Creating Passionate Users with Kathy Sierra, Part II


This is part II of my conversation with Kathy Sierra. In part I, we talked about focusing efforts on what the person you want to support wants to do and about designing useful content. To me content is a business asset, a product. Which means you may need to redesign the organization to produce it.

This conversation with Kathy is bubbling up many of the issues we face in that process.


There are so many favorites among your visual archives.

Simple questions you managed to help us surface and remember in new ways: out spend or out teach; going from possible to likely in making a bestseller; how fast and how far can you take your users?; the featuritis curve, and many more.

Do you have a favorite, one that has made a difference in your work? What was the breakthrough that got you there?

[hopefully, I didn't muddle the question. Here I'm interested in learning how we can set ourselves up to break through being stuck by focusing on outcome]

KATHY: Hmmm…this is hard for me because I need help in so many areas myself. I am not a "natural" at anything that I do well, and I need constant reminders myself, even in the things I believe most strongly in. But you did mention one that is my favorite: the out-spend vs. out-teach the competition.

The process around this for me, or the big breakthrough, I guess, was that for a long time I was focused on baking the good things into the product… I felt that if your product was not already supportive of the user's "superpowers" then you were screwed and had to fix it.

While I still believe it is best if we CAN do this, I was heartbroken talking to so many people who cared deeply about the user but were so far removed from product design/dev, so what could they do? And I was in the same spot working at a huge company like Sun.

But the more I looked at this, of course it was obvious that among competing companies with similar products, the one that got users up to speed more quickly and then took them further… was more likely to win.

So then I began to recognize the notion that you could "upgrade your users, not your product" by improving the skills of the existing users (and new) users regardless of whether the product was ever made easier or better.

Part of what I try to do is think, how can I help users improve their knowledge and skills even if I cannot change the product at all? That was, for me, a breakthrough into a whole world of other possibilities to help encourage and support passionate users, separate from product development and often *in spite of* it.

You could even look at the extreme end of this where some products are even MORE passion-inducing *because* they are hard to use and thus you really feel like you have accomplished something when you have finally mastered even the basics. Kind of the knowledge/skill equivalent of an "acquired taste".

So in many ways, the ultimate passionate users scenario is where you take something that IS inherently difficult to use/master, but which has a potentially huge payoff for the user if they do, and you make it possible by removing as many barriers as you can without changing the product.

Just take a huge whiteboard and start answering the question: what can we do to out-enable our users over the competition? In other words, what if the REAL competition is not for who has the best products but over who has the best users?

So instead of thinking, "our product kicks their product's ass" the game is, "our users kick their users' asses" (at whatever the higher skills and knowledge are around doing something with that type of product).

Let other companies, brands, apps battle with one another over who has the most awesome product, while the REAL battle is over who has the most awesome users. Of course I said this once and someone assumed I meant that you needed to "acquire" a better CLASS of users, but that is not what I meant 😉

I meant to improve the ones you have.

When people complain that they have only the less-skilled, newbie, less-passionate users as compared to the competition, I suggest that rather than chasing a different group of customers, they should help the ones they have *become* the ones they want. Everyone wins.

This is of course challenging if a company makes only an entry-level product, but in this case the company has options to either add a more advanced version OR to focus on another aspect of advanced, deeper use that does not involve the product.

For example, low-end camera maker can only go so far helping people with the *technical* aspects of photography… Cannot help you learn to use manual controls if the camera does not have them! But… They could focus on helping people with a whole separate set of skills around photography, using these fully automatic and lower quality lenses as simply a creative constraint.

If you asked, "if not the camera, then what COULD we improve on?" You might find things like composition… You could spend years getting better at that. Or lighting. Or even making stop-motion animation.

Things that are useful, potentially very deep high resolution skills that produce extremely engaging and rewarding results, but which live partly outside of the actual quality and features of the device itself.


What inspires you? Who are your mentors?

KATHY: Many things inspire me… but spending time in nature and with my horses is at the top of the list. It is what gives me the greatest chance to participate in the flow state, and where all of my senses are most stimulated.

On days I spend in an office, behind a desk, and do not get out to feel the ocean breeze or horse fur, I feel less recharged and less able to be focused or creative. I am also inspired by people who have worked really hard to develop deep skills at something…people who are experts not necessarily at *knowing*, but at *doing*.

It is as though they have stepped into an alternate universe where parts of the world are much more fascinating. Athletes, advanced hobbyists, musicians… I am not really awesome at anything, but these folks inspire me to work harder and look deeper.

My mentor would have to be Tim O'Reilly, most of all, but many other people have had a sustained and significant impact on my work and/or life over the last many years including Dan Pink, Seth Godin, Alan Kay, Tim Ferriss, Hugh MacLeod, Brenda Laurel, and my Icelandic horse trainer, Steinar.


If you were to share one word of advice, what would it be?

KATHY: …and I thought 140 chars was tough, but ONE word? 😉

OK, "Aliveness" is the word. It is the one attribute I would test *everything* against. As in:

"is this slide alive?" "is this UI alive?" "Does this feel human?" Just asking for that one attribute can make a massive difference, and each time you ask the question, it gets you to think just a bit more about what it means to have a pulse 🙂

It works on every level, too, from the high-level perspective of having a more "conversational tone" vs. sounding like a machine, but also to detailed aspects of a single UI element (e.g. "Does it bounce when the slider hits the end, the way an object would in real life?").

And in our books, we constantly look for ways to have the book act more like a human… by answering questions a human (as opposed to a book) would realize they'd have from seeing the confused look on their face. We cannot be there to SEE the look on our reader's face, but we can anticipate where they might be confused or have a question, and try to respond in a more human-like way.

So I turned a one-word piece of advice into a couple paragraphs… Sorry 🙂

Oh and here is a bonus things-to-stay-away-from: gamification. I would run fast and far from any of the current crop of discussions on "gamification" (which, as others have suggested, is more like "badgification and pointsification"). Maybe we will have to talk another time about that one!


The notion of out-teaching and thus upgrading your customers when you cannot upgrade the product is very powerful. This is something you can do through interactions as well. It's a way to "thank ahead" by helping people now do the things they need to do to succeed. Think about the impact you could have.

Marketing and business need testing through the human lens. Technology and humanism meet in significant ways already. Are your communications alive? Does the interaction with you feel conversational in tone? Can you anticipate questions, simplify confusion with your content?


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