« Two more words that might change your life (or at least your lunch hour) | Main | Tech t-shirts aren't sexy enough »

Become the thing that replaces you


I asked Little Miss MySpace what happens when something new comes along... when someone else makes a MySpace-Killer. Skyler said, "Why does it have to be someone else? MySpace can just become that (whatever 'that' is)." She knows nothing of the business or politics of MySpace--she's simply a passionate user. And she's never read The Innovator's Dilemma. But she still has a point: why shouldn't we be the ones to build our own "killer"?

Whether we're trying to innovate around our existing products and services or trying to find a completely new idea, we have to back up to the meta-level rather than focus on implementation. Obviously implementation matters... a lot. But implementation of what? Why build a better XYZ if all that matters to users is the Z? What if XYZ is just one way to give users what they really want--JKL--and there's actually a much better way to help them do JKL? A way that makes XYZ unnecessary?

If we're not careful, we can take our existing success and misattribute it to an implementation detail that was never important.

Or worse... we can misattribute our success to something that's actually a problem but that users managed to cope with. Right up to the time we upgraded that thing-they-never-liked to give it a bigger role.

Yes, this is just another one more of those DUH topics, but as with so many others--it's too easy to get sidetracked by either our own success or the success of someone else's product or service that we're trying to build a better version of. And that's one reason why trying to reverse-engineer the success of a product is tricky. We get stuck rationalizing why some implementation detail is important, when it may be nothing more than noise.

An example of outstanding implementation that ignored the meta-level

The now-dead Purple Moon software company was the result of millions of dollars and years of research at Paul Allen's Interval Research think tank. They had finally found the secret sauce to getting girls--the great untapped market--into gaming. By the time the company's first product launched (1997), they knew just about everything you could know about what young (10-14 years) girls wanted and how they differed from boys. So they took their exhaustive and expensive research effort and created the ultimate implementation.

The implementation was awesome... beautiful graphics, clever characters and story, slick marketing, and a world-class leader who many of us still practically worship, Brenda Laurel. If anythng could finally bring girls to the games, it would be the perfectly-pedigreed Purple Moon's first game, Rockett's New School.

Except it sucked.

At the meta-level.

Because what is the meta-level for a game? Oh yes, fun. Purple Moon got the individual implementation details right, and applied all that they'd learned from the research, but forgot the forest. Fun.

Skyler was an early beta-tester, and had been looking forward to the game I'd been hyping for so long. But the first thing she said when she read the overview document was, "Why would I want to play a game about a girl trying to fit into a new school? HELLO! I've DONE that in real life and it wasn't fun then. I'd rather play Blobbo."

[Warning: gratuitous kid photo... this is Skyler today]

[Fortunately, she reads this blog only twice a year--she'd kill me if she knew I posted this. Let's just keep it our little secret.]

Granted, Skyler wasn't the typical pre-teen. She didn't do Barbie. (She would have given a kidney for her My Little Pony collection, however). But still, when you strip away Purple Moon's research and implementation details, Occam's Razor applies: Just. Wasn't. Fun.

With our books, that meta-thing is learning. And if we get off track by focusing on and EQ'ing our implementation details without remembering that, we're sunk. So if we try to figure out our own "killer", we'll do it only by staying true to the meta-level forest.

Many of us are creating products or services where the barrier to entry for a competitor is not all that high. The only thing we have to really protect us is a willingness to throw out even our most successful products in order to build a better reflection of what matters to users at the meta-level. And that might look nothing like our current, successful product. Keeping focused on meta-levels is also the key to avoiding being trapped by fads or fashion. Fads and fashion ("rounded", "glossy", "extreme", "twittery" [sorry, couldn't resist ; ) ] tend to be implementation details, not meta-level concepts ("have fun", "kick ass", "be smarter", "have more time in flow", etc.)

Finding the meta-level

The best trick we know for finding the meta-level is to play the five-why's / why-who-cares-so-what game. Ask your users (or even just yourself) what's important about a product. When they answer, ask, "Why?" When they answer that, say, "So?" and when they answer that, say, "Who cares?" and keep going until you get to the heart of it. (And if you haven't played this before, most people stop WAY too early and miss what matters the most.) Only then do you discover that this feature the users--and you--believed to be meaningful was simply a tolerable way to do what they really wanted. When they say that X is important, dig deep enough and you might find that it was only because X let them do Z, and that there's a much better way to make that happen.

Again, I know we all know this. But it's so hard to do, and the more successful your product or service, the harder it becomes. "Don't mess with success" is often the biggest barrier to becoming your own "killer".

A prominent tech book author wrote on a public forum, "Your Head First books will be fine just until the next hot new thing comes along to replace it." I said, "Yes, and that's why I want to be the one to replace it."

