Kathy Sierra: Building the minimum Badass User, Business of Software. A masterclass in thinking about software product development.

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Stop what you are doing and watch this is you are involved in making software. Most people have been doing it all wrong.

The inspirational Kathy Sierra kicked off the Business of Software Conference 2012 with this brilliant, brilliant, talk.

Not only some of the smartest advice anyone has given about how to approach software development, there is also a trick that is guaranteed to make you feel more confident, more powerful and more in control of what you do. It costs nothing, takes no time and you can use it whenever you want to.

Enjoy!

For more like this, visit the BLN’s talk library and find seven years of insights on building a great tech business.

Transcript

Kathy Sierra: For the live streaming, whoever’s filming the live streaming, it would be awesome if you just took the camera mostly off me and did the slides; they’ll make more sense than looking at me. So imagine that you are at a dinner party, and that you and your friends — who all look a lot like royalty-free models — you’re having a discussion and somebody says this: Now imagine: you know, what do they do? Well, they might do that, but you can imagine what they’re actually thinking in their little thought bubbles. And then this question comes up, and he says… Now, imagine what the reaction is to that. Right, and everyone’s okay with the fact that that’s a bizarre idea. So think about what people’s responses might be to that. [Laughter] Just think about that for a minute. [Laughter]

So once they get past that, then it’s like OK, we’re going to give you all the good advice, because we’re going to have a business that’s going to be successful. Here’s the stuff you have to do. And it’s going to go on and on and on and on and on. Because — oh! Facebook marketing. Twitter marketing strategies. Because we’re in the engagement economy, and it’s also the thank you economy, and it’s the experience economy, and the design economy, and how can you not have a Pinterest strategy? But that’s okay, because there are ways to work on your Pinfluence, and it’s the attention economy which Wikipedia feels is a little bit suspicious, but there’s a book, so it’s obviously a thing, and not to be confused with The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge. The Female Economy — go us — has only two comments; that’s kind of sad. And then there’s the virtual economy, also known as the synthetic economy; the knowledge economy, the like economy, one of my favorites is the pet economy, and then we also have the sushi economy. Which, by the way, Google this, but not right now: this is a real thing, the sushi economy. So, you might as well have your own economy, and look at that! There is the you economy, and just when you thought it was completely safe to let go of this, Facebook is back thanks to Justin Timberlake bringing sexy back. And not everyone is enamored… this just happened just a few days ago, right? Not everyone’s excited about it,…

And the four most intelligent words I have ever actually read on TechCrunch is this. Just Let It Go. Just let it go. Just take that deep breath again. Because competing on these issues is very fragile, not to mention exhausting. So this is not a sustainable, successful, happy path. So we’re just going to take a little step back, to look at how we got into this, and hopefully we can find better alternatives. So everyone starts out with this some variation of this: we want our product to be desirable. I mean, not just desirable, in, well, I would love to have that, but desirable enough that I’m actually going to get it. You have to have something that’s so desirable that people really want to have it. So this was the goal, and then of course you have to be more desirable than everyone else in your category. But it can’t just be desirable as a fad, right? We want it to be sustainably desirable. We want it to last. We don’t want people to just say “oh, I have to have this” and then they’re over it. We want them to really continue to want it successfully over a period of years.

Now what’s happened recently, which is really I think the worst possible answer to hits question, and there’s science that backs up why it’s such a bad answer to the question, is that now people are coming up with desirability engines, desirability platforms, engagement platforms, behavioral economics: This is a horrible trend, because it’s based on this myth: first of all, that this is what everyone wants to do. That people on their deathbed are like “If only I had engaged more with brands.” But this is not our problem. We do not have an engagement problem. So engagement platforms are not the answer in most cases. There are very few cases where it actually really applies. That’s not the answer; it’s not engagement that’s our problem.

And in fact, trying to get people more engaged with the brand actually causes harm to the brand over the long run, in most cases. I’m not going to go very far on this, because we’re going to switch to a more positive topic. But this is just so crucial right now, because gamification, which is the big topic, has very few, very few narrow sliced places where it’s awesome; the rest of the time it’s harmful. Gamification is today, (and I’m not talking about actual games) — Gameification is based on operant conditioning, which — how many psych majors, or people remember their psych class? B.F. Skinner. Now this is not just a metaphor either. We’re not just treating customers like rats, or as if they were rats in a Skinner box, it’s actually the very same science, where XXXX is now the hot new chemical that everyone’s talking about. Which is insane, because it’s also the thing that is responsible for slot machines and cocaine. So it’s not that it doesn’t drive behavior, but it’s not the behavior that you want for sustainable business.

And now you’re seeing it linked to things like loyalty programs, which is as many of you know a word I think is really bizarre, because that is not loyalty. So what we call loyalty is just bribery and incentivizing. And I like my little, you know, buy nine cups of coffee and get the tenth one free. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Just don’t confuse it with loyalty. And you may remember on the loyalty picture here, that’s the “tsunami dog,” the video of the dog that wouldn’t leave his other little friend behind. So this is important to remember. Loyalty is not necessarily our goal. Because it’s just not true. That just isn’t going to happen. Now we’re going to look at ways to do something that’s not just as good as we can get, but in some ways it’s even better. So we have to find a way to have this sustained desirability without bribing, without incentivizing, without coercing, which in the end would do more damage.

