listening to a great speaker such as Al Gore and becoming totally passionate about his movie. The list goes on...

Keep on rocking in the free world,


Posted by: Martin Messier | Jul 10, 2006 7:59:56 AM

I had the same experience with The Presidents of the United States of America.

The first I heard of them was a live concert on the radio in 1994, which I really loved. The CDs never quite reached the same levels, they were ok. Quite entertaining but not played often. Then last month I got to see them live in Birmingham, UK.

The show started with the song that ended the 1994 show 'Video Killed the Radio Star', back came all the energy, charisma, and humour, and it was loud as heck. I fell in love with their music all over again.

As for how this can apply to other users/customers?

I have seen the "live" idea used very well, such as "Masterclasses" where a technology partner has sent a representative to show us (their users) real, concrete ways their product can address our needs.

This is particularly effective if tailored to the audience by getting examples/suggestions beforehand.

Posted by: Michael Howard | Jul 10, 2006 9:25:14 AM

To answer your question Kathy - Britain has been suffering from almost a decade of bed-wetting bands. Pretentious students (many from my alma mater) - play her the upcoming Thom Yorke single and she'll snap out of it real quick.

On a serious note, though, one of the factors that hasn't been mentioned is vocal quality - many recorded vocal performances have been digitally manipulated to a level that the singers cannot reporduce live and many live acts aren't playing live these days - certainly not in terms of vocals. Thus when you see a real live act it can be very inspiring but only on rare occassions these days. It's about authenticity.

And don't get me started about the anthema of stadia, outdoor and seated venues.......

Posted by: John Dodds | Jul 10, 2006 10:19:42 AM

That happened after I saw Ween live in college. I couldn't even really stand their music until I was coaxed into seeing them play a show. After that it all clicked, and I've been a huge fan since.

Posted by: Pete Jelliffe | Jul 10, 2006 12:22:54 PM

mmm I'm sorry but it just makes no sense to me. Live concerts are different from studio albums, just like a flower is a flower and a pot is a pot. It seems to me that it has more to do with empathy than with anything else or that you may be REALLY listening to that music for the first time.


Posted by: Lautreamont | Jul 10, 2006 10:26:09 PM

I have had very similar experience last weekend when one friend of mine introduced me to Kevin Blechdom ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6WcRJQzoGw&search=kevin%20blechdom ). And I mean this - if I would have listened to it unprepared I would have just thought: Oh, strange... primitive...

But when my friend told me - Listen! Casio pop and the Pet Shop boys are there and all sort of other stuff, beautifully mixed and merged... Oh, I was helluva 45 minutes! I remeber saying: "The Mozart is back! at one moment."... Yeah, we were stoned a bit, OK... but that does not change my point :)

Posted by: Jan Korbel | Jul 12, 2006 9:20:49 AM

The same effect can also happen when viewing a good music video. Especially, when one is not able to see the band in concert.

I had heard the song Dance, Dance by Fallout Boy on the radio and was intrigued. But, when I saw their video of the same song, which highlighted their infectious humour and personalities, I was hooked. I bought the CD and was not disappointed. The whole album lived up to that video.

Posted by: Mary-Anne | Jul 13, 2006 3:48:57 AM

On a tangent - a personal example of changing the experience without changing the product: I was given a pair of Bose noise cancelling headphones (long story, to do with frequent travel and an upstairs neighbor with a penchant for late night laundry cycles).

While listening to my portable media player with these things, I realized why Bose calls them "a sanctuary or a concert hall" - I heard things in the music I'd never heard before! It was spectacular; I drowned in subtelties, gurgling with delight the whole way down. Needless to say, I subsequently had to work my way through every last song in my Media Player library, lost in a world of breathless discovery and delight with every track. Blissfull :)

Posted by: Peach | Jul 13, 2006 12:48:13 PM

I had the opposite experience when I first saw Jewel perform life on Letterman many many years ago. (I was in the audience, from a spontaneous visit to NYC, just to see her live!) I used to love her music. Always turned up the radio when her hits came on, bought her CD. I was exciting she was going to be on the show. I went to NYC and got in the audience cuz she was going to be on! But when she came on ... "who the heck is this hack?" The music was on tempo and in tune, but she was not.

I have never bought one of her releases since that night, cuz I keep thinking of that awful performance. She let me down to such a level, I can't keep from thinking "Will this money be wasted? Might it suck like she did that night?" I have not heard her on the radio as much as I did before that fateful night. So chances are my cause for pause is shared by Infinity and Clear Channel. :-)

On the other hand, I have seen Sheryl Crow and Sarah McLachlan live (not together at the same venue, but on separate occassions,) and totally love their shows, and own all their CDs.

I'm also old enough to have listened to Crosby, Stills, and Nash's stuff when it was new. And then it became Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and I hated Neil Young with a passion. How can they let that ass, who can't sing to save his life, join them and ruin their melodies?

I missed the forest for the trees, not able to appreciate the beautiful lyrics because I couldn't dig the singer. But since then, I think Neil Young is one of the best live performers I have ever seen. I own all his new releases from the last four years, both DVDs and CDs.

I still can't stand his stuff from when I was young. All I can think is "He ruined CSN." :-)

So maybe there's a second chance for Jewel, if she can clean up her live act? Who knows. I've been surprised before.

Posted by: PJ Cabrera | Jul 17, 2006 6:59:01 PM

You know, that whole entry would have been much better on my blog, my LJ, or even my MySpace. :-) Feel free to delete it (and this) if it detracts from the point of your post.

I think a lot of us "missed the forest for the trees" (again) and posted about our musical event experiences and forgot the point about creating passionate fans for our products and services. But be sure we come here to read your posts for their actual content, even if we comment with loony "missed the point" stuff. ;-)

Posted by: PJ Cabrera | Jul 17, 2006 7:10:24 PM

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