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Why "duh"... isn't.


Critics of this blog love to say, "Duh!" or "Thanks for stating the obvious." My response is, "While the idea is dead obvious--the problem is that we don't do the obvious." When I hear comments like, "You wasted all that space to say, "Care about your customers", I wonder why we don't. Or rather, I wonder why we all say we care about them, yet our actions reflect a more selfish view. When it comes to our users/customers...

I don't think they think what we think they think.

It's similar to all those other statistics you hear about, like that way more than 50% of the population rate themselves "Above Average" in everything from looks to smarts. We think our customers generally love us, although of course we're not perfect, but then... who is? Sure we have a few issues, but we're working on it. And besides, we're so much better than the competition.

When we first came out with the Head First books, and talked about brain-friendly learning principles, people said, "Duh. There's nothing new here." And we said, "Of course not. We didn't invent anything. We just applied it. And if implementing these principles were truly "duh" (which they should be), then everyone would be doing some variation of it, and readers/learners would not be struggling to learn tough technical topics.

If helping your users kick ass were truly "duh", then our users wouldn't feel frustrated, confused, angry, stupid, humiliated, or furious. If writing good user manuals were truly "duh", then there'd be no acronym for RTFM.

This is no different from any other part of our lives, of course. Eating healthy is a "duh." Exercising five times a week is a "duh." Saving money is a "duh." Keeping our kids off TV is a "duh." Flossing is definitely "duh." Managing stress is a "duh." Greeting your significant other and kids with a smile and full attention is a "duh." Empowering our employees is a "duh." Changing the oil is a "duh." Being on time is a "duh." And I might as well end this paragraph with a totally lame cliche:
There's a big difference between saying, "Eat an apple a day" and actually eating the apple.

If "duh" is so damn obvious, why aren't we DOING it? (I say "we" because I'm just as guilty) More importantly, why do we drastically overestimate the extent to which we are doing "duh" things?

There are too many reasons to list, and many I hope you'll add, but a few highlights include:

Downplaying the importance
Denial (we think we are)
Fear of change
Too risky
If the competition isn't doing it, why should we?
Ego (making a change means admitting you weren't doing something right)

But I think the most important one is that we never actually take the time to really think about the "duh" thing. I try to ask people, "Sure, taking care of the customer yada yada yada is "duh", but what would it actually mean if you really REALLY did it? Stop. Think. Deeply. How much of what you do might feel like it's for the customer... or you tell yourself that story, anyway... but it's more about what's good for you? What would it mean if you took the "duh" thing and spent one hour--just ONE hour--brainstorming what that really means?

When people ask for the secret sauce guaranteed recipe for success, we say that it's quite simple: just do the "duh" thing. The Big Secret is not about knowing what magical thing to do--it's about taking the "duh" things seriously enough and actually doing them. If you could pick just one "duh" thing to work on, what would it be?

And yes, this post is one big "duh." A "meta-duh", if you will. ; )

What are your thoughts?

[Update: In comments to this recent post on Tara's blog, Martin Wells said something similar:
"And readers continue to buy into the idea that if they can just somehow find the right formula -- the "secret" -- they'll succeed.

The irony is most of the books are right, it's just a matter of applying all that knowledge correctly and intelligently."]

Posted by Kathy on September 7, 2006 | Permalink


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Word Kathy. Your apple example got me thinking about habits. I think our brains trick us when we are dealing with habits. We are soo focused on doing something right/correctly that we miss the hard part which is...to perform an action repeatedly. We don't think actively about the barriers our brains raise that make it hard to create a habit.
We need lots of continuous motivation and inspiration to perform an action regularly. We also need to lower and eliminate barriers to perform an action regularly.
Our brains misdirect our attention so that we focus on the easy part, how to perform an action, and miss the hard part, performing the action (any action really) regularly.

Posted by: Rikard Linde | Sep 7, 2006 1:40:22 PM


I agree that we are not viewing the products in the same way as the users. I believe that one big reason for this is that we have much more context than they do. We simply know a lot about the subject and the product. Things makes sense to us because we've been pounding on them for so long.

