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How your product can inspire The Nod

Sit in a cafe with a Mac PowerBook, and chances are you'll get The Nod--that acknowledging, approving, knowing, we're-special look. MINI Cooper owners give each other The Nod at intersections. Display GNOME on your ThinkPad and you'll get The Nod. But run Windows on your Dell and you won't. (Never confuse the "I feel your pain" look with The Nod.)

To give The Nod is to recognize and appreciate another person who "gets it", whatever it is. The Nod is NOT simply a "you have something I have" look. I don't get The Nod when I wear, say, my standard-issue Nike Air trainers. But I DO get it when my SmartWool socks are spotted by another SmartWool fan. I never got The Nod using a Pentax point-and-shoot, but when I pulled out my new Nikon D200 on a train, another D200 owner on the train not only gave me The Nod, but greeted me like a long lost friend. I don't get The Nod when I wear a plain white T-Shirt. But slap a Parelli logo on the shirt and I get The Nod from other like-minded horse owners.

Carrying a JavaOne backpack at the JavaOne conference doesn't earn me The Nod... everyone gets one when they register. Why, then, do so many conference alumni use their older JavaOne bags? The ones from previous years? Because demonstrating that "I was here at the beginning... way back in 1997" earns The Nod.

Why do some things get The Nod but not others? And isn't it really the user that gets The Nod, and not the product?

When we give The Nod to another, it's NOT about the thing we have in common--it's about what having that thing says about us.

Maybe the message for us--as product/service creators--is:

It's NOT about having a remarkable product--it's about helping our users be remarkable.

The Nod is a way for one user to tell another:

"We're smarter."


"We're risk-takers."


"We're more indie."


"We've been at this from the beginning (unlike these clueless newbies)."


"We're more concerned about the environment."


"We're more fun."


The Nod means we recognize an attribute of the person who has that-thing-we-also-have... an attribute we value. In other words, simply by having/wearing/using/participating in this thing, I'm inherently assumed to possess intelligence, sense of humor, thriftiness, coolness, courage, independence, social responsibility, acquired taste, geekiness, trendiness, cutting edginess, sexiness, experience, expertise, or whatever that's linked to that thing. The Nod says "I acknowledge something meaningful about you." and could be as simple as, "You discovered the same little-known indie band that I did. We know something most people don't."

To help your product, service, or cause get The Nod you need at least two things:

1) The product says something about the person who has it.

2) There's a way for others to spot another person who has it.

I can't give you The Nod for being One-Who-Gets-It if I have no way to know--one more reason that Pride/Tribe Items like T-Shirts and stickers are so important! We are defined in some ways by the things we choose, and having the T-Shirts and stickers is a way to help express who we are to others. It's a way of revealing to the world a little of ourselves, and also a way to connect to others with whom we share that attribute.

Attributes that earn The Nod

We don't need to make cars or computers to have our users give The Nod to one another. The attribute (i.e. what having that thing says about the user) doesn't even need to be about the product itself. The fact that I use trash bags doesn't say much about me. But buying them from some obscure, expensive-but-environmentally-friendly company might (as long as I have the T-Shirt to prove it). Having an iPod doesn't say much about me (everyone else has one too). But keeping it in a cat-shaped case might. The important thing is that it's the case maker, not Apple, that earns The Nod there. Drinking wine doesn't say as much about me as being One Who Drinks Stormhoek might.

So we must always be asking, "What does being a user of my product say about the user?" If the answer is... nothing nod-worthy, we don't necessarily have to change the product itself... we can sometimes retrofit an attribute onto it through community, the values of the company, changing the user-experience in some external way (like improving user training and support!), or even the look-and-feel of the marketing.

Here's a list of some attributes that earn The Nod. Could your product have one or more of these? Is there a way for people to know?

(In no particular order)

1) Little-known Treasure
Surprise, delight, and approval... "You've discovered the same 'secret' I have."

2) Sheer coolness
"You're cool (like me) for having this."

3) Acquired Taste
"Most people aren't able to appreciate this. You're obviously one of the special ones (like me)."

4) Fun
"You're someone who likes to have fun."

5) Risk-taking / Rule-breaking / Edgy / Bold
"As the saying goes, If you aren't on the edge, you're taking up too much room. You're obviously out on the edge (like me)."

6) Advanced / Expert / Elite
"The fact that you have this means you're truly an expert, like me."

8) Smart / Intellectual
"Only truly intelligent people would have this."

9) Not Trendy, individual, more indie-than-thou
"You're someone who doesn't follow the crowds (like me), and doesn't give a s*** about what's popular"

10) Geekier-than-thou
"Like the joke says, there are only 10 kinds of people in the world... those who know binary, and those who don't."
(GNOME, MAKE magazine, etc.)

