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Too many companies are like bad marriages


It's been said that the secret to a good marriage is... don't change. In other words, be the person you were when you were merely dating. Don't stop paying attention. Don't stop being kind. Don't gain 50 pounds. Don't stop flirting. Stay passionate, stay sexy, stay caring. Answer their calls. Unfortunately, too many companies are all candle-lit dinners, fine wine, and "let's talk about you" until the deal is sealed. Once they have you (i.e. you became a paying customer), you realize you got a bait-and-switch relationship.

This is such a big bowl of wrong. I don't understand this in personal relationships, and I don't understand it in business-to-customer relationships. Shouldn't you treat the people you're in a relationship with better than you treat anyone else? Shouldn't you treat your existing customers better than the ones who've given you nothing?


Most companies would never outsource their sales reps, but we all know what happens with most tech support.
Most companies would never make a brochure with the same (lack of) quality in the product manual.
Most companies would never make their main website as uninviting as the tech support site.


If we want passionate users, we should take a lesson from successful marriages and keep the spark alive. Just because they're now a "sure thing" doesn't mean we take them for granted.

Besides, if we shift that marketing and ad budget from pre-sales to post-sales, we won't have to worry about getting new customers. Our loyal, cared-for customers will take care of that.


Posted by Kathy on February 24, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (49) | TrackBack

Are our tools making us dumber?


It's lunchtime at the cafe and you give the cashier a $20 bill for an $8 purchase. She gives you $32.78 in change. You mention the mistake. She says, "But that's what the cash register says I owe you." She can't cope with the cognitive dissonance between reality and What The Machine Said. Later that day you get a frantic call from a co-worker--a recent addition to the programming team. "I keep getting this error message that it can't find the classes I'm using!" You ask, "By 'it' do you mean the compiler?" He answers "I don't know. I'm using an IDE." That night, you're helping your 12-year old son with his math homework when you realize--in horror--that while he's quite good with the calculator, he couldn't multiply two three-digit numbers using only paper and pencil if his Wii depended on it. These tools were designed to make us more efficient, so that we can focus on something more important than the tedious task of, say, giving change, organizing source code, and doing calculations. But are they helpful timesavers, or are we dumbing ourselves--and our users--down?

Obviously this depends greatly on the tool, the operator, and the task itself. If we all had to understand what every tool was doing/hiding for us, we'd waste brain bandwidth that could be used for something more important--like what we're using the tool for. But in my examples above, think about how fragile the user's ability is if they don't understand what the cash register, IDE, or calculator is really doing. Without that understanding, what happens if the tool stops working? (In college I worked in a small surfboard shop in SLO, California, and the owner said, "I don't care what happens to the cash register, always take the customer's money!" Power outage? Use a damn cardboard box for the cash drawer until it comes back up...)

But should a web designer need to be an HTML coder? Or can he just use a WYSIWYG tool? The debates still rage in the web development world, although the issue should be resolved soon enough. In desktop publishing, for example, you will never hear, "Oh, you can't just use Quark or Adobe InDesign... you really need to tweak the Postscript by hand to do it right."

Some people think even automatic transmissions are dumbing people down. (I've offered to let friends borrow my car and I'm always shocked when I hear, "No, I can't drive a stick.") A flight instructor friend said there are some planes they don't want you to learn on, because those planes do too much for you. Some people think convenience foods like TV dinners are keeping generations from learning to cook. My sister's boyfriend could fix his own VW bus, but that was before cars became computers, before master mechanics were often reduced to part-orderers.

Tools can reduce errors, handle the tedious work, and potentially let us spend more time in flow. Still, when I see those cashiers and programmers, I think we need to keep a few things in mind:

Tool developers
If you make a tool that's hiding things the user should understand, maybe you could provide a tutorial or even an understanding mode where the user can ask the tool exactly what it's doing and how it made the decisions it made. But there's another issue for tool developers, and that's where passion comes in. Consider a point-and-shoot digital camera with presets for things like Portrait, Sunny Day, etc. The camera hides the complexity of making adjustments for exposure, white balance, etc. For most people, that's the whole point of these cameras--they don't WANT to mess with the settings of an SLR. But it's staying in point-and-shoot mode that keeps most people from developing a passion for photography (and ultimately, buying more expensive cameras and lenses).

But what if you could use your point-and-shoot as a way to learn more about photography? It would be so helpful if you could put the camera into a kind of "teach me" mode, where it explained what it adjusted and why it did it. That would make a great bridge to help you feel more confident moving into a (more expensive) digital SLR and avoiding what most first-time SLR owners do--keep it in program/automatic mode.

Tool teachers
Consider forcing students to do some things the old-fashioned way before letting them get their hands on the tool that'll automate much of the drudgery. My first semester of college stats wouldn't let us use computer apps for anything. Just us and our HP calculators. I hated it. But by the time we started running (and writing) our own programs, we had no doubt what was happening at each step and how to troubleshoot. When I teach Java, I always teach it using nothing but a simple text editor and the command-line. I do advocate tools for development, but never, never, NEVER for someone who doesn't understand Java at a fundamental level (compiler options, packages, namespaces, access modifiers, etc.)

