Creating Passionate Users with Kathy Sierra, Part I

K_sierraI'm thrilled to continue my series of conversations with practioners, authors and thought leaders by posting a two-part interview with one of my heroes.

Technology and user experience have benefited greatly from the work of Kathy Sierra.


A big ah-ha I had a couple of years ago when I attended your panel at SxSW for me was the idea of focusing on what the person wants to do. I tend to go macro in my thinking and we do share common themes at a high level.

Yet, I had not thought of taking that principle and applying it to everything I do before.

That made a big difference in the results I got. Why is thinking about process so important, and what do people need to do to get started?

KATHY: It is not just *important*, in my opinion, it is *everything*. The most natural thing to focus on is what we think we have control over: the "quality" of what we do/make/write. But the assumption is that the quality of what WE do maps directly to quality for the end-user, and this is rarely the case.

It is not that our users (whether they are our readers, app users, conference attendees, etc.) don't appreciate quality… but it is never OUR quality that matters, it is the quality of what our users are able to do as a result.

We all know and own many high-quality, beautifully-crafted tools we simply do not use, or perhaps cannot use. And we all own things that defy any formal definition of "quality" yet we stand back and look at what we created with them and think, "wow, look what I made!"

Of course there is a relationship between quality of what WE do and quality of what the user does with it, but when people put the focus on the user's quality-of-result, it can mean ripping out half the features in your product or half the content in a book, and replacing it with something entirely different.

It does not matter how awesome your product is or your presentation or your post. Your awesome thing matters ONLY to the extent that it serves the user's ability to be a little more awesome.

I am an example of this. My books are the #1, 2, and 5 longest-running tech bestsellers on Amazon. But my co-authors and I are rather average writers and not brilliant technologists either. And with the first book, nobody had heard of us.

To this day people do not write Amazon reviews about how awesome WE are, because it was never meant to make us look good… It was always about making the reader genuinely smarter and better at programming, in a meaningful way.

It takes a certain amount of courage to do this, because many times what makes the reader/user smart/awesome is NOT what makes the writer/developer look smart/awesome. How many books have you read where they are so detailed, concise, comprehensive, etc. that you cannot help say, "this author really knows their stuff…They are obviously very smart", yet you, the reader, are struggling to put it to use.

So many books are written in such a way that we can be impressed with the author, but what matters is leaving the reader impressed with himself or what he was able to do as a result of the book. And with authors we work with, it is often at least 50% of the book that needs to change.

But there is always a battle because in the back of our minds, we know what our peers, or experts, or critics will say about US, when what we SHOULD be concerned with is what our *reader's* peers will be saying about THEM as a result of what we helped them do/make.

Getting started in this way of thinking is simple: put a big post-it next to your workspace that says, "how does this help the user kick ass?" and then ask the question about everything. Every feature consideration, every paragraph, every slide. Never quit asking. You will begin to know when you have deviated into something that makes YOU look like YOU kick-ass, because your justification will sound weak even to you 🙂

Pretty soon it just becomes a habit. We cannot do it 100% of the time; we are still humans with egos, but ANY movement in that direction Is helpful because, honestly,the bar for user-result-focused thinking is set awfully low in most domains.

And I say user-result-focused NOT simply user-focused, because user-focus can still put the focus on the wrong thing.

Customer service, for example, can be a distraction from what really matters to people. When we focus on customer service, that is still a focus on US… Look at our awesome customer service. Or, look how much we CARE about the users. Then we are concerned with making them *feel* "cared about."

But in most things, given a choice between being "cared about" vs. actually being BETTER at something, we will choose better. Not that we should need to make a choice, but good customer service is often more about making the users feel good about US, when making someone better at something is a far more effective and sustainable way to produce results.

Good customer service is about doing whatever it takes to enable your users to be better. The best customer service is when users are not aware of it and do not need it. This does not apply, of course, to companies where customer service IS their product, but that is a different scenario.

So if I see a book that says "Amazing Customer Service", it really means "Amazing Service" but what it SHOULD say is "Amazing Customer".

