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Helping users "feel the fear and do it anyway"


We've said before that reducing fear might be a killer app... making something users were previously afraid of feel less threatening. Wesabe does this for personal finances. Dr. Laurie Kemet does this for a trip to the dentist. And Electric Rain does this for 3D. Our books try to do this for programming. But what about a step beyond that... where you help them do something that just IS really, seriously, scary? Making only things which are friendly and easy is not the holy grail of design.

Reduce my fear or guilt, and I'll be grateful. Help me do something that really IS scary, and I'll be grateful and exhilarated. I'll be forever changed, and your company, product, or service will be linked to that change. To reduce fear means taking something perceived as scary and showing users that it's not. But not everything can be made to appear friendly and easy and safe. Like Apple's Logic. The learning curve is steep, it looks overwhelming and intimidating, but the payoff can be high. What if instead of removing advanced features that make a product inherently daunting, it's OK to say to users, "This IS hard. Really, frickin' hard. But we'll get you through it."

Sometimes, with some products, it's OK to say, "We can't make this any easier or less scary, but we can help you come out the other side."

A short time ago I went on the Sydney Bridge Climb. At night. It was the most frightening thing I've ever done. But when it was over, I felt braver, stronger, and different. I'll never forget the Bridge Climb, and I'll probably be recommending it for the rest of my life.

We can reduce guilt:

We can reduce fear:

But helping a user be afraid and do it anyway is a powerful force. We shouldn't be too quick to over-simplify a product or experience. Of course, it's up to us to get our users through the big, challenging, thing--there's a big responsibility for stellar documentation and support. And we're talking moral support, not just tech support, so building a user community is even more important with something really, really, scary.

I've talked before about the benefits to us when we do something scary, but maybe we can help give those benefits to our advanced (or trying to be) users.

So, what scary thing have YOU done lately?

Posted by Kathy on March 18, 2007 | Permalink


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Originally worried about being "dooced", I was hesitant to talk too much about my company on my blog. Finally I decided that even if I was removed from my position at my work, I'm not entirely happy there anyway, so I should post freely damning the consequences. I also decided to update my resume and portfolio and beat them to the punch.

Ok, not anything close to climbing the Sydney bridge, but it was scary for me at first.

Posted by: Dave C. | Mar 19, 2007 12:58:29 AM

I went snowboard in the alps last week. I've been teaching myself to snowboard (and got pretty good, if I do say so myself) but for the first time ever, I decided to hire an instructor for a 2-hour private lesson.

He took a look at my style, fixed it on one or two points - and then it was time to learn to jump.

That is pretty scary the first few times, but he managed to emphasize the fun and defuse the fear, mostly by not talking much about it but simply doing it.

The fear was reduced by:
* Doing it rather than talking about it
* Early failure - Once I'd fallen doing a jump and discovered that "No, it doesn't hurt" I was more free to push myself
* Progressing at the right pace
* Just in time information - don't tell me everything up front
* Passion - teach me to enjoy it, rather than to do it perfectly!
* Praise - When I got a jump about right, I could see him applauding

It was so much fun that next year, I'm getting a helmet and back protector and going for some serious airtime :o)

Posted by: Alexander Kjerulf | Mar 19, 2007 3:30:48 AM

In my work, I have been privileged in watching clients overcome or, more accurately, move through and beyond intense fear. I was involved in founding an adventure programming company that often has clients doing things like balancing on the top of a telephone pole 12 metres in the air and leaping off into empty space, or allowing a group of strangers (or worse, a group of colleagues) to physically lift them over or through an obstacle. Or drawing the courage to tell their boss that that they disagree with the solution(s) offered, and suggesting a better way.

There's really no way to convey in a few words the power these experiences can have for people. Unfortunately, without a meaningful context and skilled facilitation they risk becoming "failure opportunities" or merely "activities we did at work" (or school, or the court made us do). If you want to provide clients the opportunity to be scared, you need to ensure that they know that they are safe and that there is a pay-off for the discomfit. Most important of all, they need choice - the ability to choose not to do it. The rewards for continuing are then so much greater.

