Best-selling author, speaker and programming instructor Kathy Sierra takes an unorthodox approach to creating a great user experience.
By Patrick K. Burke
When Kathy Sierra speaks, it’s a good idea to clear your mind and prepare to hear ideas presented in a different light. Sierra has a gift for imparting her own sense of how things are–and how they should be. She is the co-creator of the Amazon best-selling Head First series of books (more than 1 million copies sold), which takes an unorthodox approach to teaching programming skills (in particular, Java). She is a computer game programmer, was a sponsored skateboarder in southern California in the ‘80s and currently cares for Icelandic horses, known for their intelligence and hardiness. Sierra’s most-recent book, “BADASS: Making Users Awesome,” takes on the user experience and shifts the focus from making a great product to making a great user of that product. Sierra offers practical (and at times, counter-intuitive) advice for C-suite executives as they struggle to roll out a new product or initiative. Sierra also discusses with CIO Insight the power of word-of-mouth marketing, the importance of simply observing an expert at work and her concerns with social media after she was targeted in a troubling social media harassment campaign several years ago.
CIO Insight: Your latest book, “BADASS: Making Users Awesome,” certainly has a memorable title. Can you explain your philosophies on awesome and on badass?
Kathy Sierra: I’d been talking about the ideas in the book for more than a decade using a different label–“passionate users.” But I saw far too many people mistake “passionate about the context in which people are using your product” for “passion for the brand.” A few years ago, I switched to “badass” to make it harder for brands to mistake how the user feels about himself for how the user will feel about the brand. The ideas in Badass are about creating capable, skillful, badass users, not creating brands people will be passionate about. I didn’t choose “badass users” to be provocative; I chose it because it’s what I actually mean.
CIO Insight: You seem to have shifted the focus from the objective to the subjective experience, if there even is a distinction between the two. That is, when enough people subjectively perceive and experience a product or service in a positive way, then that product will invariably better its users and become successful as people recommend it. Is there truth in this?
Sierra: We need to shift from the subjective experience of a product to the objective experience of using that product within a context meaningful to the user. We need to shift from caring about how the user perceives the product to caring about how the user perceives his ability to do something meaningful as a result of using the product. And that can’t be faked (or bought) with sexy marketing and persuasion. We can all be swept into a powerful subjective branding message, but developing more powerful capabilities is based on objective, measurable skills. The premise of the book is that long-term, sustainable success is driven by long-term, sustained word of mouth, and long-term, sustained word of mouth is driven by a product or service that continues to help users do something they care about. The message of the book is that we can let word of mouth and subjective perception of the product be a natural side-effect of doing all we can to help users become better–not at using our product, but at doing whatever it is that we are trying to use our product to do or be. In other words, to help users with the bigger context in which our product lives and supports.
CIO Insight: What happens when an organization tries too hard? McDonald’s recently opened a hipster café that serves cold-brew coffee and quinoa salad in Australia with nary a sign of the golden arches. Does this officially mark the end of the hipster movement?
Sierra: Trying not to laugh out loud and spit out my organic fair-trade coffee…Yet another example of a brand caring about how people perceive “the brand” vs. helping people become more capable. There are ways in which even a fast-food restaurant could help people become a little more badass, though it would mean trying to talk people out of getting the food and drinks the chains most want people to crave. This is actually pretty hilarious, but at the same time, the fast food industry is a massive contributor to one of the worst, most costly, most devastating problems facing the U.S. today. But hey, if they can get people to choose quinoa salad over a burger, that’s a win for everyone, so maybe they should just really lean in here. “Would you like a fedora with that?"
CIO Insight: Advertising and marketing are often expert at creating an image or idea that taps into what we may think we want. But the reality often falls short of expectations. Is there any hope of reconciling our expectations with the reality of a product or service, or are things always bigger, brighter and more interesting in our mind?
Sierra: Yes, there’s a hope for reconciling expectations with the reality of a product or service. This is a key role social media is playing today: people talk to one another. They tell their friends. They write Amazon reviews. They discuss struggles with a product on support forums and fan sites. We’ve all learned not to trust brand messages, but our brains are still susceptible to manipulation no matter how savvy we are about the techniques marketers use to seduce us. But we do trust our friends and co-workers and even complete strangers on Amazon who paint a far more accurate picture of the reality of using a product. The best thing a company could do for its users—and potential users—is to be as honest as possible. To help people understand that the reality is not going to be as painless and totally awesome as the marketing messages suggest.
