Kathy Sierra product goal: Oct'2012 talk: Now some of you may know I used to say words like “user AweSome ” or “user Kicking Ass” (Kick-Ass) or “user Passionate ” I don’t really tend to use those words anymore because it’s really easy to misinterpret that as yet another “we made the customer feel good” or ‘he likes us.” It’s too easy to focus back on the company again. This isn’t about focusing on what the user thinks of you. It’s about what the user is able to do, and to be able to become Bad-Ass.

Kathy Sierra 2015 book ISBN:1491919019


Improving our chances of making a sustainable bestselling product or service:

  • Make our users badass
    • Help them actually get better
      • Help them practice right
      • Help them get exposure to the right things
    • Help them keep wanting to
      • Focus on what makes them stop
      • Help them with progress + payoffs
  • Reduce Cognitive Resource Leaks

See Joel Hooks' notes


Table of contents

The Challenge

What Experts Do

  • 3 Science of Badass
  • 4 Building Skills
  • 5 Perceptual Exposure

Help Them Move Forward

  • 6 Remove Blocks
  • 7 Progress + Payoffs

Support Cognitive Resources

  • 8 Design
  • 9 Reduce Cognitive Leaks
  • 10 Escape the Brain’s Spam Filter



Imagine someone forced you to create a new bestselling product or service.

What attributes do the bestsellers have that their competitors don’t?

Does the best product win?

Tolerance for problems is a function of desirability

Sustained bestsellers are recommended.

In this book we mean “recommended” literally. When we say word of mouth (WOM) think only of honest, nonincentivized comments about either the product or the results the user got with it.

the real question is:what inspires those recommendations?

It’s about how the user feels about himself, in the context of whatever it is our product, service, cause helps him do and be.

Instead of looking for common attributes across successful products, we must look for common attributes across successful users of those products.

Our users don’t bask in the glow of our awesome product. Our product basks in the glow of our users’ result with it.

Users don’t evangelize to their friends because they like the product, they evangelize to their friends because they like their friends.

Badass at… what?

Your thing is a subset of some bigger, more compelling thing. What’s the context in which your product or service is used?

People don’t want to be badass at using our tool. They want be badass at what our tool helps them do.

Good marketing focuses on what the potential user reallywants to do. But after they buy? Every experience the user has with us shifts to just the tool. Think about this.If we want sustained, committed, badass users, we must fix this. After they give us money or join our service we should focus even more on what they really want to do.

But being better is about more than just results. Being more skillful, more knowledgeable, more advanced is itself an intrinsically rewarding experience. The ability to make finer distinctions in what you can see, hear, taste, perceive in the environment can feel like a superpower. When you’re more skilled at something, it’s as though a part of your world got an upgrade. It’s as though pre-badass-you had been experiencing the world in Standard and now a part of the world has become High Resolution.

Don’t just upgrade your product, upgrade your users.

Word OF Obvious (WOFO) is even better thanWord Of Mouth (WoM)We want them to talk, but if they’re badass...they might not need to

But beware of faux-badassIt’s not about helping people feel badass. It’s about helping them be badass.

Competing on out-caring the competition is fragile unless “caring” means “caring about user results.”

Which brings us yet again to... how?

To create sustained success, createhigh-resolution, badass users.

Post-UX UX

What did that experience enable?

How are they now more powerful?

Designing for the post-UX UX means designing not just for yourusers but for your users’ users. It’s not so much what our user thinks of us but what our user’s friends, family, peers think of our user.

Thought Experiment: your users competing against their users

Instead of asking “where do we find an influencer?” ask “how can we createan influencer from a person who is active in our target audience and most likely to benefit from becoming better?”

The User Journey

The Badass User Curve

Danger in the Suck Zone

Why they don’t upgrade (or switch brands)

Nobody wants to go back to the Suck Zone

The benefits of badass depend on users steadily moving up the curve, not leveling off at “competent.”

