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Cognitive Seduction and the "peekaboo" law


Brains are turned on by puzzles. Brains are turned on by figuring things out. Brains are turned on by even the smallest "aha" moments. And despite what some of you (*cough* men *cough*) might believe, the brain is more turned on by seeing just the arms of a naked woman behind a shower curtain than it is by seeing all of her. So if you're trying to engage someone's brain, don't show everything. Let their brain connect the dots.

At least, that's what the neuroscientists say in the latest issue of Scientific American Mind. In their article The Neurology of Aesthetics, our favorite brain guy V.S. Ramachandran and Diane Rogers-Ramachandran describe a series of "laws" of aesthetics (they put "laws" in quotes) and how they're supported by what we know of the brain. My favorite--and one that we've been talking about (minus the festive name) for a long time here--is known as Peekaboo.

From the article:
"An unclothed person who has only arms or part of a shoulder jutting out from behind a shower curtain or who is behind a diaphanous veil is much more alluring than a completely uncovered nude. Just as the thinking parts of our brain enjoy intellectual problem solving, the visual system seems to enjoy discovering a hidden object.

Evolution has seen to it that the very act of searching for the hidden object is enjoyable, not just the final "aha" of recognition--lest you give up the chase.

Otherwise, we would not pursue a potential prey or mate glimpsed partially behind bushes or dense fog."

If something dangerous is hiding in the bushes, it's damn useful for the brain to reconstruct a complete tiger from just a few bits of orange and black peeking out between the leaves. Apparently it's all the little mini-aha moments that send messages to the brain that prompt still more searches and more mini-ahas until the final BIG aha where your brain nails it.

It goes on:

"The clever fashion designer or artists tries to evoke as many mini "ahas," ambiguities, peak shifts and pardoxes as possible in the image."

We're always trying to leave something to the reader/learner/observer's imagination. Something for them to fill in. (This relates to our earlier space between the notes post).

In my workshops and talks, I show a series of photos where things are not fully resolved... a face hidden behind a hand, a (potentially naked) woman staring intently at an object you can't quite see, the lower half of a young man suspended in air next to a tree, where you can't see the ground OR anything above his waist (is he hanging from the tree? on a trampoline? in the midst of an alien abduction?) To the brain, these "Hmmm... what's the story here?" images are virtually irresistible. The brain needs to figure it out, and enjoys the experience.

This applies to non-visual things as well, of course. In learning, the more you fill things in and hold the learner's hand, the less their brain will engage. If they don't need to fire a single neuron to walk through the tutorial, lesson, lecture, etc., they're getting a shallow, surface-level, non-memorable exposure of "covered" material, but... what's the point? Obviously this doesn't mean you just never tell them anything period. This is about graduated hints, mental teasing, cognitive treasure hunts, sparking curiosity, etc. Things that engage the brain. (This is part of the brain-friendly strategy we use in our books.)

Whether you're trying to get someone's attention, keep their attention, motivate them to stick with something, or help them to learn more deeply and retain what they've learned, leave something for their brain to resolve. Do something to turn their brain on.

[Disclaimer: this does NOT apply to something like reference docs, where you don't want their brain to become engaged. With reference material, I want to get them in and out as quickly as possible--with the accurate info they need--and where retention and recall is not a goal.]

Posted by Kathy on November 28, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (33) | TrackBack

Our book made it to Amazon's "Best of 2006" list


Amazon put out their "Best of 2006" lists yesterday, and one of our Java books is in the Top Ten Computer Books list (we're #4 on the Top Ten Customer Favorites right below Dave and David's Rails book). I'm usually uncomfortable making the "oh aren't we special" posts, but this one is an exception because it was my co-hort Bert who did most of the updates on this new Java 5 edition, and he did a wonderful job.

I think the only big parts I did were Serialization (which I've been head over heels for since they added it to version 1.1), and the new Generics. The rest of the new (300+) added pages were Bert's doing, so... congratulations Bert.