So what does make something really, truly, truly, desirable, in a sustainable way? What are those key attributes? Well, we kind of all know instinctively that we’re trying to say best quality wins; we all know this is really not true. Because the world is full of “Great product; didn’t sell.” Things that are beautifully crafted, they’re clearly the superior product; but they didn’t sell. So we know that, first of all, our definition of quality doesn’t even make sense; because only the user can decide what quality actually means. But we also know that this is true. That if something is really desirable, some of the things that you love and use every day, that people would have to pry out of your hands, that you will tolerate a lot of crap for those things, and we’re going to look at why, the reasons that you would be willing to tolerate that, and how to build that. Now, of course, if there’s only one source, then yes, people will tolerate crap because they have to, but that’s not what we’re talking about. Now the more interesting thing is that when something is really, really, really desirable, people will actually reinterpret the crap as not crap, because, you know, IOS 6 maps. Like your first version of anything was good. So people are willing to reinterpret things.

So if it’s not quality, what does drive desirability? What makes this happen? Why does he say that? Now this is the thing that we want, because this is what we know is true. So word of mouth is more powerful today than it ever has been. 70% of people trust online customer reviews, up 15%, blah blah blah. So we know that this is happening, Trust in ads: trust in online recommendations and offline as well, is going up. So for something to be really desirable, we need, and for us to have users who potentially want to get it, we need other users telling potential users, you need to get this. This is our goal; we need to make this happen. So if word of mouth today is really driving this sustained desirability, you know one user telling another prospective user “you have to have this,” well then, what drives this? What makes him say that? This is what we have to look at. Why did he do that?

But this is tricky, because everybody starts to compete at this. They want everybody to talk about their product is awesome, the company is awesome, their service is awesome. So they’re trying to be talked about as awesome, and it makes the world’s saddest Venn diagram. Now, that overlap really is tiny, if that is your goal. If your goal is to be perceived as awesome, versus the user’s goal is to be awesome. Now most people look at that and go no, isn’t there a much bigger overlap? Aren’t those really the same? But you know that they’re not. Because when we are trying to make the most awesome product, that people will view as awesome, we are often making really different choices, in product design, in features, in marketing, in everything that we do. If we’re trying to be perceived as awesome, it’s very different than focusing on just what the user’s going to be able to do. So we have to think about the choices that we’re making. We want to compete on user awesome, not app awesome. Because having the users view us as awesome is a natural side-effect, when we’re doing the right things. Trying to make it happen usually gives us the opposite effect.

This is where the power is. This is the side-effect that we want. We can’t get there directly. We can’t get there by trying to make people talk about it. Well, you can. It’s called “spam your friends.” So the key attributes of a successful app, if we’re going to reverse-engineer a really sustainable desirable thing, we shouldn’t be looking at the thing, because the key attributes live in the user, not the thing. So we have to look at what makes those users successful, that drives them to talk to other people. So desirability is really about the user getting results. Now competing on our awesomeness: again, a very fragile place to be. So we don’t want to be there. We want something much more robust.

This is one more way to think about this, and in a second you’ll see a little story about this. So imagine that the bar is set for for — and when I say app, you can imagine product, service, whatever; but I’m just going to use app because it has fewer characters, and there’s alliteration — App Awesome! The bar is fairly high for people trying to compete. And it might not be so high in your particular domain, but the bar is set pretty high. So if you’re competing on that, unless you actually are much higher than the most awesome thing, then it’s a noisy, bloody place to be competing. And that’s when all those other things become important, your different strategies and marketing strategies and your pinfluence and everything else. So there’s blue sky, and some of you may be familiar with the blue ocean strategy, up there at the top. Right? So there’s breathing room up there. But you have to be more awesome than all the competition, and make sure that everyone knows it. On the other hand, this bar is ridiculously low. We can just waltz right in, because the bar is so low. And I hope that, you know, keeps changing, but right now it’s shockingly low. So there’s a lot of blue sky there. Because people are competing on being awesome, instead of making the user awesome.

And in fact, that’s what Bert and I looked at, when we went to do our first Java book. We were like, there’s 2000 of them on the market. And we knew we’re not that good. We can’t possibly be the most awesome book. This was right after the dotcom crash and we’d lost both our jobs, and we’re probably not going to get them back. And O’Reilly said “Oh, by the way, if you actually want to make money, if you actually want to live off book royalties, you either have to be #1 or #2 in sales.” We’re like “Oh, sure, how hard can that be?” And by the way, no marketing. And no one’s ever heard of you. So we said well, this bar is really low. That’s the bar that we can easily get over, because there’s all this breathing room. And for us, it was really successful. Because that’s the important point. We’ve sold 2 million physical books; that doesn’t include any of the licensing royalties for any of the digital stuff, which as you know is also huge. The important point is not that we sold 2 million, it’s that we’re not actually very good. But we were certainly better than our competition at making our readers, a bigger group of people, more awesome.

So that’s the place to play. It’s not luck. People thought it was luck at first, but then we did it over and over again to just show no, trust me, you can still suck on some things and still have a really successful product if you can just focus on the user. So it’s not about quality, it’s not about marketing, it’s about user awesome. This is the place that we want to be, and you will make different choices if you try to compete on that. So it’s not about allowing you to be crappy, it’s about focusing your resources on something that’s more significant than all those slides I showed at the very beginning, that people are trying to get people to talk about them. This is where people’s lives get better, and this is what causes them to have those conversations with everybody else that we want them to have. So compete on user awesome versus app awesome.