The Stuck Zone looks good, but isn’t

Auto mode is seductive. It’s easy, comfortable, safe. But if our users don’t break free, they might never develop a deeper interest in photography. If they don’t push past the Stuck Zone,

What’s the equivalent of AUTO mode for your users?

Entry-level products don’t have to mean entry-level context.

Instead of helping them master full exposure control with shutter speed and aperture, what about gear-independent artistic and technical skills like composition and lighting? What if entry-level/beginner tools are all we offer?

What if my users don’t want to be a total badass? What if they just want to be reasonably good (Good Enough) at it? And that whole path-to-master is intimidating and feels like overkill when they’re thinking, “Hey, I just want to get something DONE, not be a ninja.”

By treating users as if they were trying to be badass, we help all users build higher resolution abilities. We don’t create a separate “good but not expert” path. It’s all one path, and some go further than others.

Let them know that the early steps are the same no matter how far up the expertise curve they want to go.

What Experts Do: Science of Badass

We must do at least two things: help them continue building skills/resolution/abilities, and help them continue wanting to.

From this point forward in the book we’ll use “badass,” “expertise,” “expert performance,” and “mastery” interchangeably.

Experts are not what they know but what they do. Repeatedly.

Experts make superior choices

The myth of “natural talent

But even without a natural talent for focused practice, we can all learn the meta-skill of building skill. People often find that after they’ve developed a high level of skill in one domain, it becomes easier to develop high skill in an entirely different domain. They’ve become badass at becoming badass. And so will our users.

We don’t need to be anywhere near world-class to inspire others to notice we’re better.Even just a little better can be obvious.

If almost anyone can become expert at almost anything, why do most of us fail to even reach mediocre let alone badass? If it’s NOT natural talent... what IS it?

What Experts Do: Science of Badass - Building Skills

You can’t have expertise without expert skills

“Can do” comes in two flavors: with conscious effort (not reliable) and mastered (reliable/automatic).

Unconscious/automated skills are often the cause of “intermediate blues”

skills we use but don’t consciously practice can slowly deteriorate, even if we’re using them every day.

differently than experienced non-experts.

Given this framework, what did experts do differently from experienced non-experts who followed the same framework? (And how can we help our users do this?)

Experts practiced better

In the science of expertise, the form of explicit practice that’s known to work effectively is referred to as Deliberate Practice.

Deliberate Practice fixes the single biggest problem most people have when trying to build expertise...

We try to learn and practice too many things simultaneously instead of nailing one thing at a time. The single biggest problem for most people on most expertise curves is having too many things on the B board

Half-a-Skill beats Half-Assed Skills

For your domain, what’s the minimum viable skill set for “actually doing the thing”?

Exception to Half-a-Skill beats Half-Assed Skills: For some domains, beginners need a starter set of a few half-assed skills

Simplified rules for Deliberate Practice

Goal: design practice exercises that will take a fine-grained task from unreliable to 95% reliability, within one to three 45-90-minute sessions

“Play this section at half speed, without errors.” “Create, compile, and run a program (without errors) that accesses and displays data from this database.”

Deliberate Practice examples

If the task/skill is too complex (too many unmastered skills), break it into finer-grained sub-tasks/sub-skills If it’s not complex but it’s too difficult, make the performance criteria easier

If you can’t get to 95% reliability, stop trying! You need to redesign the sub-skill

Common practice-related activities that don’t qualify as Deliberate Practice: •Work on a project. For example, create a small game in a new programming language. •Work through a step-by-step tutorial.

That 10,000 hours thing

What expertise researchers found is that for some (not all) non-new domains, in general, those who became top experts often (not always) had spent somewhere around 10,000 hours of textbook Deliberate Practice. Give or take a few thousand. Yes, that’s a lot of qualifiers.

Why wouldn’t every teacher/trainer/coach/ mentor/employer—everyone with a stake in our improvement—use textbook Deliberate Practice?