This is the fourth straight year we've had a book in Amazon Top Ten Computer Books list, but this is the first time a non-Head First book made it. Thank you so much to all who've helped support the book since it first came out, especially to all the folks in the Javaranch SCJP forum who know more about what we meant when we wrote it than we do! (and thanks also to the 220 people who put put up Amazon US reviews on that book. They DO make a difference.)

And congratulations to all the other great books on the lists... including Robert and Shel's Naked Conversations which was named to the Top Ten Editor's Choice list. (Amazon puts out two year-end lists, "Customer Favorites"--which ours is on (and I think is based solely on sales) and the "Editor's Choice" list.)

Posted by Kathy on November 28, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Monday Bytes

There's a fantastic post from Joel on interface design (but relevant to so much more than that): Choices = Headaches.

Also related to design, Ryan Fox sent me a link to Raymond's (The Old New Thing) post on why Yahoo is the most searched-for term on Google.

deviantART is sponsoring a BT and Thomas Dolby tour that sounds amazing. Even if you--like other people including me--weren't as fond of BT's last album.

Marketing stuff: John Dodds (Make Marketing History) has a fun little marketing minifesto. Inspired by this, Hugh is taking submissions and posting 500-words-or-less minifestos on his blog.

I don't have words to describe how much I'm loving my Tassimo. While it's not a passion (I want to use it, not learn more about it), it's the perfect thing around here. Everyone in the house gets exactly what they want, always fresh, within a minute (and virtually no cleaning, filters, etc.) I use it for green tea in the morning and lattes at noon. Wow. It's got some mechanical issues that are less than perfect, but we don't care... and it's inexplicably fun to use.

AKMA has a thought-provoking post about writing and teaching and graphics, and he points out a big gap in my "How to use graphics" post--I never talked about when and how and why not to use them. Generally, that's much less of a problem since far too many people error on the side of NO visuals, but done badly and at the wrong moment--I agree--graphics are a distraction at best, a show-stopper (i.e. learning-preventer) at worst. He's inspired another post for me on the topic of distractions... coming soon.

I never do movie reviews here, but I just saw Happy Feet (it's what the all-over-age-18 kids wanted to see) and loved it. While the story is one big cliche, the execution is breathtaking. The kids saw The Fountain and loved it, so it's next on my list.

A tablet computer from Apple would make my holiday dreams come true. Even if by "holiday", I mean my birthday next June. I've waited FOR FRICKIN' EVER for this.

Animal lovers: if you haven't seen the (poorly compressed) video of the recent Netherlands horse rescue (thanks Johannes), go see it. A few brave women rode/swam their horses across and managed to inspire the herd to follow. Although 20 horses died in the storm that stranded them, apparently all the rescued horses in the video survived.

And Shelley Powers wrote this post about a horse tragedy in Missouri, with a partly happy ending thanks to volunteers and an awesome humane society effort to save as many as possible. I sponsored two of them. (We have several rescue horses at our barn).

If you haven't seen the laughing baby video linked to by Liz Lawley, go see it now. Seriously. Now. Then just try to be in a bad mood. I dare you.

I'm deeply interested in Adobe Soundbooth, so if anyone has some thoughts (or more knowledge) about it, I'd love to hear it. I've been missing SoundEdit 16 for a long time, and Apple's GarageBand (and LogicExpress) don't quite make up for it. This looks to be the thing.

The comments on my previous "Web 2.0/buzzword/jargon" post are amazing... both insightful and fun, thanks to those who joined the "what domain uses these words" game. I have no idea what these mean:

Wild Woosey, Pamper, Zip

dufek, yard sale, sweep (although we do use yard sale for spectacular falls while skiing)

slot, graf, cq

cross, scissors, dummy
blue-dot, tin, PARS

and most intriguing for me, Diana's:
seeing, targets, faint fuzzies

Finally, Dare Obasanjo says my "ridiculously empty" post made him "question the entire human race", and sent him into a "pit of despair". I'm not paraphrasing, and no, he is not kidding or exaggerating. He hated it that much. I always respect his opinions, but I still don't agree with his main point that Web 2.0 is "obviously empty." If it were obvious nobody would be having this conversation, and Dare wouldn't be so deeply upset by it.
Which brings up another interesting point... why ARE so many people so passionate in their hate for a word they believe is meaningless? I understand being annoyed, judgemental, frustrated, surprised that people are using the term, but to feel it on the same level you'd use to talk about, say, world poverty or global warming... wow. The level of passionate hatred people have for the word (it certainly fits the not-in-the-zone-of-mediocrity love/hate scale) is a whole different story worth exploring.