Now some of you may know I used to say words like “user awesome” or “user kicking ass” or “user passionate” I don’t really tend to use those words anymore because it’s really easy to misinterpret that as yet another “we made the customer feel good” or ‘he likes us.” It’s too easy to focus back on the company again. This isn’t about focusing on what the user thinks of you. It’s about what the user is able to do, and to be able to become badass. And the other reason that you’ll see in a moment that I talk about badass is because there actually is a science around being badass. And I would much prefer to have something where we have actually science. They don’t actually call the science badass — but we’ll talk about it.

So true, sustained desirability for the user is actually badass. So this is what we want to compete on. The user being badass. This is the fundamental way to think about it. People aren’t using the app because they like the app or they like you. They’re doing it because they like themselves. What are you doing to enable more of that. And whatever anybody says everyone wants this. So this is one of the most powerful experiences that we can give people So this is the other way to think about this, now that we know that recommendations are driving everything. They tell their friends not because they like you, but because they like their friends. So think about how this is making you choose decisions. So what we want really, is we want robust, fault-tolerant users. We’re never going to be the best. We’re never going to not make mistakes. We would love people to reinterpret crap as not crap because it’s going to happen, and sometimes it’s going to happen — I don’t want to say by design, but sometimes you’re going to say you know what, we’re going to throw all our resources here to helping the user, and that means some of these other things that some users may care about we’re just going to have to let go. And that’s okay, because we’re helping them become badass, because they’re willing to overlook that, or even reinterpret it, and it’s not luck.

Now, Alan Kay, who is really one of the greatest computer scientists and thinkers of our time, and he has this quote, which people debate endlessly what it really means, and even when he talks about it it’s not always clear, but it’s the idea that your perspective, the way that you view something, the way you come at a problem is worth 80 IQ points, so it’s also worth a lot of marketing budgets and social media strategies and VS money, to be able to think this way instead of think about designing so that people will think that you’re badass. So of course we have to look at how to do that, and the first thing is to make sure that you’re not thinking of pseudo-badass. So pseudo-badass is this. So Tim Ferris, whether you like him or not or whether you like his work or not he’s incredibly successful in a sustainable way, and every day — every day! — Hundreds of people on the internet are posting and telling their friends “I just lost ten pounds” or “I’m stronger than I have ever been in my entire life. He’s making people actually quite literally more badass. But most gamification: not badass. That doesn’t mean it’s always bad, and in fact the one place where gamification is actually pretty awesome is when you’re trying to get people to do something which they just hate doing but want to do like workout.

Customer service is another place where we can get really hung up on thinking that we’re doing good things for the user but we’re not helping them be badass. So it’s not that customer service isn’t important… gratuitous puppy picture… but this is what customer service is supposed to be: it’s about enabling badass. If you’re not working toward that end, if you’re trying to compete on customer service, you’re still in a fragile place. Unless your business actually is service, but that’s a separate category, and for most people, it isn’t their business. So this is what we’re going to do. This is grammatically wrong on so many levels, but I just couldn’t figure out how to say it.

Badass at what? If you saw my previous talk at my previous conference or you’re probably familiar with idea that I’m going to talk about in just a second, but we have to get this out of the way. Because I still will always have people who will go “Okay, I don’t make something where there’s any badass.” Right? I just make this little utility, and in fact the point is that you shouldn’t have to master it, it should just be so natural that we solve the problem. Which is great. But. If you think your tool has no purpose but to immediately get out of people’s way, and there’s nothing to be badass at, what is your tool for? What is it enabling? Well, it’s enabling something bigger. So you can always ask, what does having that solution give them? There’s always something to be badass about.

No matter how big or small your tool is, the goal is never to be badass at your tool. There are very few exceptions to that. Right? He doesn’t necessarily want to be awesome at that app. He wants to be a filmmaker. So this is the little superset game. This is what helps you figure out what people could be badass about especially if your tool is a very small utility. So this is you, this is a competitor, or you can reverse that, because that isn’t what matters. What matters is this: the bigger, cooler thing, and this sphere could grow and grow and grow. So this can be many things. And it’s what are you both a subset of? What is the bigger meaningful context that people are or can be excited about? [Audience member sneezes] Bless you. And you can have many. So this is what people want to be badass at, not your tool. They want to be badass at that thing.

So they don’t want to be badass at Final Cut Pro, they want to be badass at making killer video games. Unless they happen to be Final Cut Pro consultants, and then they’re really screwed today, because Final Cut Pro X is like 10x easier to use than the previous one. Yes, it lost some capability, but it suddenly enabled a huge group of people who were struggling with the horrible mess that was the old one. So nobody wants to be an expert at your online ingredient shop, or recipe app, they want to cook. They want to be prediction forecaster and business modeler, not a spreadsheet guru. Not a pivot table guru. Hosting world-class conferences. That’s the bigger context. There can be many bigger contexts. But it’s important to figure out what it is.