The wrong ways to practice feel right

From music lessons to school sports, all of us have spent time practicing, and chances are we weren’t practicing the right things in the right way. In other words, we’re all highly experienced at practicing badly.

But there’s another big reason why most of us don’t practice the right way...

Deliberate Practice is always just beyond our current ability/ comfort zone.

But remember, there are two common attributes among experts. Two things that people with high expertise did that others didn’t. Besides the right type of practice (Deliberate Practice), master performers did something else that didn’t feel like practice. In fact, they might not have known they were doing anything at all.

What Experts Do Science of Badass - Building Skills - Perceptual Exposure

The second attribute of those who became experts is this: they were exposed to high quantity, high quality examples of expertise.

2. Experts were around better

Simply being exposed to examples of expertise doesn’t build expertise unless the exposure meets specific criteria

To understand perceptual exposure, we’ll begin with the most extreme example...

Determining the gender of a newborn chick is notoriously tough, but for large commercial chicken farms, the sooner the females are separated from the males, the sooner they can be on the feeding-for-egg-production path.

the chick-sexing experts didn’t know exactly how they did it. “I just knew.”

After each wild, random, totally made-up guess, the master chick-sexer gives you feedback.

Another example is the friend-or-foe aircraft “spotters” in World War II England.

It’s not magic. It’s perceptual knowledge.

Experts of all complex domains share a characteristic with chick-sexers: their brain knows much more than it reveals. Becoming badass in a complex, challenging domain means acquiring deep pattern recognition beyond conscious awareness.

The reason why some people develop perceptual knowledge from exposure but others don’t isn’t about the people, it’s about the type of exposure.

Kellman and Kaiser designed a perceptual learning experiment around “information pick-up” from flight instruments.

Within two hours, non-pilots were faster at accurately interpreting the cockpit instruments than seasoned pilots with an average of more than 1,000 hours flight experience.

The non-pilots received less than five minutes of actual instruction. Just a quick orientation on the instruments. The actual “training” was another variation of chick-sexing: repeated exposure with feedback.

These non-pilots received no direct instruction on navigation, just a short introduction to the basic symbols used in the aeronautical charts.

At the end of the three hours, the non-pilots were more accurate, and slightly faster than pilots with hundreds of hours flight experience.

Both of these exercises were carefully designed to help the brain “discover” the deeper underlying patterns and structure.

Example: look at these photos

they all fit the Rule of Thirds

You’ve probably seen photos from people who were taught the Rule of Thirds, but who never developed a “feel” for composition.

Even if they can’t describe what they “learned” (or they don’t think they’ve learned anything at all), we might be able to test whether their brain learned.

If the exercise did fail (they did not learn from the perceptual exposure), the most likely causes are: • not enough examples • not enough diversity in the examples • too long a gap between exposure and feedback • attribute/pattern was too subtle

can you show these examples? It depends on the domain. For photography, you don’t need to show the expert photographer actually taking photos, you can simply show the resulting photos. You don’t need to show a programmer writing code, you can simply show lots and lots and lots of “good” code (again, for whatever definition of “good” you’re using).

You just need to expose your users to a high quantity of high quality examples, within a compressed time.

WARNING! Don’t expose them to examples of bad

When you do show examples of wrong/bad, make them feel wrong/bad

This doesn’t mean we can’t teach using examples of bad, but the best, safest place for that approach is long after the learner develops strong perceptual knowledge for what’s good. Once they’re reliable at perceiving good, they’ll automatically recognize bad as “that which doesn’t fit the pattern” (even if they can’t explain why).

Review Summary: What Experts Do

You’re right. Our formula must include helping our users make steady progress, and that means helping them stay motivated to want to. Make

is all nice and wonderful, oh look, we’re moving skills across the boards, etcetera. But NOTHING matters if our users don’t actually DO these things.

You can start to make a big difference for your users immediately with nothing more than a simple page or two on your website.