Again, I may not be the sharpest tool in the Leatherman, but Tim and Dale are.

Thanks again to everyone who commented here and elsewhere. Clearly this discussion isn't going away anytime soon ; )

Posted by Kathy on November 27, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (26) | TrackBack

Why Web 2.0 is more than a buzzword


Many people hate the phrase "Web 2.0" even more than they hate what they believe it represents. No, that's not quite right... many people hate the phrase precisely because they think it represents nothing. Or they're annoyed by the idea of a web version number. Or they think it's "elitist." Or they're convinced it's so much marketing hype. But what if it's not an empty phrase? What if it's simply a way of representing a concept that some people DO understand? What if it's like so many other domain-specific terms that sound like nonsense to everyone else?

That doesn't mean zillions of people haven't abused the term for everything from sounding tech-savvy to getting a piece of the hype-fueled-please-god-bring-back-the-bubble-and-I-promise-I-won't-piss-it-away-this-time VC pie. And it doesn't mean that there's all that much consensus even among those who think they DO know what "Web 2.0" means. But to say it means nothing (or WORSE--to say it's just a marketing label) is to mistake jargon (good) for buzzwords (bad). Where buzzwords are used to impress or mislead, jargon is used to communicate more efficiently and interestingly with others who share a similar level of knowledge and skills in a specific area.

Part of the benefit of being "into" something is having an insider lexicon.

It's not about elitism--it's about efficiency. It's not about impressing others--it's about a shared understanding of specific concepts. It's about being able to talk about ideas or processes or even parts with fewer words and (potentially) greater meaning. If two heart surgeons debate the merits of a new medical procedure, I'd be lost. Hell, I'm over my head when the conversation turns to cooking. But I can talk about cantles and pommels, and I know exactly what topline means in the context of collection. And I can talk about recursion and dependency-injection and backward-chaining. Just don't ask me how to carmelize.

Dinner conversations around my house often are about one of those two things--programming or horses--and most non-horse, non-developer folks might wonder if we're just making s*** up. But if you took away our jargon, the conversations would not just be slower, they'd be dumber. We couldn't converse on some of the more sophisticated, complex, higher-level ideas about horses or software development. The experience wouldn't be as rich, productive, or engaging. Strip away the specialized words and you strip away part of why being better is better.

One of the biggest mistakes I see community builders make (however well-intentioned) is fretting over inclusivity and newbie-friendliness. They want the beginners to feel welcome, and few experiences are more daunting than stepping into a new domain where you have no idea what anyone's talking about. It feels... uncomfortable. Confusing. Discouraging. But in our quest to cut the jargon and perceived (or even real) elitism, we risk ruining one of the biggest benefits of sticking with it. Not only should we allow domain-specific jargon or expert-speak, we should be driving it! We should help invent short-cuts and specialized words and phrases to make communication among our most passionate--our experts--even more stimulating and useful.

If you're afraid of newbies feeling intimidated or unwelcome, by all means give them a separate safe zone. Whether the newbie space is the default while the advanced users have their own special area (site, forum, club, whatever), or just the opposite--the advanced users are the default and the newbies get their own special beginner area, the key is to not sacrifice your advanced users in an effort to make beginners feel better. That's a short-term benefit to the beginner but a long-term wet blanket over those who might otherwise be more motivated to move up the ranks.