This slide I’m going to show because — I’m going to pretty much spend the rest of my life showing this slide, because I think it’s the one that represents everything that’s wrong with how we think about things. How we treat people before they give us money, and how we treat people after they give us money. Which kind of is backwards. But the important thing about this slide, and I apologize to those of you who’ve seen it — no I don’t, because it’s important, it’s not that the before they buy, it’s all slick and glossy and sexy, and afterwards it’s low production value, that’s not what matters. What matters is that before they buy we get it. The marketers get it, that it’s about what the person wants to do, not the thing, that that’s just a tool, just an enabler. So they focus the marketing on what the person wants to do. And then the minute you actually get the tool, it’s just about the tool, and there’s nothing to really help you get awesome at the thing. So you make this huge promise about being awesome at the thing, and then we just completely lose our minds once they actually get the money.

And this is true even for companies where the product actually costs a lot of money. So think about what bigger cooler thing you’re enabling, and try to think about how you can help people become badass at it. And it can even be very loosely related to the actual thing that you’re selling, but you’re still helping people become badass. So imagine — I’m not going to actually have you do this now, but this is what I would like you to imagine. And actually, when we work with new authors, the first thing we have them do before we tell them anything is we have them write their ideal Amazon review. And then we start deducting points anytime it says anything great about the author or the book. And they really only get points if the person writing the review is talking about themselves in some way. First-person language. They’re saying “I was able to do this” or “I now can understand this.” They’re talking about what was enabled. Now obviously people who have that feeling, because you’ve enabled something, they are going to be saying that was a great book. But that’s not the point. The point is, think what you really want people to say about themselves.

And then the next question is, would you design things differently if that was your goal, that’s what you’re responsible for. And so far we’ve found nobody who would say nope, nothing would change. Now they might initially think that, but once they start actually thinking about their futures and putting it to the test. So now think, if you were responsible for this. Because the only thing that matters is here. The clicking, the swiping, whatever gestures they’re doing. This is what matters. But normally we’re designing everything around for example the user experience, which is while they’re actually involved with the thing. But that is not what matters, because we want people to be having conversations afterwards. And they’re going to have conversations not because your user experience was amazing, but because you enabled something as a result of that experience. And so we’re not just designing for our own users, we’re really designing for our user’s users.

And you can substitute the words audience, followers, friends, colleagues, peers, whatever it is. These are the people we’re designing for. Which is actually what Tim Ferris is doing. He’s making his users more interesting to their users, which could be the people that they’re having a dinner party with. That’s who we’re designing for. So we’re always asking how can I get more comments on my blog? How can I get more likes? How can I get more… We should be asking how can I get my user more comments on his blog? How can I get him more likes? How can I get more– whatever it is? How can I make them more interesting at work, more interesting at a dinner party? So if we can enable that, we are designing so that they’re not impressed with us, they’re not impressed with our tools, they’re impressed with themselves and other people are impressed with their work.

And then we get something like this. This is even better than word of mouth — this is word of obvious. This is where they don’t even have to talk. They don’t even have to tell anyone. Now when I used to teach an interactive XXXX design class at UCLA and this was like the first exercise that I had my students do is that you have your full tracking and surveillance package — which is actually kind of creepy, because at the time you couldn’t actually do this, but now you can. Imagine that you attached your tracking device to a user, and you could watch everything they do. And I’m not saying this because you’re going to use that data, that’s not the idea. The idea’s not for real — I have to say that now. The idea is, you could go through a thought exercise to imagine, what would you hear them say. And if you describe to yourself what do they do after they finish interacting with your product? What do they show for it? What do they have in their hands? What did they just email, what did they just post, and what kind of conversations are they having? We have to look at desirability as a side-effect of enabling them.

And now finally the science. Yes, there is science. So just a quick look at the science. So just a quick look at what badass is. Now many of you know what I used to say why it was good to have passionate users, because being better is better. But it’s actually much better to be really, really, really good. That’s even better than better. And because there’s a science around actually becoming really amazingly good, this is what we’re going to go for. Even if you get your users only partway up your curve, just the fact that you’re thinking about taking them up that curve is important. And the further they go, the more robust, the more fault-tolerant, the more likely they are to upgrade, the more likely they are to get the more expensive versions of your product — all the good things happen.

But again, it’s not pseudo-badass, it’s not “like a boss,” it’s the boss. Hi-res is one of the things that you find when people are very good at something. They have high resolution — not just knowledge and perception, but skills, they have richer, deeper experiences around that thing; richer, deeper conversations. Ultra- high resolution super HD, right? So to some of us, this might be what the night sky looks like; to someone who actually has more knowledge about astronomy, they see more; pretty soon they see more, they’re buying even more apps around it; next thing you know they’re actually making their own apps around it; subtlety feels like a superpower. None of you would be in this room if there weren’t at least one or two things that you have high resolution for. So subtlety feels like a superpower, but it can also be kryptonite.

Just to let you look at that for a minute. We can count off the designers. So if you don’t get this, you’ll have to get a designer to show you. This is on XKCD. So if you hover over this comic, of course, this is what the artist actually says. This is so awesome. I just love the idea of “so really, if you hate someone…” So badass equals expertise. Now because there’s a science of expertise. And I mean deep expertise. And there’s a rich history, in large part based on this K. Anders Ericsson. But it goes back for like fifty years, really intense study of what is expertise and, more importantly, how is it developed. But in order to talk about that and have a science around it that was measurable and peer-reviewable, it had to have clean and crisp definition. Because we use the word expert in a really poor way — like “oh, he’s expert at that” or “oh, I’m a social media expert.” What does that mean? Well, usually it means nothing.