11) Highly-engineered
(Like acquired taste, only geekier. Few people would appreciate the elegance of the design/construction of this device...)

12) Socially Responsible
"You're someone who respects the environment (or some other cause), like me."

13) Wacky, crazy, weird
(Like 'not trendy', only... weirder)

14) The finer things...
"You appreciate the best... and aren't afraid to pay for it."

15) Cutting edge
"You're a brave early adopter."
(or a trend-setter)

16) Founding member
"You're someone who's been at this from the beginning, not like those newbies today who don't have to hike 10 miles in the snow uphill both ways to get something to compile..."
(This is one of my favorites... think how many people love to play the, "I've been at this longer than you" card. Do you have a way to let others recognize your long-time/alumni users?)

17) Rational, Logical, Sensible, Thrifty
"You're not like those idiots out there paying a premium for something just because it has a cool logo..."

One more time--The Nod is not really so much about having a remarkable product. It's about helping your users be remarkable. It's about your users getting The Nod--earning the respect of others for being a fellow user.

So, who are you helping get The Nod today?


Your ideas? Anything you'd add to the list of attributes that might get The Nod?

Posted by Kathy on July 7, 2006 | Permalink


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Apart from the Kathy Sierra fanclub t shirt?

Posted by: john dodds | Jul 7, 2006 1:14:01 PM

I'd say anyone who knows what point 7 was going to be would be worthy of serious nodding. Sorry - couldn't resist.

Posted by: John Dodds | Jul 7, 2006 1:21:17 PM

Belonging, but not to scary evil-eye-guy's club, that's not a nod :(

Posted by: ken | Jul 7, 2006 1:35:45 PM

Ken: Ahhhh, but if you knew what point #7 was, you'd understand his look (now if only I could figure out what point #7 was...)

John: There you go again... sucking up in one comment and cancelling it out in the next ; ) [thanks for the birthday e-card, by the way]

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jul 7, 2006 2:12:40 PM

I recently bought a Harley Davidson. That is another product that gets 'the nod'. Though I doubt i will ever get a double nod for getting off my harley and pulling out my PowerBook.

Also, I think the nod dissipated with ubiquity. The iPod used to get the nod, now everyone has them and unlike a JavaOne bag you are unlikely to get a nod for carrying a 1st generation iPod around these days.

Posted by: Jackson | Jul 7, 2006 2:35:18 PM

I am virtually nodding your Smart Wool socks even now (mine feel very nice, thank you).

What is the emoticon for The Nod? >-} ?

We drive a VW Eurovan -- not really a "cool" car, but when we pass somebody we always wave and they always wave back. Of course, we really want a Microbus, but VW is too stupid to make them here.

Do you think everyone likes to get The Nod, just about different things, or are some people just the "early adopter" types that like to be out on the fringe a bit?

What about when something that once earned The Nod begins to get The Smirk? Moving from Wired to Tired (did Wired magazine ever put itself in the Tired column... ?)

I'm trying to think of some examples of this, like an Australian Chardonnay, or my iPod Mini, or a Hummer, or a Dean for President button...

Posted by: Charlie Evett | Jul 7, 2006 2:59:46 PM

Jackson: "carrying a 1st generation iPod around these days."
But carrying a newton might : ) I reckon a first-gen iPod is just outdated, and without the vintage/retro/cool aspect. But I'd definitely give you the double nod for whipping out a PowerBook (even more for a black MacBook) on your Harley.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jul 7, 2006 3:00:18 PM

Charlie: "What about when something that once earned The Nod begins to get The Smirk? "
Excellent point! Oooohh and what about when you don't know the difference? I reckon that I've kept more than one thing way past it's sell-by/shark-jump date and what I thought was a "you're one of us" look was really a "you're SUCH an idiot" look without recognizing it ; )
Then again, getting The Smirk could be yet another "statement" of one's independent-I-don't-give-a-rat's-a**-about-what-you-think attitude.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jul 7, 2006 3:09:46 PM

The Nod comes in other forms.

'Back in the Day' when I imported a Beamer zwie tousand und zwie, before any of the TI models, we used to blink our headlights at one another. For sure the Porsche's did this, and for the prior decade (we're talkin' early '50s here), so did the Volksbuggy drivers.

By the end of the 17 years in which I drove it, other models had invaded, yuppies got invented, and 'huh?' replaced the blink!

Posted by: Marty McGowan | Jul 7, 2006 3:29:46 PM

white guys in the south who are members of the klan get the nod (one of the reasons i moved away from the south). so don't be so proud of it. sounds like just more class-ism, elitist behavior from people who need attention.

i could care less if i get a nod because someone thinks i'm part of their little clique. get over it and get on with you life.