Posted by Kathy on December 14, 2006 | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Become the thing that replaces you:

» Kathy says dont suck at the meta-level from Stefan Ventura
Kathy Sierra of Creating Passionate Users has an interesting post about getting beyond the implementation details and finding the stuff that really matters about the service you are offering. Whether were trying to innovate around our existing... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 14, 2006 7:37:11 PM

» What are the benefits? from Inside Conversation
One of Kathy Sierra's main themes is about getting to the root of what it is that users want. This is more commonly referred to as benefits to the user. Most people/organizations that have a product or service to sell, [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 15, 2006 9:05:19 AM

» WikiSauri: Open Source Search from TeresaCentric
I learned via search guru John Battelle that Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales intends to bring collective human intelligence to bear on search by launching Wikiasari, the open source, community-run search engine. Maybe its time for Google to step u... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 27, 2006 5:33:27 PM

» December's Top Blogging from livingbrands
A bit of looking back as we move forward... Assuming a different answer Radical transparency Ethical responsibility Brain branding The long zoom Starting a business How to do better Buying presents Brand as mythology No more isolated incidents Marketin... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 3, 2007 5:23:34 AM


Awesome post. And, boy, do presenters, marketers, and people in sales get stuck below the "meta" level. Classic example: a list of Features and Benefits. These ALWAYS start with the features, and then the benefits are derived to justify the features — and that’s rarely what the audience or prospect is interested in hearing!

The Five Whys (aka Root Cause Analysis) is a great tool. There's a very succinct depiction of this at: http://www.maaw.info/FiveWhysExample.htm.

Kind of like the joke about the monkey driving the bus . . .


P.S. Cute kid!

Posted by: John Windsor | Dec 14, 2006 5:44:00 PM

> Ask your users (or even just yourself) what's important about a product. When they answer, ask, "Why?" When they answer that, say, "So?" and when they answer that, say, "Who cares?" and keep going until you get to the heart of it.

And you don't stop until it gets you laid, or it gets you paid.

(hint: MySpace gets you laid.)

Posted by: Jeff Atwood | Dec 14, 2006 5:58:23 PM

This post could so be talking about the latest upgrade by LiveJournal..

Which is how I found your blog. Kudos.

Posted by: Wolf | Dec 14, 2006 6:17:49 PM

John: I don't know the monkey joke!!! Don't leave me hanging!!!

Posted by: Keith Handy | Dec 14, 2006 6:26:02 PM

I love the way you used the forest and tree idiom here.

The obstacle you're talking about is lack of perspective, and the reasons for it are interesting also. People hug their tree for lots of reasons. Because it is theirs. Because they built it. Because it's safe. They've invested themselves in it. If it's a great tree, a successful tree, then they are those things also, having created it.

Letting go of your tree and standing back to see the forest, for a lot of people, is scary to the point of paralysis. Much of that is due to lack of confidence and also to fear of the unknown.

Even if you're confident, and creative, and always up for a new challenge, change is big and often hard. Even the best change can hurt.

Most kids love new things, learning, change, seeing more trees at once. Where does that go for most people?

(hey skyler ...i'm whispering... and smiling)

Posted by: Vera Bass | Dec 14, 2006 8:09:20 PM

Okay, Keith, here's the Monkey Joke:

Guy comes up on a horrific accident. A bus is on its side and bodies are strewn everywhere. Everyone is dead, except for one little monkey sitting on the side of the bus. The guy goes up to the monkey and says, "What happened?!"

The monkey runs in circles, waving his arms in the air. "People were acting crazy?" the guy asks.

The monkey nods and careens around like he's drinking wildly. "They were drinking?"

Monkey nods and starts running his hands up and down his body. "They were fooling around?"

Monkey nods and pretends to be throwing punches. "They were fighting? My God, what were you doing?"

Monkey smiles broadly and motions like he's turning a steering wheel . . .

Posted by: John Windsor | Dec 14, 2006 8:28:03 PM

Thanks, John :)

Posted by: Keith Handy | Dec 14, 2006 9:03:47 PM

I love your piece about Brenda Laurel's Blue Moon story. I personally think the problem also had to do with doing too much research and getting too well known with the user that it becomes hard to design expressive things (thus forgetting about the meta level). Sometimes you can just be too informed to make a good design decision.

I can count myself to the people who still worship Brenda Laurel because she was in my PhD committee (pictures of her on Flickr: http://flickr.com/groups/promotie-ianus/pool/tags/brendalaurel/ ). The theme of my research was on how designers can be supported to get inspired http://www.forinspirationonly.net

Posted by: Ianus Keller | Dec 15, 2006 2:57:42 AM

Excellent insight, as always.

Mentioning MySpace in this context is especially interesting, as I always wonder why an MTV.com, an mp3.com, or another one of those sites didn't have the vision to BECOME MySpace.

But, I guess that's very much hindsight and whatnot.

What I got out of this is that it's great to revolutionary, but to continue to succeed, you also need to be evolutionary.

Posted by: Rick Turoczy | Dec 15, 2006 10:02:20 AM

I was about to blog this and I realized I'm not exactly sure what you define meta-level to be. I feel that I do, but could I get lost in meta-levels when I try and pin-point it. Is it the bird's eye level? Or?

Also, how about adding a search box? I could sure kick more ass with your message if I didn't have to use triangulation to find older entries. =)

Posted by: Ted Rheingold | Dec 15, 2006 10:16:02 AM

Don't ask them - just watch them - if you ask them they might inadvertantly lead you astray.