I feel proud and privileged to have seen so many people challenge themselves in such meaningful ways over the last 17 years. It has enriched my life and it helped give me the courage to let go of that (my company, my dream, my passion) and pass it on to others so I could move onto a new challenge, a new dream and a new career. Returning to full-time study was the scariest thing I ever did.
(I still get to help out my old company now and then. It's still a buzz to participate in clients' journeys of discovery and growth).

My clients remain my best teachers...

Posted by: Tim | Mar 19, 2007 6:17:10 AM

"A short time ago I went on the Sydney Bridge Climb. At night."

Endorphin included.
What a rush !!

Posted by: Peter | Mar 19, 2007 6:30:01 AM

Is that what Laurie Kemet's office looks like? Damn, I've been going to the wrong dentist . . . (Are we going to see you in her ads soon?)

Posted by: John Windsor | Mar 19, 2007 7:21:02 AM

I tell clients all the time, "You are scared? Ok... do it scared. That's perfectly fine".

I jumped out of an airplane while deathly afraid of heights. I started my own business in a field which hadn't gotten much respect (or attention) yet - and I'm still fighting. I backpacked through Europe and performed on the streets. I'm attempting to get employment in a[ny] non-traditional job. I traveled throughout the United States alone by van. This doesn't even cover the stuff I've done over my 42 years, and I hope I'll never be able to list out all the things I have conquered...

I encourage clients to do things they have never done by 'practicing' by doing new things. I encourage people to try a new thing every day (even if it's a meal) and maybe go to a new place every weekend.... I then coach them to discuss with me - most often, they will notice that it wasn't as bad as they feared, or they learned something important from the experience itself about overcoming fear. Their "discussion" seems to be as important as the activity its;ef, as they learn how to process this information for themselves - they also get to listen to their own descriptions.

Posted by: Lauren Muney | Mar 19, 2007 7:52:17 AM

I recently did a F.A.S.T defense course. It was very scary! It's a "reality based" self-defense course. The whole process is to get you ready to deal with the end "attacks" where people in 40lb protective suits take you on. Search YouTube for "fast defense", you might even see me in one of the videos :)

Posted by: Erik Kastner | Mar 19, 2007 9:06:35 AM

I bungee jumped in Queenstown NZ at the site of the original bungee jump. There's a museum there that does its best to scare the bejesus out of you, then of course comes the actual jump...

They will not push you. You have to jump. To help you get over the hump psychologically, they tell you to look out to the horizon where there's another bridge in the distance, and to jump as if you're going to fly to that bridge. Then they count backward from 5. When they got to 2, I knew I could do it.

What a rush! It was almost as scary as skydiving. :)

Posted by: Derek Scruggs | Mar 19, 2007 9:22:26 AM

Lauren Muney wrote:
"I tell clients all the time, 'You are scared? Ok... do it scared. That's perfectly fine'."

What a great way of thinking about fear! I'm going to give that advice to myself :)


Posted by: Reed | Mar 19, 2007 10:16:06 AM

I was having a pint with a friend when he told me he was on his way to an improv class. I told him stuff like that freaked me out. "Then you have to come," he said.

It was awesome! Hilarious! Exhilarating. One more fear off the list. Plus: the teacher is cute. I'm going back this week.

Posted by: Chris | Mar 19, 2007 11:11:59 AM

Q: So, what scary thing have YOU done lately?

*Moved to a city where I didn't know anyone
*Went to work for myself
*Started a business with a partner, bootstrapped the business, then raised funding
*jumped a horse around a course of obstacles five feet in height. (that's always terrifying but incredibly exhilarating)

Posted by: jocelyn | Mar 19, 2007 11:18:08 AM

Q: Scary?

Guy A1: I went to war.
Guy A2: I dodged the draft.

Gal A1: I had the baby.
Gal A2: I didn't.

Posted by: roleplaying Nancy | Mar 19, 2007 11:29:33 AM

Scary thing? A solo trail ride...bareback. Do horses still test your fears, or are you past that?

Posted by: michelle | Mar 19, 2007 12:02:04 PM

i quit my job with nothing to go to, and no idea how to get paid to do what i wanted to do. best thing i ever did.