Help Them Move Forward Remove Blocks

Is the path to creating badass users all about pulling them forward?

Our users are already motivated by the compelling goal. They want to get better.

The key question is not, “What pulls them forward?” It’s “What makes them stop?”

Working on what stops people matters more than working on what entices them

something derails them. And that something lives in the gap between the already-motivating compelling context and where they are now. What causes the gap? What can we do about it? What if we can’t close the gap?

There are two big derailer gaps...

The Gap of Suck

The Gap of Disconnect

They lost the connection between the compelling context and the tool. And they no longer trust that we’ll help them with anything but the tool.

The answer is not to eliminate the gap, but to make the gap no big deal. The answer is to help users move forward despite the gap.

What happens when you can’t shrink the gap?

The common attribute: we’re not there with them when they’re thinking and feeling this, and if we were, we’d be able to do something about it.

think of it another way, what can’t they tell us because we’re not right there with them?

They can’t make that face. They can’t ask that question.

The secret for keeping them going when things get tough is this: acknowledge it.

Everything the new snowboarder sees should emphasize: “Your first day will be frustrating and painful. But here’s what’s gonna happen...”

Just tell them

They stop not because of the struggle. They stop because they don’t realize the struggle is typical and temporary.

restoring confidence helps free up more of their cognitive resources to actually think and do more.

It’s obvious that first-day snowboarders will struggle, but how can we ever know what “faces” and “questions” are happening in most other user experiences? How can we compensate for that which we can’t possibly anticipate?

We don’t need to know it’s happening. We just need to act as though it is.

One of the best places to find what they might be thinking, feeling, experiencing is usually...

Online Discussion Forums (as many as possible)

What jumps out?

Look for unusually high numbers

The questions that have no replies are probably not problems for most users.

Don’t hide it or deny it. Either fix something that makes that problem go away completely or Just Tell Them. Tell them in as many ways and places as you can:

Progress + Payoffs

The answer is not “more seductive marketing or incentives.”

We looked at what pulls them off (derailers) but what pulls them forward?

The benefits of badass can’t come only at the end

what can they do tomorrow?

guidelines to help them know where they are at each step. •Ideas and tools to help them use their current skills early and often. To

Performance Path Map: a key to motivation and progress

martial arts,

An ideal Performance Path Map: The martial arts belt system is a clear, credible path map that defines each step along the way, includes a way to assess progress, and provides increasing benefits and capabilities at each step/level/belt. Beginner Basic Intermediate Advanced Expert •Clear steps of progression from beginner to badass. •A way to assess where you are relative to the full map. “You are here.”•A credible reason to believe it works, and confidence that it can work without “natural talent” or spectacular luck.

A Performance Path Map is about what you do, not what you learn

Just knowing a Performance Path exists is a strong motivator

Experts fight over which path is best/right

experts teach (and argue over) that which is easiest to represent rather than that which is most valuable for improving performance.

It’s OK.

Doing the right things in the right ways makes a path robust, even if it’s not the optimal path.

It’s about increasing resolution. It’s about becoming more skillful.

Helping them believe they’ll get better matters.

But none of that matters if they don’t benefit from getting better.

What can they do within the first 30 minutes?

Lower the initial threshold for user-does-something-meaningful

If we want them to feel powerful early, we must anticipate and compensate for anything that keeps them from experimenting.

Fear can derail them before they start

Give them the freedom to just try things.

It doesn’t need to be practical to be meaningful.

Surprise them with their new capability

What’s the smallest step they can take that leaves them feeling more creative, smart, powerful, capable?

Meaningful with a lowercase “m”

Don’t stop after the first 30 minutes... What can they do next? And 30 minutes after that?

The ideal user path is a continuous series of loops, each with a motivating next superpower goal, skill building work with exposure-to-good-examples, followed by a payoff.

The difference between extrinsically (external) vs. intrinsically motivated experiences is the difference between short-term vs. sustained motivation.