P.S. You are so not Reese Witherspoon's mother!

Posted by: John Dodds | Dec 15, 2006 11:47:06 AM

I have to second the Reese Witherspoon comment!

Posted by: Joel | Dec 15, 2006 2:22:26 PM

Jeff Atwood: "And you don't stop until it gets you laid, or it gets you paid."
Thanks for saying that ; )
We actually DID play that variant of the game once, in a workshop, and people were amazed at just how many seemingly unsexy things are only just a few degrees away (if you don't set the isolation levels correctly on the database, you end up crediting the customer twice, and that causes the company to lose money, and then you lose your job and then, well, no *soup* for you...

Rick: good point... and I'm sure they're wondering exactly the same thing (and slapping their foreheads)

Ted: [I've hired Shari Horne to do the first pass emergency work on the blog ASAP, and I'm glad you said this because I had forgotten to add Search to the hot list]
For me, the meta-level is whatever I would put in the phrase, "It's the [whatever], stupid." It's that one true thing that matters most to users, possibly on an emotional level, and that everything else is there in service to that one [whatever] thing. So, like I said, for our books, it is the learning. We always have to ask, will this help the reader learn? And everything else is there to suppot that -- the graphics, the story, the attention-grabbers, the weird stuff... all there to keep them turning the pages because they can't learn if they don't keep going.

So I guess it's the answer to, "The only thing that REALLY matters is: " for whatever it is that we do. But it's awfully hard to do this when you're lost in the myriad details and features and the whole ecology around the product!

Which reminds me, given how well YOU are doing with this... maybe you'll share some tips!

John: I agree that you can't ask them *directly*, but that's why the five why's works so well--it's a way of helping THEM get to the heart of it, and usually they haven't gone past more than a level or two themselves. So yes, if you stop after one or two, they WILL lead you astray, often focusing on what you already have--and how to tweak it--when if you go far enough, you--and they--realize that it was never the right thing to begin with, so why bother changing it.

John and Joel: Yes, I guess Skyler does have a little Reese thing going on ; )
She's too cute for her own good.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Dec 15, 2006 11:44:44 PM

The girl who was the voice of Rockett was a student of mine when this game was released. I gave it a look, but was not impressed. The SIMs, on the other hand, did get the girl thing exactly right. My friend's daughter plays it constantly.

Posted by: Laurence Starn | Dec 16, 2006 10:04:20 AM

I remember running out to pick up Rockett's New School to see what all that research had wrought, to finally see what it was that girls wanted to see in a game (I was in the game industry then). I didn't find it particularly compelling, and assumed that this was because I was waaaay out of my demographic. It never occured to me that it just wasn't fun :-) I still have it somewhere in a box, next to a copy of "Loadstar: The Legend Of Tully Bodine", another title from another impeccably pedigreed "we've got it all figured out, oops we're out of business" company, Rocket Science Games.

Posted by: Dave Seah | Dec 17, 2006 12:59:45 AM

Great post, Kathy !

Posted by: Uma Geller | Dec 17, 2006 6:16:42 AM

Brenda wrote a book "Utopian Entrepeneur" after the Purple Moon experience. It's a good read for anyone trying to do socially positive work in the context of business. Also gives good insight into Brenda's perspective.

Posted by: Michelle B | Dec 18, 2006 11:09:29 AM

Nice to know I'm not alone in seeing this. I work in the games industry and before I took the job I was very, VERY worried... I mean, how can you base your success on something as subjective as "fun"? Who watches out for that? You can have killer graphics, awesome sound, and remarkable frames per second, but if the game is painful to play...? It's a failure.

Well done post.

Posted by: Randy | Dec 18, 2006 11:29:37 AM

Oh, you brought back fond memories of Purple Moon and the Rocket games. My daughter loved the games, and we searched them out wherever we could (I think we got in after the initial release, so they were discounted).

She was probably only 8 or 9, so maybe that made a difference. I so loved the "girl power" message, and my daughter's ability to control the outcome of the stories. Sure, there's Sims now, which she plays as a teen, but Rocket really ruled in our house, at least for a little while.

I can barely stay on the message - once you mentioned Purple Moon, I went into nostalgia mode. :-)

Posted by: Karen | Dec 19, 2006 6:33:47 AM

Very strong connections here with Engelbart's idea of bootstrapping at level c: improving the improvement process. At this level, the linear has to yield to the meta, and your questions are a brilliant way to get there--if and only if folks hang on until the very end of the sequence, as you very wisely note.


Posted by: Gardner | Dec 21, 2006 7:21:03 AM

You are right on. This is how things should be. What I'd like to know is --- how do you manage to get your clients to do it? or your CEO? How? What I find in reality is doing things on the fast lane, copy-cat-ing and me-too culture, doing what will get me the results 'yesterday' and no-one understanding the point of being strategic and visionary (people generally think that anything that takes lots of time is authomatically something that is not 'urgent'). Of course there are exceptions --- but how do you deal with the rest, which is probably 95%?
Would love to hear your answer...

Posted by: Tatiana Popovski | Dec 28, 2006 7:12:41 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.