So... back to "Web 2.0"--I'll admit that this one's trickier than most domain-specific phrases because it wraps many different--and big and ill-defined--concepts. But when Tim O'Reilly and Dale Dougherty (the guy who first coined the term) talk about Web 2.0, it represents something real and specific and meaningful. Over time, a lot of other people (especially those who've spent time around them, including me) have come to understand at least a part of what they've encapsulated in that one small phrase. "Web 2.0" may be the least understood phrase in the history of the world, but that still doesn't make it meaningless.

Think of all the other words or phrases that mean nothing to us simply because we're not in that profession or hobby. Pop Quiz: From which domains do these sets of words or phrases come from? (And hey, try to see how much you can get without Google.)

A) The flop, the turn, and the river
B) purlwise, stockinette, double-pointed
C) snowman, gimmie, duck hook
D) blowbag, escutcheon, gas cock
E) grind, fakie, bluntslide
F) abseil, hexcentric, friend
G) sente, tiger's mouth, "black is thick"
H) break, build, "train wreck"
I) vermin type, use-activated, swarm subtype
J) ruck, maul, blood-bin
K) HIWAS, option approach, DOD FLIP
L) clipping, phantom power, patch bay
M) flashback, freelist, Scott
N) Class M, dilithium, positronic

First person to get all of them gets a surprise.

[UPDATE: once you look at the comments, you'll see everyone else's answers so... watch for the spoilers.]

[UPDATE: OK, new challenge... since everyone guessed mine so quickly, I'd love to hear YOUR idea for a set of three words/phrases from some domain/profession/hobby that the rest of us have to guess...]

Posted by Kathy on November 26, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (83) | TrackBack

Rhythm method

Life runs on a pulse:
without that basic rhythm, you’re dead. 

What’s more, that sense of a beat measuring out time is intrinsic to almost everything we do, be it conversations, living our lives or learning how to use software.

A story that illustrates the point…

A few years ago, while studying the way teachers teach Japanese in a classroom, I spent a lot of time watching videos of language classes. If you’ve ever spent time learning another language, you know what it’s like—lots of drilling and practice speaking. It’s an essential part of class; you need to get good at hearing and saying different word forms and that requires a great deal of back and forth between teacher and students.

But as I spent hours doing video analysis of the classes, I ended up doing a lot of rewinding and fast-forwarding. As you’d expect, I watched a lot of Japanese classes go by on the video monitor in 2X or 3X real time. And I noticed that when you watch these classes fly by on video, there’s an amazingly regular pulse to the class. The teacher prompts, the students reply… the teacher prompts, the students reply… on and on.

Curious about this unexpectedly regular pulse in the class, I actually went through one of the classes and noted each prompt and each response, wrote down the timecode, then plotted them out as a graph. To my amazement, the back-and-forth of the interactions was incredibly regular – each event showed up as a regularly spaced dot on my chart.

I’d found that there is a rhythm to a language class, a regular beat to the back-and-forth that makes the class work. I quickly noticed in the analysis that anytime the pulse was disrupted by more than a second or two, that was when something had broken down in the class—a student couldn’t answer a question, or when the teacher moved onto another segment of the class.

Unfortunately, looking for rhythmic structure in the classroom wasn’t the topic of that research study, so I filed this under “interesting stuff to think about in the future” and pressed on with my work.

But what I found completely fascinating was the incredible regularity and structure of the interactions. Was this true of other kinds of interaction settings as well?

Years later I found Edward T. Hall’s book, Dance of Life, that pretty much confirms that observation I’d made. Hall’s an anthropologist who’s made a career out of watching how people interaction in time and space. In this book he shows how people not only interlock the rhythms of conversation, but also how they move closer and farther apart, effectively dancing in their day-to-day interactions. 

More recently, I’ve been looking at the rhythms of people doing search queries. Lo and behold, a similar pattern stands out… If you watch someone’s timing of searches, you can see striking patterns of when they post a query, how long they go between queries and how each day is similar to other days.

Although it doesn’t always feel that way, people are amazingly rhythmic in their behaviors, up to and including their use of software. This is a point beautifully noted by Bo Begole, John Tang and Roscoe Hill in their paper Rhythm modeling, visualizations and applications.