Tool users
90% of the time we probably don't need to know how things work under the covers. I only barely understand why 747's ever leave the ground. I've never changed my own motor oil. (I have, she says proudly, topped off my windshield wiper fluid.) But I shouldn't think about putting a bit in my horse's mouth before I understand everything from horse anatomy to the principles of leverage that bit was designed for. I don't have to know how to create a microchip to use this MacBook, but if I don't understand the basics of its UNIX OS underpinnings, I can get into trouble figuring out where things are, how to set up security, etc. And just because there's one Starbucks per every 20 square feet in the US does NOT mean you shouldn't know how to make good, strong coffee the old-fashioned way.

Just something to think about, and as always... I'd love to hear your thoughts about tools, dumbing down, and strong coffee.

[FYI: I'm travelling right now, so if you're waiting on email, I'm hoping to catch up by the end of the week.]

Posted by Kathy on February 21, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (85) | TrackBack

What tail is wagging the "user happiness" dog?


March, 2002: I was in a Quality Review Board meeting at Sun, shortly after our division went Six Sigma. I started listing solution ideas for some big customer problems in my area. The woman running the meeting said, "Oh, we can't talk about solutions today! We're weeks or months away from that... we're still in the data gathering step." The Six Sigma tail wagging the customer happiness dog. September 2004: I was in a meeting at O'Reilly, emphasizing the importance of code annotation for reducing cognitive load. A production person said, "Nope, sorry, our software won't let us do that." The production tail wagging the reader happiness dog. And then there's the all-too-common IT department that makes its life easier at the expense of employees and users. Don't get me started on the Accounting department...

You can't swing a poodle in business without hitting a tail-wagging-the-dog scenario, where some process, policy, procedure, or program controls user happiness. Where we become slaves to the needs and demands of the IT department, efficiency, accounting, PR, legal, marketing, next-quarter's results, Upper Management, etc.

We've heard all of the justifications and excuses. Worst of all, these decisions are nearly always made by people with the least amount of contact with Actual Employees, let alone actual customers. Imagine working at a place where Customer Advocates -- internal evangelists for what users need -- wielded as much power as the IT guy. Where the software developers (and other employees) have the power to use the tools they need to best serve the users, even if it's a pain in the ass for the sys admins. (No offense to sys admins--I'm talking about the misguided and/or too-far-removed-from-customers ones, not the clueful.)

I'm not dissing Six Sigma or IT or Accounting or Production or Policies or Procedures or Process or whatever. I'm just saying we have to be very, very careful about who wags who, especially during that critical phase when a company transitions from a small everyone-does-everything start-up to a bigger company. Users are often best served when everyone from the manager to the developers to the accountants has to spend time on customer service and support. But when that's no longer realistic, we must work hard to make sure that nobody in the company forgets who we all really work for--the users.

We're all guilty of it -- from the big company to the two-person start-up (or the one-person author!) -- and we do need to balance the needs of the company against the needs of the customers, but I'd recommend putting a big picture of a dog in your meeting room, and emphasizing who's the dog, who's the tail, and who wags who.

Bonus link: a wonderful post by Joel Spolsky on customer service! Two thumbs way up.

Posted by Kathy on February 20, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (22) | TrackBack

The real secret to a successful blog/book/business...

For the last three years, Bert and I have tried to explain the "secret" to the success of the Head First books. We've tried to explain the "secret" to how a little non-news, non-scandal blog could land in the Technorati Top 100. We've tried to explain the "secret" to why Javaranch is one of the largest, most active, and well-loved developer communities on the internet. One big clue: we're not that talented. There is a secret, yet, but it's mostly a if-WE-can-do-it-ANYONE-can-do-it thing.

I've revealed the Big Secret before, but perhaps the bigger secret is that almost nobody takes it seriously. It seems too simple. Business books make it complicated. Consultants make it complicated. Those who don't want to try make it complicated. But it's not. Hard work? Yes. But the hardest part is simply taking it seriously. After that, it's implementation details. The details matter, but it's what drives the implementation that matters most.

So, on this Valentine's Day, I thought it was time for a reminder to myself and my co-authors:

Success no longer has to be a meritocracy (or advertocracy), today it's just as much a loveocracy.

The secret is simply this: you have a much better chance for success when your business model makes what's good for the users match what's good for the business, and vice-versa. Our books are best-sellers not because we're better authors or teachers (a meritocracy), but because they were literally labors of love. We wrote them with one very clear goal:

* The only way the books will be successful is if people actually learn from them.
* The only people will actually learn from them is if they actually read them.
* We must do everything we can to get people to read more than most people read in a tech book, and in such a way that they learn--and realize how much they've actually learned.

What's good for the readers is what's good for the books. Where I think so many potentially better books go wrong is that they're really good books (meritocracy), but they're written with a focus on Being A Really Good Book. (Which is often completely at odds with a book that's good for the reader.)