So given a representative task, experts perform in a superior way more reliably. It’s really crucial to get that definition into your brain. Because people who are masters or experts or the best at the bigger context that we’re going to help people with it means that they’re able to perform more consistently in a more superior way. And it’s not experts vs. novices, right? That’s not really the interesting question. The interesting question is, what makes these people experts vs. these people who’ve had the same amount of experience? That’s where it gets interesting, because we know that it’s not about time. So reliably superior badass performance. Now if you do some crazy stunt and people go “oh, that was so badass,” that’s not actual badass. And I didn’t know it was in 3D, I didn’t see that one. One brilliant thing, one brilliant move, one brilliant idea, doesn’t make them an expert, doesn’t make them badass. It might be truly a brilliant thing. But it’s consistent, repeatable, reliable better performance. That’s what expertise is, because now we have a way to study that.

And one of the first things that they studied was chess, because it was so clean and measureable. So given a position on the board, the chess expert or master makes a better decision. Given a patient with these symptoms, the better, expert physician figures out what the problem is in a better, more reliable way; given a multi-track music performance, the guys back there on their XXXX board are making better choices; given this half-pipe, given this theme, — I just love this guy, so I always have to put him in here — Andy Riley who draws these cartoons — so imagine if your theme is bunny suicide. Even a lot of good cartoonists might be able to come up with one or two, but this guy repeatedly, reliably came up with three volumes now, just of bunny suicides. This guy is an absolute expert at bunny suicides.

[Laughter]

Because he can do it over and over and over.

I won’t go there.

[Laughter]

So these are the kinds of things an expert will do more repeatably, more reliably. And this is the interesting part, because it doesn’t matter if it’s athletics, or music, or doing business forecasting, or being a physician, or whatever it is. They find deep similarities in the ways that people become really good at something. And these are the three myths. Many of you have heard of these before, and some of you have heard me talk about these before, they’re huge myths, and they’re damaging myths, because any time we spend investing in these ideas is taking away from what might really be happening. So yes, experts do know more, so the idea is we’ll just push knowledge into other people and then they’ll be better, and that doesn’t happen. And we all know — and you all know this, because you have all worked with coworkers who had years of experience, and it did not make them any better. So experts are not what they know, they are what they actually do.

In fact, as I was walking into this room this morning somebody said you know, the amazing thing about this conference is, these people are actually doing. They’re not just talking about it; these people are doing things. So that’s really important. Now, there’s badass research — they don’t call it badass; they should, but they don’t. But these two books are representative — and I’m not necessarily recommending them unless you’re really interested in reading all the research papers; these books are a good start of where all the research is. These two actually apply. And again, this is about the whole 10,000 hours thing. How many of you have heard about the 10,000 hours rule? Right. Well, most people don’t realize that the 10,000 hours is not about the 10,000 hours. It’s about 10,000 hours of doing a very specific type of thing. So these books help point the way towards what those are.

But this is what we know: that becoming badass, or where we find badass, you find these three things: You find models, examples of what good really is. We find edge practice, which you may know under the name deliberate practice, which is a very misleading term. Which is why I’m now just only loosely and casually referring to it as edge practice, because it helps point to the right thing. I’ll talk about that in a second. And then they have forward flow. They manage to keep going, no matter what, even when things get difficult. So we need all these things. Now, you don’t have to write any of this down, if you’re interested I’ll make sure that these get posted on the blog, these references, if you’re not familiar with them. But for models, both self-determination theory, the leading theory of motivation right now, and the guy who is the man on heading up the research on expertise, models and self-practice is really about self-determination theory.

But there are also popular summaries of the underlying research. And that’s one of the reasons I’m really excited that Daniel Pink is going to be here tomorrow, because he’s written what I think is the absolute best summary in self-determination theory in the book Drive. And in fact if you haven’t seen it just even going and watching his TED talk gives you a really good picture and everyone who’s every going to consider making anything that anyone else will ever use or do needs to see that talk, and potentially read the book. But there’s also a summary of a lot of the true deep expertise research, and that’s this sort of popular book The Talent Code. Now I don’t find it as “scienc-ey” as the Dan Pink but, but it’s a great summary overview, because if you pull all the summary from all these research papers it takes a long time. Now I happened to have a long time, so it was okay. But The Talent Code actually gives you a lot of good stuff.

So if you have those two books you could do a lot for helping users, employees, students, whatever it is. So those two books. So now here’s the mapping of these things to those two books. Now there’s more to this, but this is a great 80/20 start. But Step Zero is, we have to define badass for the thing, that we want our users to try to become badass at. So assuming we have the bigger, meaningful context, which remember is usually not your tool, it’s the context in which your tool exists. So you might start just by writing out a description. So given the definition of an expert, given a representative task, an expert would perform better. So if you just start by playing around with that, you’ll begin coming up with ideas that in the beginning are going to be very abstract. Now, eventually you’re going to want to make them more concrete. For example, what does best mean? You would have to define what best means. You might even have to define what maintainable means. This is a great exercise to have people who are working on product design and user experience. So know that you know that an expert is someone who can make these reliable choices and you’ve defined what they are for your thing, now you just have to find experts in that thing, and figure out how they do it. That should be a piece of cake.