This is my long-winded way of saying I, as a customer, really do not care how awesome YOU are. I care how awesome I might become at [whatever you are going to help me do/learn/be].

And one more thing, another way to get started is to simply start thinking of your customers as your users. Customers are people who give you money, but users are people who must find what you do USEful and USABLE and USER-friendly.

If they are your "users", it helps keep the focus on usefulness. Not on what you do as a tool, but on what the user USES it to do. This is very old thinking, of course, as the old marketing expression "they are not buying 1/4 inch screws, they are buying the beautiful deck they are going to build with those screws…"

By this thinking, all the customer service and warm fuzzy self-esteem the user gets will mean nothing if their deck falls down because people did not know how to use your high tech new screws properly. It is possible to have a customer-service orientation that factors that all in, but it is less common out there.

Even looking at things like website feedback buttons… They are mostly serving as "tell us what you think of US" or "tell us what WE are doing wrong and how to fix it" when there should be buttons for "tell us what is going wrong for you with the product or in what you want to do with it, and we will help you fix it" or "how can we help YOU?"

Too many feedback forms pretend to be "tell us how we can hep YOU" but they really are nothing more than "tell us something that will help US."


I'm about to present at SxSW for the first time — a solo conversation on influence. I'm very excited to have the privilege to facilitate there, and I'm thinking about your advice to keep the audience in mind.

Could you share an example of what makes a difference in designing content that takes into consideration how people are going to use the information?

KATHY: Well, I am sure you did great 🙂

Everything I said in the previous question holds here, especially the part where you ask constantly, "how does this help the user kick ass?". It is especially challenging when preparing for presentations because we are always told to focus on improving our presentation skills, improving our slides, etc.

But really, there is a scenario in which you could absolutely SUCK as a presenter and still deliver a presentation that is impactful, engaging, and most importantly–makes a lasting difference.

The secret is to quit wondering how people will tweet about YOU but instead wonder how you can help the person in the audience get more interesting comments on their own blog, photos, or gain new followers *as a result of something they got from the presentation*.

This is also my personal secret for stage fright, which I still suffer from… I go out and think, this is not supposed to be about me. I am simply a UI… I am the interface into an experience for these people in the audience, and what can they get from this experience?

In a short presentation, it does not always mean that you have given them clear, usable tools they can leave and get started with, but you can always leave them with *something* that makes them just a little better at something.

We should never discount the value of inspiration and motivation, for example, because the most useful tools… The ONLY useful tools… Are the ones we actually will take the time and energy to use. So if you give someone that tiny extra push that gets them to move in the direction they already wanted to go, that's valuable too.

Or maybe you made them feel a little less overwhelmed about a particular topic so that now they feel more freedom to pursue learning more about it and feel comfortable now engaging in conversations about it rather than avoiding it in fear of revealing their lack of knowledge about it. That is very valuable.

These are all things you can give people.

Or maybe you show them a little-known but very useful resource like a website that they in turn cannot wait to share with THEIR network. It does not matter if they do not credit you as the source of their wonderful new "find".

You have given them something of value.

Instead of thinking, "what can I do in the presentation to make ME look good?" the answer is to think, "what can I do to make THEM look good?" whether it makes them look good that day or the next or a month or year from now… You are the enabler of their abilities.

You want to be the guy in the spy thrillers who supplies people with the awesome tech and weapons. Or the one who helps the new young superheroes learn to wield their new powers. You do not want to be the star, which very few of us are talented enough to do so anyway.

[to be continued tomorrow]

[The Amazon link includes my affiliate code]


This part has given me a lot to think about. When I was preparing for SxSW, I was thinking about creating a space for people to see how to identify, enroll, build and grow relationships of trust, which is where influence is seeded. Did I do one of the things Kathy suggested with my presentation?

I loved the questions we discussed at the end. How so many in the audience made powerful contributions to the topic with examples from their experience, definitions they found useful, and even in sharing the works in progress. Were you there? What did you take away from the conversation?

UPDATE: link to part two.

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