And why do you read this blog? I always ask myself, "how can I help my readers in some way?" Whether it's a tip or trick, a post you can use to help make your case to your boss, a new way of looking at something, a potential source for an idea, a pointer to something useful...I try to make 90% of the posts here for you. And you in turn respond with the most amazing, insightful, inspirational, and often entertaining comments.

What's good for you is what's good for the blog. And for me.

This is not to say you still can't succeed with a business model where what's good for the business is bad for the user and vice-versa, but next time you're in a product design meeting or a business development meeting or you're planning a book or a blog or... ask the question we keep bringing up here, "What will this help the user do?" Not, "How can we make a great product?" Nobody cares about your company, and nobody cares about your product. Not really. They care about themselves in relation to your product. What it means to them. What it does for them. What it says about them that they use your product or believe in your company. You're still just the delivery guy, and your package helps the user kick ass at something. However, when you DO have a product that truly helps the user, they might just love you for it. : )

Happy Valentine's Day.
I heart my readers : )

Posted by Kathy on February 14, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (33) | TrackBack

How much control should our users have?


We all know Featuritis is bad, but what about User Control? Is more always better? The notion that a user-centric focus means putting users in control of everything--their software (and other tools), their learning, their conferences, the companies they support (the now-over-used "community")--is pervasive. But even when users do have the expertise to make good decisions, do they want to?

In some scenarios, of course. But when applied with abandon, user control can mean user suffering. In the 80's, the big thing in education was Learner Control. With hypertext tools came CBT programs and learners were finally put in charge of their own paths through material. The learner was empowered! Just one problem: most people pretty much suck at making sound learning decisions, especially when they don't already know the material. So, the era of more-is-better-for-learner-control was over.

Then in the 90's -- Whoo-Hoo! Interactive Movies! Interactive Television shows! Interactive Fiction! Outside of rare novelties and a few good story-driven games, most of us would rather leave our storytelling to Steven King or Steven Spielberg, thank-you. A huge part of the point of movies and novels is to be swept into another world--a world we do not have any responsibility for.

Worst of all, though, is the ongoing trend toward more-is-better for the products we purchase. More choices, more options, more control. In the book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz looks at how the overabundance of products today makes buying even toilet paper stressful. We shut down when we're faced with too many choices, even when those choices are about relatively simple things.

Yet we expect people to make decisions over some of the most complex things, regardless of whether they have any knowledge or training in those areas. I look at product checklists and comparisons for electronic devices and think, "WTF are they talking about?" I have no idea what this thing-with-the-check-mark-next-to-it is or why I'd want it. And we don't just agonize before we choose, the vast array of possibilities has us agonizing afterwards as well. Second-guessing ourselves, continuing to check reviews, etc. Like we don't have enough stress.

And in software programs, especially, we expect users to choose their workflow configurations way before they have the slightest idea why they'd care. Or we give them ten different ways to do the same thing--so each person can do it in the way that best suits them--when the new user just wants to do the thing -- not grapple with the cognitive overload of ten ways to do the thing they still can't do.

How much control should users have?

Obviously this is a big "it depends", but the main point is to focus on the relationship between user control and user capability. As user capability (knowledge, skill, expertise) increases, so should control -- at least for a lot of things we make, especially software, and especially when we're aiming not just for satisfied users but potentially passionate users. The big problem is that we make our beginning users suffer just so our advanced users can tweak and tune their configurations, workflow, and output. [For the record, I'm a big fan of splitting capabilities into different products, or having a really good user-level modes--where you use wizards or simpler interfaces for new users, etc. Yes, they're often done badly, but they don't have to be.]

The simple rule we so often forget is:

The amount of pain and effort should match the user's perceived payoff.

In other words, the user has to think it's worth it. Yes, another "duh" thing... but if it is that "duh", then why oh why haven't some of the biggest producers on the planet taken it to heart? How come I still can't tune my Denon receiver? Or adjust my home thermostat properly? How come I find myself in hotel bathrooms staring at the shower faucet, wondering how annoyed the front desk will be when I ask them to help me take a bath. How come I can't turn off automatic Capitalization in Word? (trust me, it's not as simple as it seems...)


But we'll accept (and sometimes even value) pain and effort when it's worth it. Apple's Final Cut, for example is much more difficult than TextEdit. But I expect Final Cut to be hard... and it's worth it. The pain-to-perceived-payoff ratio works. My stereo receiver, on the other hand, just pisses me off. The sad thing is, I'm probably just two button-presses away from success, but I swear the possible combinations of button-presses on my remote exceeds the number of particles in the known universe.


On the other extreme is Apple's iMovie. It gives you almost no control, but the payoff is high right out of the shrinkwrap. It exceeds my expectations of pain-to-payoff. But pretty quickly, anyone who gets into iMovie--and is bitten by the movie-making bug--starts wanting things that iMovie doesn't let you control. So... Apple says, "not to worry -- we have Final Cut Express HD for just $299". The problem is, the learning curve jump from iMovie to Final Cut Express is DRASTIC. There needs to be something in the middle, to smooth that transition.