But you all know this is the curse of expertise – I’m going to call it the curse of badass, because I just like saying badass — this is what happens. And all of you are probably an expert at least one thing where you actually don’t know how you do it. You may guess, you may tell yourself stories, but you don’t really know. And of course, this is incredibly unhelpful. Now, a long time ago, in the early artificial intelligence days, both my husband and I worked as knowledge engineers where our job was actually to suck knowledge out of the person and represent it in software, and we hated people who said this, even though this was true. Or worse. They don’t want to be helpful, because you’re an idiot if you don’t see it. They don’t remember that there was a time when they didn’t see it. So either they forgot, or they just never knew.

Experts, people who truly make these reliable choices, they have deep intuition. And we know a little bit about how that happens, but it’s almost impossible to teach, because it’s very hard to introspect. They just know. How do they just know? So the brain is able to do things without having a conversation with you about it. And in fact if you’re having the conversation, you’re probably going to mess up. And this is a problem. So the other problem is that if you ask an expert, they will go “I just know.” Then if you say, “Well, can you help us teach these other people what you know?” they will assume that the person has to know about 10 million things before they can try anything. So there’s this huge gap between what people actually need to know, and what we think they have to know. And the longer we spend trying to give them knowledge and theory and background and declarative and procedural facts, the more we’re ignoring the chance for them to get actually good.

So if you could do only one thing for your users to make them badass, you want to give them repeated exposure to examples of what really good looks like. And it might be a result. If it’s photographers, it’s pretty easy, because we have all these books where we can just flip through and give them all these examples and it tells them what they did to get that photo, what their settings were. But it’s the high quantity of high quality that matters. It’s not just showing one example, it’s showing lots and lots and lots of examples. And in fact, that’s one of the things that came out in The Talent Code, when he researched people who were really, really good at something. People would literally stare at people who were really really good. And in fact one of the biggest problems that we have today is that people spend too much time being mediocre. And we spend most of our time being exposed to people who are also mediocre at the thing we do.

And we know that practice does not make perfect, right? The real phrase is that perfect practice makes perfect. But the big problem is that practice does make permanent. So the more exposure you have to examples of mediocre, the more likely that is to burn in. So we need to jump people ahead, by giving them lots of exposure to really good, whatever that is. Whether it’s the process, whether it’s the product, whatever it is. But we keep trying to push knowledge in, when our brains don’t actually work well that way, because we don’t acquire perceptual knowledge that way, and perceptual knowledge turns out to be the most important thing for even the things we would think of as skill, like sports. But even for things like math. So we need to to get our brains out of the way.

We’re not doing this now, but if you have not seen this Alan Kay video, which is ancient, I want you to. I think if you Google — don’t do this now — Doing with Symbols, and Alan Kay, you will get to a series of videos which I think is the most profound thing I think I’ve ever seen on education – it’s supposed to be the history of computer science but it’s brilliant. One of the things they show on there is Tim Galway – any of you heard of Tim Galway or have read The Inner Game of Skiing, or The Inner Game of Tennis, or The Inner Game of Golf? So The Inner Game of Tennis, which I actually recommend for anyone teaching anyone anything, is amazing. People didn’t take him seriously in the sixties because he describes all this all this stuff through inner mystical guru processes. But it turns out, and this is where Alan Kay, who again is one of the best scientists of our day, said this guy was really on to something. And then years later, neuroscientists finally did prove that there was a reason why these results were happening. Part of it had to do with XXXneurons. But it’s worth watching what he does. And what he does is look at how we get the brain out of the way, or the parts of the brain that are talking, so that the parts of the brain that are much better at really learning in a deep way can get on with their thing.

This is the most extreme example – anybody heard about the chicken sexing studies? There are studies comparing chicken sexing to computer programming, but it’s because this is the most extreme example of where people can become experts at something without learning a thing about it, or even knowing what they do. It’s the most extreme. And apparently chicken sexing – which is, you know, determining whether it’s a male or female, it’s just born, is really difficult. But they find people who are experts at it, they don’t really know how they do it, and they’re not able to teach anyone how they do it. What they figured out is that if the expert just stands next to the person who wants to learn and the person just picks it up and goes “I don’t know, male, over here” and picks up the next and says “I don’t know, female, over here” and the expert keeps giving them feedback, yes or no, the person learns quite quickly to be an actual expert, and they’re never able to say what changed. They just are better.

So it’s really powerful. So if you only do one thing, provide examples of what good looks like. Now – and this is a problem for communities, right? Usually when we have support communities, we want people to spend a lot of time with people that are struggling, and that’s good, but not without lots of good examples of good. Now, the level where we expose people to what good looks like – of course, it’s not meaningful if the level of expertise is so advanced and so subtle that they have no idea of what they’re looking at. But sometimes, like with the chicken sexing example, even if they don’t know what they’re looking at, with enough exposure, the patterns start to emerge in their brain. But if you could do two things, you would then add these deliberate practice exercises.

And since there’s a lot of research about how to design those I won’t’ go into the details, because it’s really easy to find good research, and good examples, of how to do this for any domain. For the main clue for a deliberate practice exercise – which is not the same as a tutorial, by the way; tutorials are not deliberate practice – it can be, but they’re often not. So deliberate practice is something designed to build a skill within one to three sessions. Now it’s not always one to three, but it’s easy to think about. Or I like to think if you can help people go from totally unreliable at this thing to 85 to 90% reliable, that’s a great metric, because that forces you to think about the granularity of that skill. So if in three days or three practice sessions, somebody can’t really become more reliable, the skill is not at the right chunk, it wasn’t at their level.