On the other hand users do not have the same amount of knowledge of the product and are not willing or simply are not able to invest substantial amount of time.

Thus there is always a gap between us and them. The trick is to think how the user thinks. I've been told this many many times, but I can't really do it.


Posted by: Alex Iskold | Sep 7, 2006 1:46:00 PM

I ponder this very topic from time to time. People want magic. For example, people want mental telepathy so they can chat with their friends. Well, duh, pick up a phone! People find it amazing when a magician bends spoons with their mind, or lights a candle with a thought. But, if really could light a candle with enough effort and concentration, wouldn't it really be easier to just light a match?

What people really want is effortlessness. They want what they want when they want it, and without having to do anything. duh

Sure, it's duh to eat healthy. But when you ask your brain's bean counter what to do, it says, "hmmm... bacon or oatmeal... DUH!" You do what works for you, you do what gives the most return for effort. Bacon is more pleasing than oatmeal, and the mere acting of eating it doesn't kill you. No bolt of lightning strikes you down, your stomach doesn't shrivel up in knots. In other words, it tastes great, and doesn't have ill effects short-term. (Other than your spouse glaring at you.)

For most companies, customer satisfaction isn't a goal, it's overhead. The goal is to make a profit. If the customer is actually happy, that's just icing on the cake. Do music companies really want to make great music? Do they want happy fans? Or do they just want to sell CD's that are sealed, double-wrapped and often booby-trapped?

Posted by: Dave Goodman | Sep 7, 2006 2:00:39 PM

Well duh! Often the difference between a good business and a great one is the execution! Great post!

Posted by: Jeffrey Summers | Sep 7, 2006 3:14:43 PM

Knowing the duh is one thing. Understanding the duh is the part that most people don't do.

'...talked about brain-friendly learning principles, people said, "Duh. There's nothing new here."'
Except there was. Saying "brain-friendly learning principles" is the easy bit. Understanding what that actually means - and how to translate it into reality - is the hard part.

Knowing the duh is not enough. Merely understanding up to the level of the duh is not enough either. To actually do the duh means that you have to really "get" the duh.

Posted by: omni | Sep 7, 2006 5:33:29 PM

This morning on the radio they were playing this game where they would take turns calling the customer service lines for various different companies and see who could get through to a live person the fastest. Of course, they would always have to make their way through those insane menus we all know and love, only to be put on hold for eternity listening to Musak and the Soothing-Female-Voice repeating over and over "Your call is very important to us. Please hold..."

When you make me spend an eternity navigating a phone menu and then ship my call to India where I have to wait another eternity to speak to someone who's job description involves getting me off the phone as quickly as possible, it's obvious that neither I nor my call are important to you.

Posted by: Jacob | Sep 7, 2006 5:48:42 PM

I'd like to add a reason to your list that I'm surprised you didn't include, given the title of this very blog:

- Apathy.

Users don't care enough to find out how do most easily do a repetitive task, or they don't care enough to do it properly, or at all, when they DO know how. (Our building's recycling bin has a large sign that says "no junk food wrappers," but it's closer to the parking lot than the garbage dumpster, so it's where the junk food wrappers go.)

Companies don't care enough to give good support or proper documentation. Sometimes they don't even care about their product. (I once contracted at a company whose "product" was a rebadged licensed version of another company's existing product, with no reason for existing other than to try and attract venture capital and make the executives some money.)

I might go as far as to say that most of the reasons in your list are masks for simply not caring enough to find out/do it right/fix it.

In the end, though, we find out that who cares, wins. People who are passionate succeed. Companies who are passionate thrive. Those who lack passion are doomed.

Posted by: Michael | Sep 7, 2006 6:25:55 PM

You have critics? Duh!