User Control in Web 2.0
I realize that part of the Web 2.0 "sensibility" is that users are in charge, but I'm pretty sure even Tim O'Reilly doesn't mean that Web 2.0 means the inmates should be running the asylum. There's an ocean of difference between user contribution and user control. I'm sometimes afraid that the Age of User Participation will lead to the Age of Too Many People Doing Things They Are Not Qualified To Do But That Everyone Is OK With. Amateur Mash-up videos on YouTube? Hell yes. But what's next... amateur minor-surgery mash-ups? (that is actually, scarily, already happening, and I won't even link to it).

Putting users first does not necessarily mean putting users in charge.

I believe with all my heart in working with the user's happiness in mind (i.e. helping the user kick-ass), but part of my role is to use my specialized skills and knowledge to make that happen.

Even the poster kid of community-based business, Threadless, does not really put its community in control. In charge of voting on t-shirts, yes. In charge of whether Threadless is successful, yes -- but no more so than most businesses--they all live or die on whether customers want their product, experience, or both. But the Threadless community does not do the company's books, decide who to hire, choose their factory location, etc. The community has a very strong voice, and the Threadless guys listen--and respond--much better than most, but the company still controls the company. User contribution, not user control.

User Control and Capability enables Passion

In the end, though, having more control and capability represents a higher-resolution experience. It's part of what makes being GOOD at something so much better than being bad or even average. And it's that high-resolution experience that inspires people to passion. (A passionate snowboarder is usually on black-diamonds, not the bunny slope) So we should be trying to give users more capability and control...and encouraging them to take it. But we must balance that with the learning they need to take that responsibility without being overwhelmed.

Like everything else, it all comes back to user education. The more we help them learn and improve, the more control they can handle... and appreciate. By putting the user first, it's our job to give them the responsibility they want, but only when we know they're ready to handle it.

Posted by Kathy on February 13, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (30) | TrackBack

Marketing should be education, education should be marketing


Do you want passionate users? Educate them. Do you want passionate learners? Sell them. If ever there were two groups who ought to trade places--and especially research -- it's teachers and marketers. Our mantra here is, "Where there is passion, there is a user kicking ass..." and by "kicking ass" we mean "being really good at something." In the post-30-second-spot world, the marketing department should become the learning department. Meanwhile back in schools, teachers should become...marketers.

The tragedy is this: the amount of money spent in the US each year on marketing research is orders of magnitude more than the amount spent on learning theory research. Big business probably spends more in a week on brain research than the US Department of Education spends in a year.
[I don't have the real data, but I've been trying to piece it together enough to make wild-ass estimates like this.]

The good news is this: in the he-who-does-the-best-job-of-getting-his-customers-past-the-suck-threshold-wins world that's beginning to emerge, companies may need teachers more than marketers. And in my perfect world, marketers and teachers exchange research and techniques, and by applying marketing to teaching and teaching to marketing, everyone benefits.


What Marketers Could Do For Teachers

Marketers know what turns the brain on (currently, not last week). Teachers need that more than ever today.

Marketers have access to fMRIs. Teachers rarely do.

Marketers are dangerously close to finding the Buy Button in the Brain. Think what teachers could do with that research... after all, that Buy Button could be modified into a Learn Button with very little effort.

Marketers know how to motivate someone almost instantly. Teachers could sure use that.

Marketers know how to manipulate someone's thoughts and feelings about a topic. Teachers could use that to 'manipulate' a learner into thinking, say, "math IS cool."

Marketers know how to get--and keep--attention. I know some teachers who'd give a kidney for that research.

Marketers spend piles of money on improving retention and recall. Teachers--and students need all the help they can get.

[Yes, I'm aware how horrifying this notion sound -- that we take teachers and make them as evil as marketers? Take a breath. You know that's not what I'm advocating, so keep reading.]

What Teachers Could Do For Marketers
(Marketers who want passionate users, that is)

Teachers know the importance of honesty and integrity. The good teachers care. Some--perhaps many--marketers could use a lot more of that, especially now that the internet has made it far harder for marketers to get away with deceptions. Those damn users talk! They email, they youtube their bad experiences, they blog it.

Teachers know how to help people think on a deeper level, to get beyond the surface level of understanding. In old-school advertising, only the most superficial attributes were used ("This product will make your neighbors envious!") Clearly, those days are dwindling.

[And don't even get me started on how bad most product manuals are--where the difference between pre-sales and post-sales material is huge, and completely backwards. "Yes, once they've actually paid us and become a customer, who cares how the manual reads or what it looks like?"]

Teachers help people think about thinking. In fear-based (or any emotion-based) marketing campaign (especially politics!), thinking was inhibited. But people can't learn and improve without thinking, so any marketing approach based on helping users get better needs to use emotions to enhance thinking, not prevent it.

Teachers know how to help people through the rough spots... where the learner is still firmly in the suck zone. Marketers need that more than ever, since so many of the most sophisticated products can't be mastered in 5 minutes.

Should we be worried about the hot new research known as neuromarketing? Yes. But it's going to happen regardless of what we do. Why not start demanding that marketers be transparent about the research and their applications? Big Marketing is not about to stop using techniques to manipulate us into wanting things, and about the only defense we have is to know that this is happening.