This is how people become really good at anything. They are doing that. The 10000 hours is about that, and that is painful work. So play this short musical passage at this speed in this key. And how short it is is going to be determined by, can you do this in one to three practice sessions? If you can’t then the part we were asking you to do was too long, and we need to change the exercise. So having a high quantity of those, that’s how skill is built. Not just keep doing it and hoping you get better.

And the third thing, if you could do nothing else, you would add a clear, believable path and in fact, the martial arts is a great place to study how people both motivate and build skill because they’ve been doing an amazing job at sustaining people. And in fact martial arts seems to be tied to people having a much better chance of continuing with an exercise program because they’re connected to martial arts verses any other fitness program. And this is because they have – now I don’t really study martial arts; apparently this is after you’re already a black belt, right? These are the degrees of black belt. And I had not realized that just getting the basics down, that’s what they consider a black belt. Now you’re a black belt. You’ve got the basics down. Now we go from here. So it’s like a motivational “GPS.” People need to know what’s the map to getting better at this, and where am I on the map. Those two things are almost always missing. And a lot of domains, no one’s ever bothered to suggest a map. So think about that. But here’s the most important think that’s driving all of that.

And this is a design idea for a point of view, based on science, that’s probably had the biggest change on the things that I do, even in the past year. Now, a lot of you will be familiar with this experiment, so I’m not actually going to have you do the experiment, but I’m going to imagine that you are. Imagine that I took this half of the room, and I was going to do a little memory experiment, and you were going to remember two numbers. This group, I’m going to have them remember seven numbers. So I’m going to do a little experiment. You’re going to remember two numbers; you’re going to remember seven. And again, I’m sure a lot of you have read about this experiment. Now, imagine that the experiment is over, but of course the experiment is never over; they’re always lying about that; they’re “alright, cool, you’re done! Now walk down the hall and they’ll process you.”

Now you guys walk down the hall, and you walk down the hall; you walk into a room for “processing” after the experiment is supposed to be “over” and there’s a table set up with cake and fruit. Here’s the freaky and crucial thing. You guys had two numbers. You’re looking kind of lean and svelte, right? You guys – cake-eaters. Far more likely to choose the cake. You had a cognitive task that required you to kind of sweat and stress, versus the two numbers. You guys were kind of, “I’m good with the fruit,” you guys were like “oh, cake.” This was unbelievable; it took them a long time to figure out what was happening, because it seemed so bizarre. But what happened is will-power and focus and concentration and working on problem-solving are all coming from the same pool of cognitive resources.

More significantly, it’s really a scarce resource that’s easily depleted. And it’s not just about glucose in the brain, although that does have a lot to do with that. This idea of cognitive resources being so easily depleted, and so applicable to so many things, that it’s this same pool of cognitive resources that’s taken by so many things, means that we should be patching cognitive leaks everywhere we can. Because every place it leaks out, we’re not just hurting their ability to move forward in everything we’re asking them to do, we’re also hurting their life. So all of these things, even just choices. So that’s why the stuff that you’re least likely to be able to resist is at the end of your shopping experience, right? Right by the checkout? It’s not because they think you got hungry while walking about the shore, it’s because you were so depleted cognitively by having to make choices. No more cognitive resources for choices, which means no more cognitive resources for willpower.

And they’re even shown it in dogs. So you take a dog – how many of you have dogs? So you put the dog in the crate for five minutes, and you put another dog, sitting outside the crate for five minutes, and you ask this dog to sit, which he has no problem with – a very obedient dog, sit for five minutes. This one just chills in his crate for five minutes. Then you let them out. Then you give them a treat puzzle, where it’s hard to get the little treat out. This dog who had to sit for five minutes gives up much faster than the one who was relaxing in his crate. This dog just gives up, even though he really wants the treat. So just being obedient, just sitting there for five minutes being obedient drained his ability to problem-solve, even for something he wanted.

So what does this mean? Think about this. And this is actually true, right? This is actually happening. Now this doesn’t mean that you should make your product incredibly easy. It just means that when people are draining their cognitive resources, that drain is taking them away from other things they would be able to do. And they need those resources. Becoming badass, becoming really amazing at something – remember deliberate practice? – is really difficult, right? It’s going to drain resources like crazy. It doesn’t work if it’s not draining resources. It’s going to be the biggest drain of all. Because it should not be pleasant for fun. If you’re enjoying something, you’re not getting better at it, you’re just doing it more. So you need to be pushing, and your users need to be pushing their boundaries, their edges, all the time in order to get better.

So you should always be asking, “Where can we, assuming that we can’t make this a fruit thing, because it’s where the hard stuff really just is, where can we make these other areas as “fruit-choosy” as we can, to reduce the cognitive resources.” So that we can reduce leaks, so they can use those resources to get better. Now we’re going to try to reduce them whenever we can, but I just like to think of it as – now this is a terrible name, of course, so no one will ever use this word, but Practice Cognitive-Resource-Driven Design. If you think about everything from a cognitive resources perspective, when are you draining resources, and when are you allowing those resources to refill. Usually, we’re draining those resources on things that are not really the important thing at all. Which of course, everyone who’s doing good XXXX knows this already.