Posted by: zeebleoop | Jul 7, 2006 3:42:30 PM

Flying first class can definitely get you The Nod. It is saying: you belong with us not with the rest of the pee-ons back there... I can only imagine the kind of nods one must be getting when chartering a private jet...

Posted by: Marian Crkon | Jul 7, 2006 4:00:14 PM

Marty: thanks for the headlamp flash thing... and for getting me to think about other Nod Variants.

zeeb: It's also simply about humans wanting to connect with other humans and "belong." One person's "clique" could be someone else's "tribe" or even "family." It's both human and healthy to want to discover others who are just a tiny bit like ourselves in any dimension. And one might suggest that inserting an comment about the "klan" in a light-hearted post about acknowledging someone's socks could be a "need for attention" (which of course I'm now giving you). Telling us that we need to "get over it"--and that you personally could care less--is itself elitist (certainly judgemental). That said, there's obviously some truth to your point, so I appreciate it. You could have made that point without being insulting, though.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jul 7, 2006 4:28:56 PM

Hmm, the article was thought-provoking, because I do believe that everyone wants to belong to some group. However, it reminded me of two things:

1. When my son simply HAD to be different, JUST LIKE ALL HIS FRIENDS. (Maybe the "get over it" poster sparked this thought.)

2. The South Park episode "Smug Alert," where the hybrid car owners were emitting dangerous levels of smug. While their air of superiority was a parody, it wasn't that far from some of the examples given.

Finally, I wonder if it is somehow necessary to highlight our differences with others in order to reinforce our commonalities within the group. (WE have the X, and THEY don't. WE aren't obsessed with material things and THEY are.) It's seems rare that we simply say "hey, I'm like YOU in this way" -- and NOT slam on anyone else.

Posted by: Lisa Guinn | Jul 7, 2006 7:45:15 PM

"Never confuse the "I feel your pain" look with The Nod."

I don't necessarily agree with you on this. I think that the thing that gets you the most sincere nod is "shared experience" and sometimes that includes "I feel your pain".

Cases in point of share experiences that gain you the nod:

- People that have never met but at some point of their lives have served in the same place (even many years apart).

- New parents. You never get a bigger nod (the "I feel your pain kind of nod"), that when two newly fathers/mothers with their strollers meet in an elevator with severe sleep deprivation. This usually leads to the big nod, it's kind of a communion thing. People who haven't been parents yet, are a million of miles away to understand and those of us with older kids have already buried this period of our lives in the subconscious mind.

I also think that common aspirations can also gain you the not in some situations.

Posted by: Angel Municio | Jul 7, 2006 9:25:59 PM

Something that might get The Nod is a variation on #16. Not necessarily about being a founder, or the one who's been at something the longest, but rather having played a part in a historical event. You were the one there - not your competitors. I've seen companies leverage that in their messaging. There was an ad for Plantronics (a telephone headset) that said they were the headset of choice for the first Moon Walk. Or, how about the Kingsley Baby Tee shirt that Shiloh Jolie Pitt wore in her magazine cover debut? Sure landed that brand.

Also, in addition to The Nod and The Smirk, there's The Huh (followed by period, not question mark, then a pause and thoughful gaze). That's when someone wants to give The Nod, so they appear in the know, but they can't quite get there.

Posted by: jring | Jul 7, 2006 10:02:09 PM

This blog definately gets you The Nod!! :)

Posted by: Suchi | Jul 7, 2006 11:59:50 PM

I bet whoever wrote this drives a hybrid and nods at themselves in the rearview mirror. What a bunch of tripe! I wish I was better than everyone else, but as I type this on my Dell running Windows, I realize that I am not.

Posted by: Greg | Jul 8, 2006 12:27:26 AM


It's all I can do to refrain from giving you Harley drivers the *opposite* of The Nod. Your idea of cool shakes whole city blocks and wakes people up at 3am, scares babies and animals, drowns out conversations, and is extremely rude at any time of day.

Harleys are a case where your passion is way too much of an imposition on everyone else in an 8-block radius to be socially acceptable. (It's not because of how you dress while riding, or your hair, or the bandanas, or because my passions are better than yours, etc.). It's the noise.

Now that you know this, you must either choose to remain belligerent, or go and have a muffler installed on your hog.

Posted by: anon | Jul 8, 2006 2:14:59 AM

Great post! Welcome back!