If we're to be smart consumers (and voters), we must stay one step ahead of those who are trying to manipulate us without our knowledge. And for that, we must know as much as possible about how our brains work, and how we're being tricked, spun, and seduced. We should all be comfortable thinking, "Oh, that's obviously my amygdala talking."

But rather than rail against the research and bemoan the fact that the marketers (and politicians) have these "secrets of persuasion", we can put these tools to good use--one of the main goals of this blog. To help ourselves, our students, and our users learn!

Of course, there should be full disclosure everywhere in which these techniques are used. We should demand it from marketers, and expect it from teachers. In the Head First books, for example, the beginning of each book describes exactly what we're trying to do to your brain (i.e. how we try to trick your legacy brain into thinking the code is as important as a tiger).

Public education in the US is in a pretty sad state, but I'm reminded of an old anti-war bumper sticker that went something like:
"It Will Be a Great Day When Our Schools Get all the Money They Need and the Air Force Has to Hold a Bake Sale to Buy a Bomber" "

I don't have anything clever, but I like the idea:

"It Will Be a Great Day When Our Schools Get all the Brain Research the Marketers Have, and the Marketers Have to Hold a Bake Sale to Buy an fMRI."

Posted by Kathy on February 11, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (28) | TrackBack

Can you help? I need web/personal stories

While I try to have at least 90% of this blog's content be something useful for you, sometimes I need your help. Like now. I'm looking for stories, photos, statistics, and--if possible--video clips, along with the permission to use them in a presentation that'll be seen by a large number of people. The overall point is to find success stories about people whose lives have been affected by the web or software apps. I'm particularly interested in places where there is an intersection between live (face-to-face) interaction and online interaction (like people who've met online then forge off-line relationships). But even purely online experiences are important to me as well.

I don't need much detail -- just the basic scenario and what it has meant to you. But I'd love love LOVE to have a few bits of video, even if it's just a few minutes you record on a web cam. (If you happen to live in the Boulder/Denver area, and are willing, we can send someone out to do a brief video/photo shoot.)

The kinds of stories I'm looking for include:

* People who've found their significant other online

* People who've found their dream pet online

* People for whom the course of their life/career direction has been dramatically changed--in a good way--as a result of something on the web or other app.

* People who've found an online community that has been extremely important in their life -- like an online support group for a medical condition, or even just a rare hobby where few people share your passion but you've found them online.

* People who've been able to travel and experience very different cultures as a result of something that happened online.

* People who've rediscovered people online who they thought they'd lost contact with, and where that relationship has become a significant part of your life.

* People who've been able to stay in contact with family members online, where it has really mattered (for example: I took a video editing lesson from a guy who lives in Colorado temporarily but his wife and young son are in New York. Each night, they have dinner "together" by sitting down at the table with their web cams on)

* anything else that might be inspirational or just plain funny that happened as a direct result of software and/or the web.

Again, you'd have to be willing to have your story and potentially photo and/or video shown publicly (not for profit of any kind). This is a project that means a great deal to me, and is intended to be used in a way that will help others. I'll share the final results with everyone.

Thanks so much, folks.

If you have something you're willing to share, please send an email to: [email protected]

(You're welcome to leave comments here, but the best place for me--and my daughter who is helping with this--would be the project email address.)

Posted by Kathy on February 9, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (29) | TrackBack

Don't ask employees to be passionate about the company!

People ask me, "How can I get our employees to be passionate about the company?" Wrong question. Passion for our employer, manager, current job? Irrelevant. Passion for our profession and the kind of work we do? Crucial. If I own company FOO, I don't need employees with a passion for FOO. I want those with a passion for the work they're doing. The company should behave just like a good user interface -- support people in doing what they're trying to do, and stay the hell out of their way. Applying the employer-as-UI model, the best company is one in which the employees are so engaged in their work that the company fades into the background.

Given a choice, I would work ONLY on projects that followed the Hollywood Model, where people come together with their respective skills and talents, and DO something. Make a web app. Create a book. Build a game. Develop and deliver learning experiences. The happiest moments of my work life were on projects where we pulled all-nighters because we wanted to, not because the corporate culture said we weren't a true team-player/trooper if we didn't.

Employees shouldn't be sleeping in cubes to prove they're "passionate employees." I want to work with people who have a particular set of skills (and interests) who view themselves and one another as either professionals/craftspeople (programmers, designers, engineers, animators, editors, scientists, authors, educators, architects, entertainers, etc.) or as producers and assistant producers (the people who pull it all together, support the craftspeople, and make it happen).

[UPDATE: I do not consider "caring about the user" as separate from "our work." In other words, I consider one who is truly passionate about their work to have "the effect it has on the user" as a fundamental part of that work. A tech book author/teacher who has brilliant wordsmithing and technical breadth but no effect on the reader is not a professional. A software developer who crafts
brilliant code that doesn't include that code's effect on the user is not a professional. Part of what makes us professional/craftspeople is that we value and never forget the POINT of our work, and the point is--for most of us--what it means for the user. It's quite sad that many of our professions have rewarded work without making the user the most important attribute of how we asses that work.]