Being overwhelmed with choices is a leak, a huge leak. This we now know for sure, that if you’re faced with a lot of choices – even though choice is empowering, even if every choice makes sense, none of it is confusing – just the overwhelming number of choices. So we know the great power of defaults, now we know that having more defaults and filters might cause someone to lose a little weight, which is badass. So, trying to figure out which parts of your API really matter. One of the things that experts are so great at, especially experts who are acting as mentors, is they can tell you, “I know the book has these 10,000 things in it” or “I know this API is huge, but just let it go, because none of it really matters. What really matters is…” Right?

There is something for which you are an expert where you know something that almost nobody else knows. Where you know the real heart of it is not where everyone else is looking. It’s actually just this. And then you might reach a new level of expertise where you go, “Actually, that wasn’t it either. It’s actually this thing over here.” The more you can point people to what really matters, instead of offering them all these possibilities. So your job is to cut through that. There are cognitive resource hacks. One of them — I’m sure most of you have read Donald Norman’s work from way back when – this idea of knowledge in the world instead of knowledge in your head. I think his main point on that was, whenever you can offload something into the world and out of their head, it’s reducing their cognitive resource drain. Something in the UI that has a label not modal, where it doesn’t behave different ways at different times, it’s just what it does. So the knowledge for what that thing does is in the world, it doesn’t have to be in their head. Anytime you do that, you’re freeing up cognitive resources for him to do other things.

But this one, this is so awesome, and if you haven’t seen these studies you can actually Google this too, later. This idea of enclothed cognition. This is really powerful, and there’s a lot of things that you can do with this. It’s this little cute idea to kind of raise your IQ or raise your capability just by something that you wear. So they took a group of people, and gave them this white lab coat, and said OK, you guys, we’re giving you this coat to wear, and its’ the coat that the scientists wear. And they took this group and said you guys” — they actually gave you the same coat, but they said this is the painter’s smock. This is what the artists wear in the studio next door, or wherever it is. Then they gave you some tests. Same coat.

If you believed that you were wearing the scientists’ coat you scored higher than your default might have been on the technical things. Not so good at the creative tasks. You guys, on the other hand, kind of sucked at the engineering and science tasks, but you rocked the creative tasks. Just by putting on the coat. And that’s part of what they’re discovering about the strange way they brain does things, without us being actually consciously aware of it or trying to implement it.

But there’s an even more bizarre and powerful one, and in fact I’m going to do it right now. I’m going to make you instantly badass. Instantly, and mean this truly and legitimately, and if we had needles and syringes and lab gear I could prove it. So here’s what we’re going to do, and it’s the only activity I’m going to ask you to do, and it’s really easy, but you are going to have to stand up in just a second, so clear the decks. What you’re going to do, without hitting the person next to you, is I want you – well, go ahead, stand up; again, this is going to be really easy, just don’t hit the person next to you, I want you to adopt a superhero stance. Be badass. Put your arms out. [Grunt] or Wonderwoman — well, now I said Wonderwoman so you’re not going to do it – but Wonderguy or something. Right? Badass stance. Be open, be big.

Now sit back down. If we had the needles and gear, we could prove that I just increased your testosterone. And lowered your cortisone. Now, don’t go like this, because that will immediately decrease your testosterone and increase your cortisone. So we know this to be true. We can do it with humans, we can do it with animals – we can instantly make you more alpha. Which again, is more badass because if we can make you less stressed, it’s not the having more testosterone – not that I have anything against testosterone – it’s when you have lowered your cortisone, that means you are freeing up more resources, because you’re not stressed. So you can now focus in a broader way. So it’s a really good space to be in. So think about that. Clothes, posture, all those things: you can make people instantly badass.

Now, to wrap up. Remember, this is what we’re going for. This is what we’re going for more than anything, and we want to figure out how to make that happen. This is the summary of the three main things that are happing where true badass exists, and these are things that you can provide. And when I say provide I mean that you can provide a pointer. You can say “Oh, this site over here has lots of things that will help you be good at this.” Anything that you can do. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to build these things. Because chances are, you may not have very much helping people with your tool, but you may be able to find a great set of community and resources to help people get better at the real thing.

So think from a cognitive resources perspective; you don’t want to be the app that makes people fat. Now we have the idea that the customer still isn’t going to take a bullet for us, right? Because they’re never truly loyal to us, because that would actually be really dysfunctional and unhealthy. But – there is a but, right? Because people are loyal to themselves and those they care about, not you the brand, if you do this, there’s a huge win for everybody, and you get this. And then, you know, you’re getting closer.

I’m going to end the way I always end, because it’s really meaningful for me to be here with all of you, because what we are doing, all of us, we are developing things that help increase the resolution of the real world. We are upgrading the real world by giving people a higher resolution for their experiences. And I am really honored to be part of that. So go you, and have a great rest of the conference. Thank you.

[Applause]

Thank you guys.

3 Responses to “Kathy Sierra: Building the minimum Badass User, Business of Software. A masterclass in thinking about software product development.”

  1. Frank Villavicencio says:

    Very insightful and well researched presentation. Thanks for sharing. I read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman recently, and thought that based on Kathy’s approach to the topic, she would find this book very valuable, and perhaps even useful in furthering her theories on how to build a better product.

  2. Jens says:

    I just wrote and email to MArk where I said that if Kathy had written a book, let’s call it “Badass”, then Badass would me in my top five business books of all time. I would therefore like to pre-order 25 copies of Badass, when it becomes available for pre-order. Kathy, please write Badass to make us all badass at making our users feel badass. I love Badass.

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