I have never understood why companies think it’s a good idea to entice you with promises of success into giving them money, and then after you buy the product they just throw you a typically crappy user manual. That you have to download. If you can even find it on their site. I’m not necessarily saying we have to somehow make the actual experience match the beautiful marketing fantasy; I’m saying we should just stop with the fantasy thing and be honest. I want to see a company say, “This is actually going to suck at first. It’s not going to be as easy as our brochure made it look. You’ll struggle more than we talk about. (Actually we never said you would struggle at all, but oh yes, you definitely will.) But here’s what’s going to happen if you stick with it…”
The most motivating words we can hear when we’re struggling are not “see how easy this is?” but “struggling is typical and temporary.” People don’t give up in frustration because they’re struggling; they give up because they don’t realize that everyone struggles at this point and it’s just part of the process. We give up not because the manual is awful, but because the company makes us feel like the manual is good enough for everyone else to figure it out. We give up because it doesn’t seem worth it and we have no reason to trust the company’s message about how awesome and amazing it is to use this. We give up because we don’t have any reason to believe it’ll get better. And that’s sad because it’s so easy to fix that by just…telling people: “This will be hard at first” and “Everyone gets stuck here at first.”
CIO Insight: Speaking to the C-suite, how much clout should they give to social-media initiatives? Does the company with the widest social reach and most followers win?
Sierra: There doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence for that, but the myth persists. We’re probably all familiar with the Nielsen “trust” studies that keep showing how most (84% as of 2013) “consumers around the world say they trust word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and family… above all other sources of advertising.” The social-media initiative that matters has nothing at all to do with increasing our “brand” social media reach and everything to do with giving people a non-incentivized reason to talk. People will tell their friends about a product because they like their friends, not because they like the brand. Well, unless it’s one of those “tweet this for a chance to win an iPad” but that’s essentially like trying to bribe and buy your way to friends.
There’s been such a push for companies to really get out there on social media, but if you take a quick glance around your office or your home, you’ll find so many products you use and love and could not imagine doing without them, but you’ve never engaged with their brand. Trying to out-friend, out-follower, out-like, out-trend the competition… how exhausting. If that’s all a company has to differentiate itself from its competitors, then sure—their social media campaigns might make the difference (until its competitor hires an even better social media guru). But I have no interest in companies that have no competitive advantage beyond their marketing. I’m interested in companies that want their competitive advantage to live not in their product or service but in how they help their users become better as a result. I’d much rather see ads that talk about “our users beat their users at [whatever it is these products help people do]” vs. “our product beats their product.”
So again, if we have a social media strategy, it should be based on how we help our users talk to one another, not on how we talk to our users or how many people listen to us on social media. Some brands do make excellent use of social media, though, by tweeting and posting useful tips and tricks and curating genuinely helpful ideas for their users. And there are of course some brands that legitimately have fans, like Harley-Davidson, for instance, where simply being connected to the brand is meaningful in a bigger context of Harley users interacting as a community, etc. But that’s rare. And a company sure isn’t going to create sustainable users for their actual products by trying to whip up a social media fan base.
CIO Insight: The social aspect of the Web is one of its greatest assets and one of its most pronounced black marks. It has the ability to bring out the best and the worst in people, often simultaneously. How are you getting along on the social side of the Web?
Sierra: Well… yeah. There’s no doubt the social Web is a powerful amplifier, and the speed at which a message propagates through social media has gotten faster and faster. What used to take a full day to go viral in, say, 2007, now takes just minutes. And it’s no longer just a few groups on social media (techies, college students, etc.), it’s now pretty much everyone. And unfortunately, most of the companies with massive social media services have a business model that depends on, or rather thrives on, the greatest number of people experiencing the highest amount of drama. When what’s in a company's best interest is in conflict with what’s in its users’ best interest (or humans in general), there’s a problem. Twitter and Facebook are of course at the heart of a lot of harassment discussions right now.