I realize these aren't mutually exclusive--one can be passionate about their employer and the work they do, but it's a matter of which one employers value. And all too often, it's the wrong one.

The simple 4-quesetion test to see if someone has a passion for their work:

* When was the last time you read a trade/professional journal or book related to your work? (can substitute "attended an industry conference or took a course")

* Name at least two of the key people in your field.

* If you had to, would you spend your own money to buy tools or other materials that would improve the quality of your work?

* If you did not do this for work, would you still do it (or something related to it) as a hobby?


Passionate about the company:

* The ultimate team player who goes along with the group rather than voice dissent

* Works late nights and weekends because "everyone needs to pitch in on this project"

* Defends the company to anyone, anywhere that criticizes or questions its products, policies, or practices

* Puts responsibility to employer above responsibility to customers, without question

* Questions, but does not challenge the status quo

* Is well-liked because they do whatever is asked, enthusiastically

* Accepts (and uses) phrases like, "this is what corporate needs us to do."

* Cares a lot about his career path in the company; focused on getting management recognition.

Passionate about the work:

* Scores well on the 4-question test:
- keeps up with trade/professional journals
- knows who the key people in the industry are
- would spend his own money, if necessary, for better tools
- if they were NOT doing this as their job, they would still do something related to it as a hobby

* Works late nights when, "I'm just one-compile away from this awesome refactoring that's going to make this thing run 40% faster." In other words, they work late when they're driven by something they know they can do better on.

* Defends the quality of his own work (and, in the Hollywood Model, the work of his team).

* Puts responsibility to his own ethics and values--especially related to quality of work--over responsibility to employer.

* May not be extremely well-liked, but is highly respected and tolerated because he's known as one who, "cares deeply about doing the best possible job, and is very good at what he does." [update: the person must be liked well enough for people to want to work with him again... the Hollywood Model has a way of screening out a**holes... nobody calls them for their next project.]

* Does not accept, "this is what corporate needs us to do" when it conflicts with quality and ethics. Must be given a damn good reason why a corporate decision is worth the downsides.

* Does not care about upward mobility in the company. Cares about doing fabulous work and possibly the recognition of his peers in the industry. May stive for professional recognition.

Am I, as always, glorifying the maverick? It only looks that way if your perspective is a Big Company that puts teamwork and company loyalty above all else. In the Hollywood Model, our ability to get work--which means new projects--depends entirely on whether anyone on previous projects wants to work with us again. What you hope for--and what happens--in the Hollywood Model is that when a team is being assembled, someone says, "Hey, last time I worked on the Bar project, Roger did the graphics and he was awesome." And the assistant producer or project manager says, "What's his phone number?"

In the Hollywood Model--despite the glamorous name--whether the project is exciting or sexy has very little to do with whether we view our work together as exciting and sexy. The sound guy pushes the edge with intelligently-adaptive audio that changes subtly as the user navigates into different "places." It doesn't matter that the project is a boring bank's interactive annual report. The programmer (usually my role) builds an authoring tool to help the artists sync their work to the sound way before the engine is ready. The artists decide at the last moment that they aren't happy with something that nobody but they can see, and spend days tweaking something that they swear will have a subconscious impact (for the better) on the user.

There are plenty of companies--even big ones--who are able to foster this kind of enviornment (including some parts of Google, I've heard). And in many small start-ups there is virtually no distinction between passion for the company and passion for the work--they are, essentially, the same thing, driven by the same overall desire to succeed. The companies that have the greatest chance, in my opinion, are the ones who can hang to that. And I would start by thinking of project managers as "producers" and treating the "talent" like gold ; )

Finally, if you really want your employees to be passionate about the company, take lessons from UI and Usability: let people do what they want and need to do, and get the hell out of their way. Unfortunately, too many of our employers are like really bad software--frustrating us at every turn, behaving inconsistently, not giving us a way to learn new things and develop new, cool capabilities, etc.

Remember, when I say I have a passion for a particular piece of software, it's not really the software I'm passionate about. It's always about my passion for what the software lets me DO. Companies should work the same way. By acting like a good UI and letting employees express the passion they have for their work, you'll end up with employees who'd never consider going elsewhere.

Posted by Kathy on February 6, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (73) | TrackBack

Inspiring your user-evangelists

In the past 30 days, did you enthusiastically recommended something--anything--to someone else? Maybe it was a new restaurant, web app, game, sport, note pad, band, indie film, car, micro-brew, lotion, operating system, environmental cause, dog food, or pillow. Chances are, you did. More than once. Our users want to recommend or (if they're passionate) evangelize things they believe in, and it's our job to give users the tools to do it. Indie bands often have "street teams" of loyal (unpaid) fans who hit the streets to post flyers, etc. Do you have an unpaid street team?

There are at least two ways to inspire evangelists: the sleazy way and the authentic way. Fortunately, the authentic, ethical way doesn't need a big budget. The sleazy, expensive, and often unethical way is to hire people to "pretend" to evangelize. There are companies that will assemble a team of faux street-teamers to spread the word, ranging from the despicable--like the sexy woman in the bar who fakes interest in a man while casually mentioning the product (without disclosing her "job") --to the less harmful but even creepier--the person who is paid to tell their friends about a product, albeit with full disclosure.

