Kathy Sierra – Building the Minimum Badass User

This is a summary of Kathy Sierra’s Business of Software 2012 presentation.

Getting Customers

It starts with “I’m going to start a startup.” Then your friend tells you you need to get funding first. “Funding?,” you ask, “Users will just pay for it.” For some reason people forget that getting paying customers is the ideal way to fund your business.

A business is not going to be successful competing on the various “economies”:

  • The attention economy
  • The Facebook economy
  • The female economy
  • The you economy
  • The like economy
  • The pet economy
  • The sushi economy
  • The [fill in the blank] economy

How did we ever get here? Competing on these issues is fragile and not sustainable, so let it go!

So, what’s going to make your business successful? Build a product that is:

  • Desirable: Build something so desirable that people just have to have it.
  • Sustainably desirable: Build something that people will want over a period of many years.

“Desirability engines” is a new concept people have come up with to indicate that people like to engage with brands. But we don’t have an engagement problem. More brand engagement is not the answer. Trying to get people more involved with the brand can cause more harm to the brand.

Gamification is a form of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is also responsible for slot machines and cocaine. Gamification is rarely helpful (based on behavioral psychology) in building a sustainable business. Don’t confuse buying behavior from gamification with loyalty. Gamification is a form of bribery, not loyalty. Loyalty is what you get from a dog, bribery is what you get from Best Buy (“loyalty program”). Your customers won’t take a bullet for you.

Your product needs to be sustainably desirable without bribery or coercion. So the question is, what makes something truly desirable? What are those attributes?

GP;DS = Great Product; Didn’t Sell. This means that quality doesn’t drive desirability. In fact, users will tolerate more crap from desirable products. People will reinterpret the crap as not crap.

Trust in ads is inversely related to trust in recommendations. Word of mouth drives desirability, and it is more powerful today than it ever has been. What drives word of mouth? User awesomeness, not app awesomeness. Therefore, you want to compete on user awesome, not app awesome. The key attributes of a successful app don’t live in the app, they live in the user. Think about what makes your users successful/awesome. If you can make your users awesome, by extension your app will be viewed as awesome.

Creating Badass Users

Desirability depends on the user getting results. If you make your user awesome, your product will be desirable, which will result in success. It’s not luck, and it’s not quality or marketing. It’s all about making your users awesome. And by “awesome”, we mean “badass.” There’s a science about being a badass.

It doesn’t matter what the user thinks of you, it’s what the user can do with the app. People don’t use the app because they like the app or because they like you. They use it because they like themselves.  And they tell their friends about the app, because they like their friends.

You want robust, fault tolerant users. “Point of view is worth 80 IQ points.” ~ Alan Kay. This means that the way you come at a problem is very important. But how do you get robust, fault tolerant users?

Don’t think pseudo-badass. Don’t help users pretend to be badass, help them be badass. Most gamification is not badass except in certain circumstances. Customer service is a trap, and most customer service isn’t badass either. Customer service should support the user in being badass.

Badass at what? Think about what your tool is for, and what that solution gives your users. What does the user do with or because of you? What bigger things do you enable? Users don’t want to be badass at the app, they want to be badass at what they do. No one wants to be killer at Final Cut Pro; they want to be killer at making videos.

Consider how you treat customers before and after they buy. Think about the difference between a marketing brochure and the user’s manual you get once you purchase. The marketing brochure is glossy, slick and in color. The user’s manual is plain, boring and in black and white. The marketing brochure focuses on making the user badass, and the manual focuses on the product.

What bigger, cooler thing are you enabling (even if it’s loosely related)? Think about how you can help people be badass at that. Exercise: Write your ideal Amazon product review. Then deduct points for mentioning the founder or the product, and add points for the first person.

Think about what people would tell their friends. Does your app enable that, or would you design things differently? Think about what happens when the user is done clicking. What kind of conversations are people having after using your product? In the end, all that matters is what happens when the clicking is done.

  • Design for the post-UX UX.
  • Don’t just design for your users, design for your user’s users.
  • Don’t design so they’re impressed with you, design so they’re impressed with themselves (or others are impressed with them).

Another exercise: Write your ideal surveillance report of your users. What did they do AFTER they were done using your product?

What is badass?

  • Being better is better.
  • Badass > Better.
  • I’m not like a boss. I’m the boss!

Being badass is about getting the users a little further up the curve/out the door. High resolution = Deeper, richer experiences around something.

Subtlety is a superpower, but it can also be Kryptonite. Given a representative task, experts perform in a superior way more reliably than non-experts with the same amount of experience. Researchers have found this to be true regardless of the domain. Therefore, your app needs to enable superior, more reliable work on representative tasks.