[i also went white water rafting down the zambezi river. much less scary - at least it would have been a very glamorous way to die.]

Posted by: cheryl | Mar 19, 2007 4:59:15 PM

How does one encourage people who are very afraid of flying - also, could the Airlines do anything?

Posted by: security | Mar 19, 2007 10:45:38 PM

OMG Kathy! Wesabe is AWESOME!!!!!!
I am absolutely terrified by finances (for some personal reasons) and we've been trying to figure out a way to get a better idea of how much we're spending, but I just couldn't bring myself to figuring it out. Wesabe makes it *easy*. THANK YOU!!!!!!

Okay - I know that I'm going nuts on the exclamation points but you don't see me here crying on the couch with relief, or waiting for my sweetie to wake up tomorrow so I can show him "I DID IT!"

Posted by: Anna | Mar 20, 2007 3:32:30 AM

Most recent scary thing? Going to the dentist yesterday! Seriously though the most challenging thing I've done recently is give up secure, paid (exhausting) employment to travel a bit, write a bit, and work for myself. Although it took me a long while to psych myself up to the point of handing in my notice when it came to the crunch I just took a breath and jumped - maybe this is like the moment of standing on the bridge?
But not all scary things are like that - you can help people overcome fear by breaking the process down into small, manageable chunks. That way they start to feel bigger and the scary thing starts to shrink.

Posted by: Account Deleted | Mar 20, 2007 4:04:20 AM

Thank you for this post! In my heart I am liberated as a Tech Writer, although the company I work for would never approve of this kind of honesty.

On the other hand, maybe all this can be done without saying, "this is really hard." Maybe the correct tone and breakdown of concepts and tasks can present a very complicated topic in a simple, unintimidating way.

Tone and information architecture can go a long way in de-stressing a complicated topic, in my opinion.

Posted by: Todd | Mar 20, 2007 9:22:10 AM

I quit my government job, and moved 1200 miles to support my brother in his business venture. It is worth it but it was and still is scary.

Posted by: Sarah | Mar 20, 2007 12:22:20 PM

Thanks for the stories, everyone. For those of you who quit your job and stepped into the abyss... I know how scary that can be. Fortunately, I was pushed off or I might never have done it, and now I'm so glad that I did.

These points are VERY helpful, thanks:
The fear was reduced by:
* Doing it rather than talking about it
* Early failure - Once I'd fallen doing a jump and discovered that "No, it doesn't hurt" I was more free to push myself
* Progressing at the right pace
* Just in time information - don't tell me everything up front
* Passion - teach me to enjoy it, rather than to do it perfectly!
* Praise - When I got a jump about right, I could see him applauding

Anna: So, tell us how you really feel about Wesabe. I mean, do you like it? ; )

Joanna: "But not all scary things are like that - you can help people overcome fear by breaking the process down into small, manageable chunks. That way they start to feel bigger and the scary thing starts to shrink."

Well put.

Security: There ARE airlines that have fear-of-flying programs... I think American has one, and Frontier did, and some non-US airlines as well. Certainly, it's in their best interest to do so. I've never been to one... I have (or rather had) a fear of heights, but no fear of flying. On second thought, I DO have a fear of flying overseas with a screaming child in the seat behind me who likes to kick. Longest.Flight.Ever.

Jocelyn: Five feet!? Oh my... I think my record is 2'6"... what the "pony club" hunter/jumpers do. But then, I'm on an Icelandic, so the kids at the barn are impressed. I do send my horses over jumps (without me on them) that are higher than I'd ever ride; so they're much better at it than I am.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Mar 20, 2007 1:16:42 PM

Whenever I get a new internee for my Oracle database administration tasks, I intentionally scare the hell out of them, by asking them to give me the RMAN incremental backup of friday two weeks ago.

Hardens them for the future.

Posted by: Fahd Mirza | Mar 21, 2007 11:32:07 PM

Thank again.

Posted by: ceza | May 1, 2007 3:01:57 PM

thank you

Posted by: chat | May 7, 2007 5:33:11 AM

thank you

Posted by: chat | May 7, 2007 5:41:42 AM

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