Powerful Intrinsic Motivation: High Resolution and Flow

High-resolution: badass users “talk different”

Communicating with domain-specific “jargon” is both a useful tool and a stimulating reward.

Flow: The psychology of optimal experience

Give your users high-payoff tips

This is not about giving people shortcuts; it’s about helping them bypass the unnecessarily long way. We don’t want our users to spend much time reinforcing (locking-in) beginner or mediocre skills.

Our “formula” is nearly done:

But we’re missing one big thing from the formula—something that ripples through everything...

There’s one more thing we need to help our users with, and it’s the crucial factor in every aspect of user happiness.

Support Cognitive Resources

memorize a seven-digit number

then offered a snack...

The participants who memorized the seven-digit number were nearly 50% more likely than the other group to choose cake over fruit.

Willpower and cognitive processing draw from the same pool of resources.

If a product you use every day is poorlydesigned and hard to use, it drains your cognitive resources. That means it also drains your willpower.

Make sure your users spend their scarce, easily drained cognitive resources on the right things

The Zeigarnik Effect, named after the late Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, suggests that the brain keeps a background process running for unfinished/interrupted tasks.

The more open/unfinished tasks that are running in the background, the less resources are available for focusing, practicing, and learning.

Designer Dan Saffer describes microinteractions as “contained product moments that revolve around a single use case—they have one main task.” His book Microinteractions covers how to design microinteractions in a way that doesn’t just close cognitive leaks but brings “personality and delight” to apps and devices.

A common cognitive microleak comes from that subtle feeling of uncertainty about whether some small action you took did exactly what you intended.

“is this a cake feature or a fruit feature?”

When you’re considering adding a new feature...

Is this feature worth the drain?

Does this feature drain their cognitive resources?

Support Cognitive Resources - Design - Reduce Cognitive Leaks

To reduce their cognitive leaks, delegate cognitive work to something in the world

Don’t make them memorize Always be asking: “Do they really need to remember this or can we stick it in a cheat sheet or put a better label on the button?” Does this knowledge really need to be in their head?

For both your bigger context and your tool, tell your users which facts and procedures are worth spending the effort to memorize, and when they should do it.

To reduce their cognitive leaks, make the right action the most natural and obvious action

To reduce their cognitive leaks, don’t make them choose

In the perfect scenario, we give our users as many options as they could want or need, but we also give them trusted defaults, pre-sets, and recommendations. Especially in the beginning, we make decisions so our users don’t have to.

Design or recommend a practice notebook

Design or recommend tracking apps

One example is Lift, which provides a simple way for your users to track whether they did a specific habit/practice each day. Lift

To reduce their cognitive leaks, give them practice hacks

Deliberate Practice drains cognitive resources. Help your users make everything else around practice easier to do.

MotivAider is a wearable device that gives silent (vibrating) repeating reminders at consistent intervals from one minute to many hours. It’s designed for keeping something at the top of your mind, without draining cognitive resources.

Some skills can’t be improved much using only Deliberate Practice. What happens when you want to improve your posture? Or remember to make eye contact? Or breathe better? Or fix a speech pattern? In other words, what if the problem is not lack of skill but lack of constant reminders? Fortunately there’s a simple, powerful tool for solving the massively-draining top-of-mind problem: the MotivAider.

To reduce their cognitive leaks, help with the top-of-mind problem

Trying to keep thing A at top-of-mind while simultaneously working on thing B is a background drain. Worse, it doesn’t work. You can’t keep reminding yourself over and over while working on tasks that demand cognitive attention.

To reduce their cognitive leaks, reduce the need for willpower

The secret to willpower is... Imagine

Deliberate practice activities will never be a habit (they require conscious effort), but many things around practice can be.

To reduce the need for willpower, help them build automatic habits

If your bigger context is photography,

Actual shooting can’t–and shouldn’t–be automatic, but many of the supporting behaviors around shooting photos can be.