What does this have to do with Creating Passionate Users? It prompts me to ask you, dear readers, a question. What rhythmic patterns do you see in the course of your work?  Do passionate users have a rhythm that works well, signaling happy use? I’m interested in hearing your notes on the time course of events. Do you find people using software in an interesting repeating pattern? Just using something everyday is dull, but perhaps you see other pulses, rhythms and beats that go beyond the ordinary. What about it?  Is rhythm a good thing, or the sign that things have become mechanical? Is rhythm a part of a flow experience, or its nemesis?






Posted by Dan Russell on November 24, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (24) | TrackBack

Still listening


I know I said we should listen to our outraged users. 

But I didn’t mean we should ignore all our happy, contented users as well.  Nor do I suggest that we pay attention to the folks who like some features, but dislike others.  (Ah, they inhabit the zone of mediocre reactions!)

Instead, we have to listen to them all, then show good taste in figuring out which of the voices have value to them.  Sometimes it’s the screamers that make the good points about your product (no matter how hard it is to get over the emotional tumult of their delivery), and sometimes it’s the quiet voices with the critical commentary.

Let me go all Zen on you for a minute and suggest that what you--as  skilled practitioners of software / product / services / education—need to do. 

Listen while being still.

My previous post about listening to the screamers was all about how to set aside your immediate emotional reaction to their delivery and look for the nuggets of truth and insight within the scream. 

The same is true for anyone who’s willing to give you some feedback.  Listen without reacting so you can hear the valuable bits of what they say. I know this means you have to do a little emotional work on your part, mostly suppressing your own reaction to their reaction… but you can do it.  If Spock can do it, so can you.

I mentioned the value of hearing someone describe my early software as “white, male, fascist.”  It stung to hear that.  That was a great example of listening to a screamer’s voice. 

But just a few weeks ago I was doing a field study, listening to a user talking about how hard it is to do some kinds of web searches. "I don’t know," she said, "I think there’s got to be a way to find this, but how?"

This was a busy Mom with three little kids (one in her arm as we were talking), a dog and the plumber all wandering through the house. Even though her house was busy, she literally spoke quietly and calmly. 

Of course, I could tell her how to use an advanced operator, maybe show her the advanced search page.  "Ah.. that’s it! I’ll show her the advanced search!"  I think to myself, "get her onto the road to being a power user." 

Proudly I showed how with one click she could get to a page with all kinds of power search features.  Tools that I knew would give her exactly the skills and capabilities she needed to do an instant, precise and potent web search.

"Oooh." She said, upon seeing that page with all the options. It wasn’t a happy "oooh" either.  I looked at her eyes to see what she was looking at, and I could immediately see that she didn’t know what to focus on, her eyes revealed the truth as they swept from side-to-side, looking for something familiar.  There are a lot of features and options on the page, perhaps a few too many.

So I asked a very non-techy question: "Umm… How do you feel about this?"   It’s a low-tech but high-touch question. It’s deliberately non-leading and open-ended. 

And she proceeded to talk for another minute about how that particular page was "scary and intimidating."   What do you know.

I’ve never thought about a web page, especially a search page, as being "scary" -- but here she was, telling me that it’s a frightening thing.  Unpacking WHY it gave her that moment’s pause has been the most illuminating thing I’ve learned this month. 

So the flip side of the screaming user is the user that says “ooh” in a quiet voice.  Those voices are important too. Our job is to hear all the tones and semitones in what our users are saying, and be still enough in ourselves to be able to understand what it all means. 



Posted by Dan Russell on November 21, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

Don't wait for the muse


Yet another benefit of constraint-driven creativity is that you don't have time to wait for the muse to show up. And as film critic Roger Ebert told an audience of would-be filmmakers and musicians, "The muse never shows up at the beginning." You have to start doing something and trust the muse will follow, not the other way 'round.

I came across this Federico Fellini quote today, and it seemed to echo what others have been saying about everything from software design to business ideas:

"I don't believe in total freedom for the artist. Left on his own, free to do anything he likes, the artist ends up doing nothing at all.