Posted by: John Dodds | Sep 7, 2006 7:11:56 PM

The obscure we see eventually. The completely obvious, it seems, takes longer. ~ Edward R. Murrow

The more original a discovery, the more obvious it seems afterwards. ~ Arthur Koestler

It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious. ~ Alfred North Whitehead

The great discoveries are usually obvious. ~ Philip Crosby

Do you know what makes a man a genius? The ability to see the obvious. ~ Charles McCarry

We must care to think about the unthinkable things, because when things become unthinkable, thinking stops and action becomes mindless. ~ James W. Fulbright

Thanks for making us think about the obvious things, Kathy.

Posted by: Marc Peabody | Sep 7, 2006 8:30:12 PM

I like the serendipity of this: how your question of why people don't do 'duh' things ties in neatly with Guy's latest post on why smart people do dumb things:


Posted by: Alvin | Sep 7, 2006 9:36:22 PM

People that say "duh" to this blog are terminally brain dead and should be milled down and made into bookshelves. The only thing that is painfully obvious is the quality that comes from this site (near) daily.

Posted by: lincoln | Sep 7, 2006 9:45:54 PM

Dear Kathy, as usual your post makes sense. As you write, what is difficult is to actually do things. Please keep up this very good blog. BR, Lionel

Posted by: Lionel | Sep 8, 2006 12:59:23 AM


Loved the post, and what you said is so true.

I would like to add this thought. Sometimes the "duh" is obvious but contrary to what everyone else in the industry is doing. A lot of companies will follow along behind each other, which is why you get vastly similar product literature, user manuals and such.

I'm a Marketing Director, and I fight every day to be really different, not just a little different. That means dealing with the "duh" items and figuring out what they really mean, and then addressing those issues, not just following the herd. It is more scary and risky than just being one of the crowd, but I'm confident the payoff will be bigger.

Posted by: Kristine Shreve | Sep 8, 2006 6:48:14 AM

Here's one more... writing a "Creating Passionate Users" book is a "duh". ;-)

Great post Kathy! I think Dave Goodman is on the right track when he suggests that it is our brain's fault that we don't get the "duh". As you said a couple of years ago, "in so many ways, Your Brain Is Not Your Friend." Apparently our "crap filter" keeps a lot of these "duhs" out. If I eat that triple cheese burger I'm not going to die. If I exercise it won't help me earn a better living and will probably just cause pain. And so on.

Posted by: Steve Akers | Sep 8, 2006 6:58:34 AM

It's kind of like how I say "duh" after every post you make to creating passionate users...

It's not duh in the sense of "that was totally obvious". It's more of a "duh" in the sense of "why didn't I think of that?".

Genius is not defined by the ability to break down barriers. Genius is defined by the ability to point out the obvious things that everyone else has overlooked; to see into the cracks of the sidewalk if I were to put it metaphorically.

Keep up the obviously good work. ;)

Posted by: Jimmy | Sep 8, 2006 8:32:18 AM

I think in most cases, it's a denial thing. I also think people have genuine blind spots, fueled by a self-centered perspective.

It makes sense to us, so why wouldn't it make sense to other people? It works for us, so why not other people? It's very easy to assume that your thoughts and actions are just like everyone else's, but when you're "close" to the thing (i.e. you designed or built it), your perspective is the most skewed of anyone's.

Posted by: Lara | Sep 8, 2006 8:46:42 AM

Kathy - this is great. It reminds me of a pet peeve, which is that sites/applications/software/help/manuals always focus on what they DO rather than what they DON'T do.

I am always refreshed when I search for something in help, and find a brief topic that says something to the effect of "no you can't do that".

Posted by: Scott Mark | Sep 8, 2006 9:26:33 AM

Couldn't agree more. Think it's scary how often people (I would include myself here) ignore or forget the truth that is staring them in the face.

So keeping on stating the blindingly obvious please!! It's why I link to so many of your posts. It's stuff that needs to be said. Again amd again.

Posted by: Jon Howard | Sep 8, 2006 10:07:13 AM

Just a quick thought on the whole notion of stating the obvious being somehow a bad thing. There's a quote I like from George Orwell on the subject (despite its unfortunate gender bias). It goes like this:

"Sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious."

Posted by: John Ounpuu | Sep 8, 2006 11:24:01 AM

I agree.

It's similar to the healthcare situation that we have now, where doctors are treated with so much respect because they are able to cure people of certain disorders, diseases, or injuries that people brought upon themselves. Doctors fix a problem, and the result is measurable. If, on the other hand, you could devise a profession that actually helped people, against their will, PREVENT these things from occurring in the first place, that would be a profession perhaps worthy of more respect than are doctors.

But, it's such a huge task to change minds and opinions. Anybody who can change minds and opinions for the better is contributing more than someone who cleans up the mess after the fact; the former is much more difficult to do, likely in part because it's so clear or obvious what needs to be done, but few are able to convert the knowledge of what needs to be done into action. You'll always run into, "but we already know that". Combined that with the fact that many people will wholeheartedly agree with you on something and then turn around and go back to the opposite status quo, and you have the further problem of never knowing if you've made an impact. When you realize that no impact was made, you have to repeat your former effort, hopefully with some additional information learned from the previous, but failed, attempt.

Even if it is terminally impossible to change minds until the mind discovers that change by itself, you are planting enough seeds that will make the change more effective when it does occur.

I don't think you're wasting anyone's time.

Posted by: mattbg | Sep 8, 2006 11:52:56 AM

Related and referenced blog at

Posted by: Anon. | Sep 8, 2006 4:16:46 PM

Seems to me that it's the people who view themselves as "experts" in something, are also the ones who claim "duh" the most often.

We'd all be better off if our self perceptions were more child-like. I have yet to hear my 5-year-old say "duh". I'm sure it's coming in his early teen years.

But that only proves my point because by then, he'll probably feel like he knows everything anyway. :)

Posted by: David Armano | Sep 8, 2006 8:06:13 PM

Forget the critics. There are always people with nothing better to say than "nothing new."

Posted by: jonas | Sep 10, 2006 10:25:22 AM

There is a certain value in humility, in listening, in not thinking you've got these woefully simple users all figured out b/c you're so super smart. -A certain value in regularly becoming a "Freshman".

-Also, the old "A-Day-In-The-Life-Of" exercise, done with honesty can truly be revelatory. But you have to be humble enough to really listen, to seek Truth instead of ego-inflation. ("Truth is beauty...")

Psychology is a mirror that shows us how blind we are to ourselves. I'm sure there is a corollary type of blindness when we look outwards.

Almost all predator Vision systems are trained to notice movement, difference (and sometimes, old patterns). I'm sure there is also an analog for common hard-wired Thought patterns.

-The Obvious, the "Duh" is not moving and not different. Only those who are persistent, omnivorous and sophisticated can see it; (you don't find the grail, the grail finds you). Most others pass it by like the T-Rex in "Jurassic Park"

Posted by: Will | Sep 10, 2006 8:28:10 PM

One of your greatest ideas (and also one of the latest) was to make manuals like you make leaflets, caring about the presentation and looks of them. I thought that idea just great and, to tell you the truth, it had never crossed my mind.

Several milenia ago, I was in a theater group and, one day, we tried to make an improvisation act with 15 people on it. Our rehersal (is that the name of the persone who orients us in theater?), after that, explain to us why a 15 persone improvisation was almost impossible to make, even for seniour professional actors, the action would become to spread and there would come out several sub stories making it impossible for the audience to follow them all. Out lifes are pretty much an improvisation and, there are a lot more than 15 people involved so, having someone puting us "back on focus and making us take the story to it's logical conclusion" (the exact advice of the theater teacher) is a very good thing in my book.

A company can't live without customers so, customers are the most important part of a company's (eco)system. It is they who deserve our focus and, our story with them will be taken to it's logical conclusion, always, either with us or our competitors in the main role / argument writter.

Posted by: Jaime Cardoso | Sep 11, 2006 6:54:47 AM

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