Here's the thing...

If you have to PAY people to evangelize your product or service, you probably don't have a product or service worth evangelizing.

(If it's about simply getting the word out on something too new to have customer/user evangelists, there are plenty of ways to 'seed' potential users to get the ball rolling.)

Users will want to evangelize on your behalf for two main reasons:

1) You're small--or in trouble--and they want you to succeed.
(When there's no guarantee you will) Apple was in this position at one time; I remember handing out the "50 things you can do to save the mac" handbook! This is especially true for independent bands, stores, products, restaurants, etc. but big, well-funded companies aren't immune, obviously. Non Apple-fans still marvel at why a crowd of thousands cheers so loudly when Steve Jobs shows how much money the company is making. They don't realize that all we (the faithful) see is assurance that our beloved devices will survive, new ones will be developed, and that more developers will find it worthwhile to create for this platform, etc.

2) They believe in the benefits of whatever you offer, and want others to experience that (especially their close friends and family)

How to Create Evangelists The Authentic Way

1) You have a product or service or cause that helps users learn and grow and kick ass at something.

2) You give users tools to help them evangelize.

3) You do not ever, ever, ever pay users for doing this.

Remember, even if your product has problems, you can often make up for a ton of flaws by building up the ecosystem around the product. A killer user community site. A breakthrough manual. Stunning customer support. If you're helping your users learn and grow and improve, you're inspiring them to be better and--as we know--being better at something is a lot more fun than being a frustrated newbie or mediocre just-getting-by user or participant. If you can inspire your users to learn and grow, they'll naturally want to get others to share in this experience.

Tool ideas
(most of these are dead-obvious, but all too often overlooked)

* A short, free DVD
One that isn't a sales/marketing pitch, but simply explains why the evangelizing user is so interested in getting others to see what they see. A truly passionate user would love nothing more than to be able to give someone a DVD that gets the other person to say--after watching it--"Hmmm...now I'm starting to understand why this means so much to you."

* Posters and stickers
In other words, things to spread around in public to help raise awareness. The Sticker Guy is one of many good sources for stickers. (And check out this fun Wired story about Apple stickers. I have one on my car.)

* Free tickets
The Parelli organization goes on tour across the US and gives members of their official club up to 10 free tickets so that they can bring the non-converted to experience for themselves what Parelli-folks call "the magic."

* Friends and Family nights

* Testimonials from credible people!
Is there someone trusted and respected in your domain who uses your product? Your users need to know! Our Design Patterns book had endorsements from some of the key figures in the software development world, and we've had hundreds of emails from people telling us that this was the only reason they decided to give it a try. In the Parelli world--where members of the cult (like me) are constantly battling with those who dismiss it--the endorsement by two US Olympic Equestrian medalists--Karen and David O'Connor was huge. When they made a video about it (which we have to pay for), they gave us perhaps the best possible ammunition--"Think Parelli doesn't apply to anyone except cowboys? Don't listen to me, pop this in your DVD player for a few minutes..."

* Make it REALLY obvious how users can get involved in evangelizing
For inspiration, check out:
Oxfam's What You Can Do page or Greenpeace's Get Involved page.

* Private behind-the-scenes website areas for members only
...that they can share with their friends and which highlight the real reasons your user is so passionate.

* Free tickets to learning webcasts they can give to their friends.
Not marketing webcasts... I mean actual training courses that most people have to pay for.

* Materials, support, and recognition for user group leaders.
Sun has done a lot to recognize and reward JUG (Java User Group) leaders, for example, including special meetings and receptions at conferences, and giving them special access to some key Java folks at Sun.

* Create a "Street Team", and a toolkit
Have some kind of affinity club, user group, something that users can join and become members of. And make sure that members can get an evangelism toolkit whether it's a PDF poster to download or a full-blown package in the mail with flyers, stickers, t-shirts, CDs, etc.

A great example of a very active (and apparently successful) street team are the Petal Pushers. (Click on Petal Pushers from the side menu). I encourage everyone to check it out. Another example of an indie-band-on-a-budget street team is here.

The street team is an interesting phenomenon because it is often a lot more successful for bands that aren't well known. In fact, part of the appeal to hardcore street teamer fans is that they get to be the first one in their group to have discovered the band. Being the first to tell/show something cool to a friend brings considerable social "points". I don't know much about street teams, but Skyler has been extremely active in two of them, including (a loooong time ago) the Sugarcult">Sugarcult street team. She whipped up a lot of interest in local shows, and these guys would even recognize her at events and talk to her. But once they started becoming more "known", she lost interest. But that's a whole different topic...

[Side note: There are two kinds of companies you can hire to help you (band or otherwise) create a "street team". The sleazy kind will take your money in exchange for providing you with street team "members" who may never have heard of you and don't particularly like you. The authentic kind are simply marketing/community helpers who will help you create a street team program for your existing loyal fans.

