Tutorial Review: Creating Passionate Users

by Kevin Shockey

For me the highlight of this year's OSCON was hearing Kathy Sierra's tutorial, "Creating Passionate Users". The work Kathy and her partner Bert Bates have done in researching this topic is very important and useful. It should come as no surprise, that they are working on a new book for O'Reilly with a tentative publish date of January 2006. From what I have seen in her presentation and what I have seen in their Creating Passionate Users blog, this will be another popular book for them. The more I read and think about this, the more I want to read about it. This makes perfect sense, because it is exactly what I learned in the tutorial.

To give a sense of this great material, I'd like to share some of the highlights from the tutorial. My hope is that you'll also see the value of this material and make an effort to incorporate some of the concepts into your products, communities, and relationships.

I think it is appropriate to start with a quick mention that some of the concepts from the tutorial come straight from the introduction to the bestselling book, Head First Java by Kathy and Bert. Quoting from that introduction: "Your brain craves novelty. It's always searching, scanning, waiting for something unusual. It was built that way, and it helps you stay alive." Most of the time your brain is discarding everything that gets thrown at it so that it can be ready to process something that really matters, like a tiger jumping at you. So as Kathy so eloquently states, one of the biggest challenges in engaging, inspiring, and emoting our customers is to get past the brain's crap filter. And came through loud and clear from the tutorial, there are some real subtle, yet powerful ways to accomplish this task.

One of the first things covered in the tutorial set the stage for the remainder of the tutorial. To understand how to create passionate users, one first has to identify the characteristics of passionate users. Start first by thinking about yourself. What products, ideas, concepts, tools, or people are you passionate about? If you think about the kinds of things you do when you are passionate about something you might come up the following. When you are passionate about something you: talk about it, defend it, teach others about it, are irrational, evangelize it, provide feedback, and even try to improve it.

A second useful tip to begin thinking about passionate users is to list the characteristics of the things people are passionate about. Common characteristics might include things that: inspire us, are fun, are rewarding, are easy to start (or learn), have their own language, and that have a clear benefit. Clearly there are numerous characteristics listed, and even more possible, but one of the most important characteristics is the ability to continue grow and expand, especially if that gives people the ability to become an expert. An important follow-on question is: "How do you give people the perception that becoming an export is something attainable and desirable?" An example company discussed was Apple. For Kathy, Apple is like a crack dealer. They have mastered the ability to provide the first tier for free. But they also provide room to grow into more powerful features that lead to higher tiers. Of course, as you step up to a new tier, in order to gain the additional power or capabilities, customers become willing to pay for these new tiers.

An interesting trend that Kathy discussed was that sometimes the growth path for a product, may not even have anything to do with the product or service itself. So sometimes, customers will become passionate about your company or product by simply teaching people how to become an expert. Two examples given were: RedBull hosting a DJ Academy and Coldplay's lead singer Chris Martin pushing Fair Trade. The key to this concept is that there needs to be a continuous growth path (a continously progressing goal), a never-ending path to learn about a topic that people could be passionate about.

I mentioned the fundamental theory of the brains crap filter earlier, but Kathy provided a couple of tips that might be useful in many different situations. First, any change in light will immediately grab our attention. Do you remember why? Yes, oh my, it's a tiger! Watch out! So be careful using this technique, it could actually back-fire. I'm sure many web interface designers already know this. It certainly explains a lot of the obnoxious page designs we see on the Internet. Second, another trick is that anytime we use faces, our brains will respond positively. Research indicates that our brains have special abilities to pay attention to faces. So anytime your documents or web pages include faces with strong reactions, readers will be able remember the content more.

An industry that Kathy believes that we can learn from is the gaming industry. Game designers use two key techniques to keep players engaged in a game. First they produce a state of flow. From WikiPedia, flow is defined as the feeling of complete and energized focus in an activity, with a high level of enjoyment and fulfillment. One situation that demonstrates flow is when we become so engrossed with something we are doing, we loose track of time. Secondly, game designers provide an experience spiral. Basically this involves using a compelling benefit to motivate players to complete the loop (the level). Players will complete some activity until the loop is complete. When the player completes the level, they will receive a payoff. Usually this payoff provides new capabilities which establishes the next level and begins the loop again.

Ever wonder how to get readers of our documents, such as requirements, test plans, technical documentation, or blog entries, to recall and retain information? Kathy provided two tips to improve recall and retention. Both of these tips are well illustrated in the Head First books. First, use visuals and text to attain an estimated 89% improvement. Second, to obtain a 40% increase, use first person conversational language. You know what I mean? The interesting point Kathy made is that the brain thinks that it has to pay attention, so that it can hold up its end of the conversation, even when the conversation is with a book or a web page. Another helpful tip Kathy shared was using the power of story. This is especially important in creating communities. providing new community members with a back story and the history behind the community helps create myths, lore, and the illusion of insider knowledge.

In the end, I would be remiss if I didn't share "the secret" promised from the tutorial. As any good speaker should do, Kathy pointed out that the one thing to take away from her tutorial. If we want someone to remember things we publish or what we are trying to communicate, make the other party feel something. According to Kathy, "The brain remembers that which it feels." Once again, this is another key concept from the introduction of the Head First books. Creating emotions in people causes an increase in brain activity. Brain activity is fundamentally a chemical change in the brain. These chemical changes clue the brain into paying attention, thus bypassing the crap filter.

Now that I have heard this material first hand, thought about other things like my OSCON presentation and the flight home, and finally returned to study this material, one thing is clear. The concepts presented in Kathy's tutorial make sense and feel right to me. However, as I have written this review and considered implementing some of the concepts I learned, it is going to take some time to get used to thinking differently. In addition, implementing them will take more time. The process of locating and gathering images and faces, annotating the images, creating the stories, and constructing experience spirals will take a lot more time than we have taken in the past to communicate. Keep this in mind, the purpose of speaking, writing, or teaching is effective communication. This only happens when the recipient of that communication understands what you are trying to communicate. If we know they are filtering almost everything as crap, then we need to work hard. If we don't, then why even try?

Did you just see a tiger?