Posted by: Mark | Jul 8, 2006 9:07:48 AM

I can't resist to reply this once-again-brilliant post either for the excitement of having Kathy blogging back, but also because I think there's a kind of Nod surprisingly missing! (or maybe it isn't considered a current Nod anymore)

Either way, I will approach it with an example, if you don't mind, mashing john dodd's comment, It would be like:

18) The "Looser!" (aka the *L* hand sign):

You're someone (like me) who lives in a place like where Mrs. Sierra goes for hiking (meaning, sketchy wireless, almost total all-media-blackout, analog mode) therefore you will probably never have neither the chance to buy the fans club t-shirt nor any of her books, not to mention having her speaking here, so, you know you she rules, BUT, you can't get any! In other words, you want the product, but for whatever geopolitical reason, you will never get it, it's like the sensation right after reading the message "We apologize for the inconvenience but we're currently not delivering in your area" and you know that implicitly means "Sorry looser, we know you love us but, mmm, keep watching!" :D

Posted by: Nano Taboada | Jul 8, 2006 10:15:05 AM

Glad to see you back in the blogosphere. I know that I don't really get the nod from most of your blog readers because I am not a coder, I don't know what binary is, and I glean most of my technie knowledge from my own curiousity and willingness to click it till it stops working or does what I want. I am an educator. I read this blog because I think that education is in need of creating passionate users. Our product is quite literally our craft and delivery. Our users are an ever-changing net generation that seeks the nod in all areas of their life. I would venture to say that the nod is harder to get in the education world. I am loving this post and will pay homage to the nod on my blog with my own list of ways to get the nod. (teach2geek.blogspot.com) It may take a little thinking, but if I can make the list good enough, there might be a nod somewhere for me. Kathy, you of course get the biggest nod for insightful posts. Thanks for your blog!

Posted by: Brandi C | Jul 8, 2006 2:06:07 PM

Lisa: you got me thinking as well... it does seem like some--but not ALL--of the time, it feels like an us vs. them, and I put a lot more of that in this post than I realized. I reckon it depends somewhat on the scenario (and, in some cases, the gender of the person).

Many of the attributes on that list, though, don't necessarily fall in that category. I don't feel "better" than someone else for having discovered SmartWool. I do, however, feel lucky to have found it, and I'm always delighted when I find others who feel the same way. Although a big part of that, no doubt, is about getting confirmation/validation that I'm not just *imagining* that they feel better ; )

I agree that part of *belonging* to a particular group, no matter how many groups/tribes we're a part of, does imply some sort of *difference* from others. Whether that difference is viewed as a value judgement depends...

Berkeley's Danah Boyd has a whole lot to say about this--her main field of study is on social groups and especially what it means to belong to--and not belong to--a particular culture, ranging from a MySpace clique to the workplace. Thanks (and I hear you on the "have to be different just like everyone else" thing, having a teenager to remind me)

ANGEL: I guess I was using The Nod to distinguish it from The Sympathetic Look or whatever it is that--and you're so right about that--new parents give one another. Although in that case I'm not even sure they need to do anything--the lack of sleep on their face speaks for itself...

NANO: Awwww... now I feel bad. Where exactly DO you live? You have no idea the kinds of places I can turn up in, whether against my will or not ; )

GREG: I shouldn't have used Dell as an example, but I was being honest. And trust me, I SO don't get The Nod for my car (run-of-the-mill Subaru), but... so what? That still doesn't take away from the fact that I enjoy those little tiny "shared experiences" when they do happen. Even if it's for nothing other than my socks, it's still fun.

MARK: Thanks, I'm happy to BE back. (Although man oh man, being off-grid can be pretty darn lovely, and so de-stressing!)

BRANDI: I'm giving you a big Nod : )
Not everyone on this blog is a geek... it's just where me (and my co-authors) are coming from. But the world needs good educators a lot more than it needs more geeks, so I'm glad you're out there. Cheers!

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jul 8, 2006 4:41:52 PM

Hi Kathy, welcome back!

Hm, The Nod. It also helps to be part of not-totally-accepted-crowd, comic readers in Germany for example (though it’s getting better).
Or being an anglophile–it’s always nice to see a fellow Pratchett fan reading the original. But of course to be able to give The Nod (and don’t be misunderstood), you must have a book on yourself, same as with the comics, Doctor Who, Firefly–especially if you don’t have good access to fan articles :-(



Posted by: Jens | Jul 9, 2006 12:11:19 AM

The Nod == pure snobism.

Posted by: Berislav Lopac | Jul 9, 2006 1:25:07 AM

Inspired by this post, I just changed the ringtone of my mobile to the sound of adventure: the sound of the Tardis engines. I'm curious how many people will get it and how many will complain about "this terrible grating noise". And it has the added advantage that I will not confuse
my mobile with any other in the office anymore...

What a fun way to procrastinate on a sunny Sunday morning :-)

P.S.: Don't know what I'm talking about? Check BBC for the new Doctor Who series which just came to an astonishing series finale yesterday evening.

Posted by: Jens | Jul 9, 2006 2:05:52 AM

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