The three myths of expertise:

  • Expertise comes from knowledge.
  • Expertise comes from experience.
  • Expertise comes from talent.

Expertise does not come from knowledge, experience, or talent. Experts are defined by what they do. After 18-24 months, amount of experience is not a good indicator of future performance. The 10,000 hours rule isn’t just about 10,000 hours. It’s about 10,000 hours of doing a very specific thing.

Don’t confuse badass with jackass. You want to be a badass, not a jackass.

The Science of Badass

Becoming badass takes three things: forward flow, models and edge practices.

  • Forward flow: Keep going despite adversity
  • Edge practice: Intentional work
  • Models: Examples of work

Kathy recommends reading Daniel Pink‘s book Drive and watching his TED talk. She also recommends The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.

Step zero: Define badass for your thing. Given ___ (representative task), an expert would ___ (description of better, more reliable results).

Find experts and find out how they do it. Experts have deep intuition – they just know. This can be a problem, because it makes it hard for experts to describe how they do things. The curse of badass expertise:

  • Question: “How do you do it?”
  • Answer: “I just…know.” or “Dude, it’s obvious.”

Assume the person needs to know a billion things to understand.

If you could do only one thing for your users, provide repeated exposure to the performance, process, and results of badass users. Most people could learn better by literally staring at experts and the results of expert work. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it makes permanent.

A top mistake we make when trying to build expertise is trying to push knowledge in. Brains can acquire deep perceptual knowledge and skills more effectively when we STFU. Google “doing with symbols by Alan Kay“, which is about learning how to do something without knowing how. People can become experts at something without ever doing it (for example, chicken sexing).

If you could do only two things, add a progressive series of exercises (deliberate practice), each designed to build a fine-grained skill within 1 to 3 sessions. Deliberate practice is not the same as tutorials. How do I get my user to 85-90% reliable at this thing in three sessions? Define a clear criterion for a result – “Play this musical passage with no mistakes in this key.”

If you could do only three things, add a clear, believable path (i.e. model) to keep users making forward progress (e.g. martial arts). In other words, provide a motivational GPS to keep them moving forward.

Cognitive Resources – Fruit vs. Cake

There’s one thread driving all of this: cognitive effort is inversely related to willpower and concentration. Researchers ran an experiment where they asked people to either memorize two numbers or memorize seven numbers. At the end of the session the volunteers walked by a table and were given the option to choose either cake or fruit. A majority of those that were asked to memorize seven numbers picked the cake, while those that only had to memorize two numbers picked the fruit.

Cognitive resources are scarce, limited and quickly and easily depleted. Willpower and cognitive focus live in the same resource pool, and they are easily depleted. Therefore, draining cognitive resources drains willpower. The same resource pool is managing all of these links, and cognitive resources are depleted by making choices. This leads us to realize that self-control is expensive (in terms of cognitive resources).

In another experiment, dogs were given a simple puzzle to solve that released a treat. Before being asked to solve the puzzle, half of the dogs were crated, while the other half was asked to sit for 5 minutes. The dogs that were asked to sit for 5 minutes gave up much quicker than those that were just crated. It takes much more energy to consciously sit for 5 minutes than it does to just hang out in a crate.

So, what does all of this mean? Your app makes me fat!

Becoming badass is hard (cake choice). Make your UI, documentation, support, etc. require a two number (vs. seven number) effort. Always be asking “Is this a fruit thing or a cake thing?” Ask “How can we reduce the resources needed to get the desired result?”

Practice cognitive-resource-driven design. Being overwhelmed with choices is a huge cognitive resource leak. (Having more filters makes you lose weight.) Cut through possibilities to what really matters. A cognitive resource hack is to offload something off of the user’s head. Put it in their world instead of their head.

The enclothed cognition test: Someone wearing a white, doctor-type of coat was presented to a group of people, and they were asked to identify what that person was wearing. Those that scored high on scientific tasks and bad on artistic/creative tasks identified it as a lab coat. Those that scored high on the creative tasks and bad on the scientific tasks identified it as an artist’s smock.

How to be instantly badass: Stand like a superhero. Literally.

Image credit: Betsy Weber

Because people are loyal to themselves and those they care about, align the company goals with the user’s goals. Increase the resolution of the user in the real world. Your customers still won’t take a bullet in the head for you, but maybe in the leg or arm.

[I’d like to thank Bill Horvath, founder of DoX Systems, for sharing his notes with me.]

Justin Goeres also has a very nice summary of Kathy’s talk on his blog.

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