My Personal Opinion on What NOT to Do

* Do not EVER pay your members/fans/users to do this.
Limited edition t-shirts and stickers? Absolutely. Free evangelism products for friends (like the tickets and CDs) -- absolutely. But money for referrals? Never. (This is a big topic in itself that we'll save for another time)

Paying them, or even doing a "refer a friend and get YOUR next thing free..." program changes the incentive. And while it may not change the users motivation, it taints the incentive. Irrevocably, in my opinion.

If you have truly passionate users, paying them is not only not necessary, it could hurt. That doesn't mean you don't reward them, of course, there are gazillion great ways (and reasons) to reward your loyal users. But that's for their continued loyalty, support, patience, feedback, etc... not for some kind of paid referral program.

Posted by Kathy on February 6, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

Sunday Random Bits & more creativity on speed

It's not too late to get in on: record an album in 28 days, the RPM'07 Challenge. You've got until the end of the month to do 10 songs or 35 minutes of original material. It shares the philosophy of the wildly popular nanowrimo (National Write a Novel in a Month) and the 24-hour filmmaking festival I talked about in my earlier How to make something amazing, right now (and in creativity on speed).

There's also a new book about creativity on speed (or at least on restrictions) called The Houdini Solution, by Ernie Schenk, and I really enjoyed the book. I hesitated before recommending it because as good as it is, it's kind of preaching to the choir here at this blog... making a case for constraint-based creativity isn't something most of you need to be sold on. But two things prompted me to post it anyway:

1) Even if you're already up the curve on these ideas, chances are pretty high that other people you know and work with are not. It's a great long-plane-ride book to give to others.

2) Given that I read it with the, "This is great stuff, but we already know this..." attitude, I suddenly realized that I'd dog-eared more than 20 pages. That's a lot, and I'm the mistress of dog-earing. (You might want to just skim the first 3 chapters, then start reading every word at chapter 4).

Other Somewhat Random Things

My friends over at the The Enthusiast Group know a lot about passion and community--it's what their entire business is about (check out the mountain biker's group). Very, very roughly it's kind of the Dogster of sport activities for people who have a passion for running, cycling, or climbing (hey, we're from Boulder, CO where it's a law to participate in at least one of those). These guys at the Enthusiast Group are doing a lot of things right including the tagline that we could ALL take a lesson from:

Your stories. Your photos. It's all about you and the road.

They're doing an excellent job of getting members/users involved in submitting stories, and I'm amazed at how much they've managed to do in a short time. [Disclaimer: I've advised them, but only the tiniest bit. In other words, not enough to take any credit for any of the good things they've done.] I simply reminded them to keep focused on making it about helping their users/members grow. One thing I would really like to see them add are tutorials (even just one) on how to write good stories (and take appropriate photos).

This goes for any site that depends on user-submitted stories, or even just discussion forums. For example, in the javaranch forums, there's a link from the main forum page to an article on how to ask--and answer--good questions. But in a community site where you're expecting articles and stories, anything you can do to help people improve their knowedge and skills ("Here's how to write a killer travel story!") would help everyone.

In other words, turn your "citizen"-member-users-participants into good amateur photo-journalists.

Let's see... Six Apart's Anil Dash has a fun post about tuxedo t-shirts.

Ahhhh HELP me with this easter-egg-in-a-logo that Gnome Guy Dave Neary sent to drive me nuts. I think I've got it figured out (but he had to give me a hint first), but I'm not sure. So before I ask him, I'll ask you guys. It's from the train company TGV.

Matt Heinz from Matt on Marketing pointed me to a great post on yet another thing we can learn from entertainment: the idea sandbox: elevator pitch. I recommend it!

I'm interested in getting this book: The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies by professor Scott Page, who looks like he's doing some really interesting work. (example: teaches his students about heuristics by having them play the game Rush Hour)

Vincent Flanders (who brought us Web Pages That Suck ) has a safe-for-work-and-politically-correct version for non-profits at Is my website inneffective.

Searchbots.net looks really interesting. Anybody know more about it?

I'm a little slow to getting to this (everyone has probably seen this by now), but Josh Clark (global moxie) wrote here about the "Empathy Suit" for designers.

There's a new site that could be REALLY helpful, but only if a lot more people were using it -- it's called Hallway Testing, and the idea is simple: you submit your site to ask for usability feedback, and participants can tell you what they think. I think it's great for two reasons:

1) The obvious: targeted feedback by people who aren't necessarily our users (who may not be as objective).

2) By participating as a reviewer/evaluator, you can build your skills in usability.

Superbowl Commercials Update: for those of you who, like me, do not have television, the only downside is not seeing the superbowl commercials. So... iFilm to the rescue!

• IFILM will be live-blogging commercials during the game.

• In addition to the new 1007 ads, IFILM's archive includes Super Bowl Ads
from 2002-2007 here.

• An IFILM original remake of Miller Lite: Catfight, a Super Bowl classic.

• Uncensored, banned, behind the scenes, and alternate edits here.

• Super Bowl classics like Apple 1984 here.

• A blogger's kit with embeddable players and XML feeds here.

Have fun!

Posted by Kathy on February 4, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack