Graham King

Solvitas perambulum

Kathy Sierra: Give your users super-powers

Kathy Sierra at the Business Of Software conference last autumn. Hour long talk, really worth watching (as the length of my notes will vouch).

Abstract: It’s not about you, not about your product, it’s about how awesome you make your users. If you sell digital cameras, make your users better photographers, through a better camera yes, but also teach them about exposure, light, etc.

Here are my notes:

Make the user awesome.

You want them to talk about the amazing thing they did (with your tool).

Your product is part of a higher purpose (digital cameras -> photography). Don’t talk about your product, instead blog / tweet / evangelize the higher purpose.

Make the user better. Teach.

Sense of belonging. Do people want to wear T-shirts with your logo? What does being your user SAY about your user? It shouldn’t say something bad, and it shouldn’t say nothing.

Get them interested

Trigger an emotional reaction (faces, sex, cute, fear, story) so people pay attention.

Talk in conversations, not formal language. Stories trump data.

Contrast your marketing material, with your user manual. Take care of people after they buy, so they stay excited.

Give super-powers

Instead of Word Of Mouth, which requires people telling other people, use Word Of Obvious, where they show other people what they did, or other people see it, it’s obvious that person is awesome now that they use your product.

Flip business advice:

  • Exceptional customer service -> exceptional customers.
  • ‘From good to great’ -> great customers.

Make your customers into the perfect customers you wish you had.

What super-powers do you give your customers? Help them get really really good at something.

Don’t build a better [x], build a better [user of x]. Say: We help [type of person] get better at [thing].

Wrong: What problem do you solve? What value to you add? Right: What does having the solution mean to our users? What bigger, cooler thing is enabled?

Make it a rule that with your product, the user must do something cool within [x] minutes. Make a document listing 10 awesome things they can do, quickly, with your product, and how.

Help users justify acquiring your product to others. They are already sold, help them sell others.

Make good things easy / natural / obvious

Motivate / Inspire users. Motivate users to do things they wish they already did.

Peter Bregman, harvard, on the easiest way to change behavior:

Right things should be easiest, most natural. Make doing the wrong thing very difficult. Usability matters.

Help your users practice

Make your users smarter. Shrink the 10,000 hours they need to become experts. Give users patterns they can learn. Experts are better at identifying patterns in the problem domain (the thing you are making your users super-heros at). Make their practice fun.

After 1 or 2 years, experience is a poor predictor of performance / expertise. Was it 10 years, or 1 year repeated 10 times?

Offer exercises, games, contests, tutorials that support deliberate practice of the right things. The things that make people awesome.

Those exercises etc should use cognitive pleasures to keep users interested and practicing. Game designers have identified a bunch:

  • Thrill
  • Discovery
  • Challenge
  • Self-expression
  • Social
  • Novelty
  • Sensory.

The more deliberate practice [pdf] your users get, the better they get, so the more they enjoy using your product. And the more chance other people have of seeing them practice, so more Word Of Obvious.

Talk with users at their angriest

Add a “WTF?” button.

Help / FAQ are usually written for people who are intellectually curious, wanting to learn more. The “WTF?” button is for angry upset people who hate your product right now. Different feeling, different audience.

How you make users feel about themselves, drives how they feel about YOU.

If you want them to RTFM, make a better FM.

Where do you fit on their Hero’s Journey (also here and full detail here). What part do you play? Are you the helpful sidekick? The ogre guarding the bridge? Something else?

Community management

Model good behavior in your community.

Make a short document for moderators / active users telling them how to answer ‘dumb questions’, in a nice way. Provide alternative answers to guide them away from RTFM or “just google it”.

Encourage a culture of “there are no dumb answers”. Newbies are often the best people to answer other newbie’s questions, yet on most forums people don’t feel ready to answer until they are experts. Encourage early participation.

Don’t force inclusivity, don’t force your expert users to hang out and nurture the newbies. Hanging out with other experts is a lot more interesting. Give them a special space, where they can use jargon. Django, like many projects, has two mailing lists: django-users (beginners, normal folk), and django-developers (experts).

Evolution of awesome:

  1. Awesome product (features)
  2. Awesome people talking about the product (expert / influencer testimonials)
  3. User testimonials (“I love this company”)
  4. User benefits (“Look at what I did”)
  5. I know Kung-Fu


In the words of Jamie Zawinski:

So I said, narrow the focus. Your “use case” should be, there’s a 22 year old college student living in the dorms. How will this software get him laid?

Your job is to make people better. Your tool is software.

In November 2021 I migrated from Wordpress to Hugo. The migration sadly did not include the comments (given time, I may fix that). This comment though, I saved manually.


Kathy Sierra said,

July 7, 2010 at 22:52

I’m so very happy about this post, Graham. It’s an excellent summary of what matters most to me (so, our venn diagrams on this must’ve overlapped a lot, yay) but then you added some very helpful resources. Thanks! – Kathy