Personally, I've had a few serious problems with some major trolls, and left Twitter completely a few months ago. It was the second time I left. But I will say this, the first time I left Twitter people were saying, “Oh no, how will she promote her books?” and I had to laugh at that, given that most of my books were launched before Twitter. But it did give me a great way to measure the impact on my book sales when I had a high-profile Twitter account (18k followers) vs. no social media presence at all. I had several tech best-sellers, including what is still the longest-running tech bestseller on Amazon (they measure total number of days on a bestseller list; two of my books have been on it most of the past decade). The impact on sales of my leaving social media appears to be…zero.
I do miss interacting with some of the wonderful people I’ve met online, but for me personally, it was not worth what has now become, sadly, the new normal for a lot of people (women in particular, but not just women) online: almost non-stop harassment. I would urge any company to consider the implications of their business model, and if that model depends on high engagement, whether the price for that engagement is one that they’re prepared to accept. These are all extremely difficult and mostly uncharted waters here, but even the CEO of Twitter openly admitted they’ve done an awful job of caring about—let alone taking action—the level of harassment enabled by Twitter.
And in my case, leaving Twitter didn’t end the problems Twitter created for me. Even when I wasn’t on Twitter, someone (with a lot of followers) used Twitter to publish my Social Security number, and it took a tremendous effort to get that one tweet removed. And shortly after leaving Twitter, one of my harassers grabbed the user name I had on Twitter (which is also my company and Website name) and created an account to further the harassment, only this time against people who didn’t realize at first they weren’t actually interacting with me. Eventually that account was shut down, but only because they had begun tweeting asking for money on a crowd-funding site (also using my name), again, as me. So it was a violation of the terms of service, but only because it was literally duplicating my name (but with an abusive modification of my original avatar and banner, etc.).
So, yeah, I think social media is a deeply powerful and wonderful tool for all of us, but we need to work together as a (loosely federated) community and with the founders and heads of these companies (and in some cases the legal system) to try to navigate our way to a more healthy ecosystem. Again, this is far from trivial. How and to what extent the company needs to be involved with what its services are being used to do is a deeply tricky and nuanced topic. But at least these discussions are starting to happen. I wish we’d all talked about this more much earlier, but I’m happy to see the techno-utopian view of the last decade give way to something more realistic and, I think, much healthier for both companies and their users.
CIO Insight: Tell me something I don’t know about horses. It shouldn’t be difficult. I don’t know much about horses.
Sierra: All my horses with Icelandic passports (they were born in Iceland, later flown to the U.S.), despite living in a very warm climate in California, they still grow fur for the brutal Icelandic winter. Most people assume fur growth is controlled by temperature, but fur growth is dictated by the hours (or lack of) sunlight hitting the brain. A horse will not grow a winter coat if you bring it in before sunset to a barn with daylight-balanced lights, keeping the lights on to simulate a longer summer day. One study made a device that—not making this up—looked kind of like Google Glass—that they fit on the horse’s head and it shined a tiny light into just one eye for a couple of hours in the evenings. They proved how little light it actually takes to convince the horse’s brain it’s still summer. (It’s also the hours of light that determines their interest in… making more horses. So breeding farms sometimes use lighted barns to keep a stallion thinking woo hoo! Spring all year long.)
CIO Insight: Any advice for CIOs and digital leaders who are looking to become more awesome and more badass?
Sierra: There’s a good half-century of research around high expertise development but some of the most powerful and interesting has been greatly underestimated. The short version: modeling, modeling, modeling. If you want to develop high expertise, spend time, lots of time, observing those with high expertise. If you want to help others develop high, deep expertise, put them in a context where they have as much exposure as possible to expert examples. This could be either examples of the work experts have done or, depending on the domain, observing the experts as they do their work. The problem is, we let beginners (and intermediates) spend way too much time being around mostly other people who are also beginners. In the ideal, perfect, not practical world… everyone would be surrounded only by those who are not just a little better, but with very high expertise.
The only catch—but this is a tough one for most of us — is that this works far better if the expert does not try to explain what they’re doing as they’re doing it. In most contexts, the learning is much more robust and accurate and deep if the learner just… watches. Without trying to consciously analyze or ask for justification for every little decision. There’s a time for analyzing the work of those with more expertise, but the counter-intuitive research shows quite strongly that this is more likely to reduce performance, of both the learner and—in many cases—the expert trying to explain how they do what they do!
Patrick K. Burke is senior editor of CIO Insight.