To reduce the need for willpower help them have intrinsically rewarding experiences

Deliberate Practice is NOT intrinsically rewarding.

what person A finds intrinsically rewarding might be painful, hard, unrewarding effort for person B.

When the bigger context is not just something you do but something you are, motivation for the non-enjoyable parts takes less willpower

Giving extrinsic rewards for anything we hope to sustain long-term can do more harm than good.

Why not just give them EXtrinsic rewards for the parts that are NOT INtrinsically rewarding?

To reduce the need for willpower, help their brain pay attention

This is SO not life-threatening.

We need a way to stop the brain from treating what we care about as useless spam. To help our users pay attention and stay focused, help their brain realize, “This matters! Not spam! Let it through!”

Escape the Brain’s Spam Filter

We must inject the thing our user wants to do with something our user’s brain cares about. Then what do brains care about?

care about scary, threatening things.

Brains care about faces, especially those showing strong emotion.

Brains care about things that cause a feeling. Even if your brain has no idea why you find that thing funny, it finds your emotional response (even a subtle one) reason enough to get past the spam filter.

Brains pay attention to things that are odd, surprising, unexpected.

Brains want things resolved. What happens next? Brains want the answer.

the brain cares about things it does not expect. Once your puppy photos have become expected, the brain stops noticing them

Getting the brain’s attention through a captivating, useful, visceral example, picture, or story saves resources and increases memorability (for the things they MUST memorize). Though you could get their attention with something totally unrelated to what they’re trying to learn, it’s far better for learning and retention if the feeling you evoke to get their attention is about what you want them to remember.

Convince their brain with context Most marketing content is more learnable and memorable than most learning content. The difference in production values between marketing vs. a user manual is not what matters most. The key difference? Marketing is about the context; manuals are about the tool.

THIS is what you should start with.

If that happens, the device will either break or catch on fire!

Brains don’t want to waste scarce resources making those “little” leaps

Making content easier for their brain to pay attention to is good. Making less content for their brain to pay attention to is much better.

Do they really need to participate in that webinar?

But the best time for explicit knowledge is only when absolutely needed.

They can’t just practice and build skills. They do need to learn, you know, ACTUAL FACTS.

Brains prefer Just-in-Time over Just-in-Case

Trying to learn knowledge before you need to use it (Just-in-Case) means fighting the spam filter

1. Validate

2. Convince their brain

if there is Just-in-Case knowledge your users absolutely must learn before they need to use it, minimize the damage:

What knowledge goes on the board?

Even if you’re not the one teaching (or making available) the knowledge your users need for the bigger context, help them figure out what matters now and what to ignore or postpone.

The first step is to narrow down the topics. We’ll use two approaches to validate the knowledge our users are expected to learn: topics on trial, and mapping to skills.

To cut resource-draining Just-in-Case knowledge: put each topic on trial

Try the Why/So What/ Who Cares game on every topic, sub-topic,

Validate knowledge usefulness by mapping it to skills

Skills board A can’t do (but need to)

Remove orphaned (unmapped) knowledge.

our users do (or will) have intellectual curiosity around the domain. The better they become, the more interest they have for deeper historical context, origin stories, key people, sidetrips, and so on. But in the beginning?

(In books or user guides, an appendix is a useful compromise for including non-necessary-but-interesting knowledge. Users who want it will find it, but overwhelmed users won’t feel pressured to learn it.)

Guess what? That’s it. We finally have our formula.

Improving our chances of making a sustainable bestselling product or service Make our users badass Help them actually get better Help them keep wanting to Help them practice right Help them get exposure to the right things Focus on what makes them stop Help them with progress + payoffs Reduce Cognitive Resource Leaks Oh, and one last thing...


How much do we really care about our users?

If we really care about our users, we’ll help them do what they want, not what we want.

If we really care about our users, we’ll recognize that their goal in life is not simply to become badass at what we help them do, but to become...

Badass at life

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