OSCON 2.2: Creating Passionate Users

by Geoff Broadwell

Related link: http://conferences.oreillynet.com/cs/os2005/view/e_sess/7077

Kathy Sierra's Creating Passionate Users is the only tutorial I took that really could be classified as training, rather than a lecture or Q&A. In a flashback to days spent in corporate training classes, the students were broken up into teams and asked to work on exercises several times during the 3 hour session.

It's difficult to figure out exactly what I liked about the class -- perhaps it was that Kathy's obvious enthusiasm for applied cognitive science was infectious. Perhaps it was the very interesting opportunity to view geek addiction from the other side -- trying to make it happen in your user community.

Right there is one of the keys -- people love to form communities. Don't just let them, help them. This doesn't mean some lame forum section of your website (although certainly that can be one method among many). This means forming the same sort of tight-knit communities that surround products as varied as role playing games and horse training.

To form a rich, vibrant community, the product has to have a long term richness and depth, so that a progression forms from newbie to master. As in various programming communities, a rich ecosystem of knowledge will form around this progression. Some users will spend all of their energy climbing the ladder of mastery; others will act as mentors, or evangelists, or trivia collectors, or what have you. The more depth a subject shows, the richer the community can be.

The ladder of skill is itself important; as game designers know, many users just want to be able to reach the next level to be able to say that they have. "I've got an 80th level ranger, and I've played through the entire Fubari world!" Other users want to have some new skill or power when they climb the ladder. In games this may be a new weapon or special ability for one's character. In other fields, the user herself is gaining the ability: Kathy mentioned being an amateur photographer and being proud to learn the technique that makes waterfall photographs look blurry and surreal.

Some companies choose to form a community with skills very closely related to their product, such as Nikon teaching photography techniques -- some of which can't be done without buying one of their more expensive cameras. Others choose to form a community around something only peripherally related to their product. Red Bull knows that DJs and dancers probably use their product to stay up for those "up until they close" dancing nights, so they decided to create what is apparently a pretty good DJ university.

Even though apparently unrelated, this can still benefit your product -- people tend to associate emotions between unrelated things they think about at the same time. The fun and excitement of learning to be a great DJ will be associated with Red Bull; the dancers on the floor will eventually notice that the DJ perpetually has cans of Red Bull next to the turntables, and so on.

Kathy's key point is that "The brain pays attention to that which it feels." Without emotion, the brain's chemical crap filters pretty much wipe all memory of something happening (without the mechanisms that cause this, research indicates that we would all annoyingly never be able to forget anything). And if nothing else, rich user communities are full of emotion.

The key then is to make your users into the kind of people who love being in the community so much they will happily post thousands of pictures of themselves holding your product (an iPod, say) in front of every landmark on the planet. Or trade every last bit of trivia about your product (I've known Deadheads that amassed room-filling libraries of bootleg recordings, trying to have one or more copies of every concert the Dead ever performed). Or spend countless hours mentoring everyone they possibly can to bring them deeper into the community (PerlMonks is a good example of this).

It's this kind of irrational, unbridled passion for something that makes sure it cannot fail (barring mind-bending corporate incompetence).

And after all that, I've only described one of the threads in Kathy's talk. I've suddenly got an urge to spend mounds of cash on cognitive science books so that I can climb the ladder in the passion-creating community . . . .

What's your passion?