If there's one thing that's dangerous for an artist, it's precisely this question of total freedom, waiting for inspiration and all the rest of it."

It's from a book I'm enjoying called Hillman Curtis on Creating Short Films for the Web (there's a short review of the book on Speak Up)

My favorite tool for creativity-on-demand is still mind-mapping. You start with that one circle in the center and draw/write as quickly as you can. The more you think, the less effective it is. You'll always find things on the paper you didn't expect... things you didn't know were in your head. But whatever you use, and whether you're writing, drawing, composing, coding, designing, whatever... just DO something. Or as Ray Bradbury put it in another quote from the book:

Life is "trying things to see if they work."

You can't try things if you're waiting for the muse to show up first. And if you want inspiration, it's everywhere including:

Creative Component blog

Billy Harvey

Speed of Creativity


Hugh, of course

Evelyn Rodriguez

TED blog

DIY Planner

Vera Bass

Presentation Zen

David Seah

MAKE blog

Brand Autopsy

Josh Spear

you didn't think I'd get out of this without mentioning Signal vs. Noise, did you?

Urban Retro Lifestyle


Creative Think

Cute Overload
[visit at your own risk]

... and about 20 gazillion more.

Please comment with any website, book, movie, blog, whatever that you use for a creativity jolt. Nothing is off-limits, and PLEASE don't hesitate to do a little shameless self-promotion if you think your blog or site might help someone else (just be sure to give us a sentence about it).

Posted by Kathy on November 20, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (54) | TrackBack

The Zone of Expendability?


In Don Norman's words, "If someone doesn't hate your product, it's probably mediocre." If playing it safe today is considered a risk in business, what about in a job? If all managers like you, are you safer than if some think you're amazing while others think you're the poster child for Bad Hiring Decisions?

My little trip back to Sun was a perfect reminder of this... during the time I was there as an employee, one manager would give me an award while another would dig up dirt for my next performance review. Marketing gave me a bonus (for having a tech article published in a major trade magazine) while another department gave me a reprimand for not getting all the proper approvals. One boss went out of her way to use the downturn as an excuse to give me the one job she knew I hated, while another used his remaining time to give me a ridiculously large salary increase. The thing is, through all of this... I was always the same person. In a single year, I went from best thing since canned beer to best reason for having a Prompt Exit Plan (otherwise known as the, "We're almost certainly going to fire you unless you do this [insert thing they know you won't do], but we'll give you the chance to leave quietly if you go now...].

I'm rightly and frequently criticized for celebrating the trouble-maker... for making the rule-breaker into some kind of hero. But I agree that just because one challenges the status quo does NOT mean they're helping. And just because one has bold, risky ideas doesn't mean those ideas are good. Sometimes a rule-breaker, non-team-playing upstart is simply... a pain in the ass. But too many managers appear too threatened to figure out whether their trouble-maker is the one person who can really push things forward, or the one who simply thrives on being disruptive.

There are no guarantees, of course. Especially now. But while in the past the safest move was to keep your head down and stay off any radars... being a good little trooper... that's no longer any more likely to help you keep your job. If you're on nobody's radar, you've probably got nobody defending you like a tiger to their boss. In either case, the freedom to push for what you believe in, and to challenge the status quo is a lot more stimulating than deciding to just not care.

If everyone is a lot more expendable today, and we ALL are "short-timers" whether we know it or not, we might as well act like short-timers by taking the risks we were too afraid to make before. It probably won't make us any less at risk, and today... it might even make us safer.

[Footnote: this seems to be true for students as well... like mother like daughter I suppose, but Skyler's report cards always made me smile when it came to the little extra notes each teacher attached to the grade. It was amazing how a single person--Skyler--could simultaneously be "a joy to have in class!" an "inspiration" and "disrupts the class" and "disrespectful", all in a single semester. Again, this is not the strategy I'd ever recommend, especially for a child who wants into a great college, but this kid has other plans for the world, and I can't say I'm not secretly delighted. Life... is just too darn short not to speak up.]

Posted by Kathy on November 20, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

The real culprit...


Just to set the record straight... THIS is the horse responsible for my current condition, not Andi. Poor Andi's reputation has been tarnished by my attaching his picture to my post about what Doug called my "unplanned acrobatic dismount". While Andi loves to buck and jump and run (hence the photo), he'd NEVER do that while you're on his back. Leira, on the other hand...

Leira is my new addition--a 6-year old Icelandic who'd had just 6 weeks' training before I got her (left virtually wild up to that time). I'd had her for all of three days when I got on (bareback), a stupid move. But she's beautiful, sweet, and... very very athletic. ; )


Posted by Kathy on November 20, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

How will Sun bounce back?


Sun's pumped out some exciting news lately... Project Blackbox is the coolest thing ever, their financial picture continues to improve (less loss is the new profit), and they finally FINALLY open-sourced Java. The new(ish) CEO Jonathan Schwartz is making good things happen at the top. But if Sun is really going to pull this off, they need more than strategic decisions, hot products, and new technologies. Focusing on the top of the org chart won't work unless the bottom gets just as much attention. Maybe more.

Why is it that so often the employees who have the most direct human-to-human customer contact are the ones who get the least respect? Customer service is managed by someone, but you rarely catch a manager answering a customer call. Customer education is managed by someone, but you won't catch a manager training a customer. This doesn't apply particularly to Sun of course--I'm just picking on them because I was--and still am--a small part of that story. And given that Sun is overall a great place to work, whatever problems I see there are likely to be much worse elsewhere.

In the Good Days, most tech employees were treated like the scarce and precious resource we were. Most of us knew it wouldn't last, and once the bubble burst we didn't expect things to stay the same. It was a tough time. But here's where it gets both weird and wrong, because after the bubble burst, we were still the same people who were there when Sun was kicking ass. We were still the same people who were so highly valued just a few month's before. Yet as things began to slide, and the layoffs began, we were magically transformed into people who were just "lucky to have a job and better shut up with the complaints" (one of my manager's exact words) This isn't about layoffs--they were necessary (and in Sun's case, still are). This is about how a company treats the ones who weren't laid off.


I was at Sun last week--in the Colorado flagship customer training facility--and noticed the "Employee of the Quarter" plaque still on the wall in the main lobby. I saw that there had been no new "awards" since 2002. What message does this send to employees? What message does this send to customers? More importantly, what impact does it have on customers when the employees who interact with them are no longer as highly valued as they once were? Actually, it's worse than that--in so many tech companies including Sun, many of the employees who interact with customers have been outsourced. (Sun now outsources most of its customer education)

Most companies don't outsource things they need to win a customer, but they have no problem outsourcing things the customer needs to use the product. Technical support. Training. Customer support. Most companies keep sales in-house but then have someone with no passion for the company's products--help the customer actually use the thing. (Just one more example of the huge gap between how we treat customers before vs. after the sale.)

If we want customer evangelists, we better start with employee evangelists. Having killer technology and a great team at the top is not enough if the employees--people--who have the greatest impact on whether the customer kicks ass aren't valued as highly as those who have the greatest impact on acquiring a customer. It's not about an "Employee of the Quarter" Office-Space/Dilbertish reward system... it's about saying to employees, "We need you. You are the people who can make our customers succeed or fail with our products." Customers could not care less about the middle and upper management of a company. They care about the guy who answered the phone. They care about the guy who configured their servers. They care about the guy who taught them to make Java sing.

Think hard about how you treat the people who touch what should be the company's most valued asset--the existing customers. In my perfect world, we treat existing customer/users with great care, and we treat the people who interact with them with even greater care. If a company like Sun and so many others wants to bounce back, they should put just as much energy into the bottom of the org chart as they do at the top.

[Personal update: my back is much better, I'm still on pain-killers--but much less now. I'm planning to start real work again Monday. So, if you're still waiting for email or a call... hopefully tomorrow!]

Posted by Kathy on November 19, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack