Badass: Making Users More Awesome


Kathy Sierra

I love this book. It’s one of the best books to explain the value of good product design and why everyone working on your product should be focused on delivering an excellent customer experience. A must read for anyone creating products.

Buy it

Highlights and notes

Luck always plays a role. Our job is to shrink the role luck plays.

Desirability changes our perception of “flaws.” The more we love something, the more likely we are to not just tolerate problems but reinterpret them as not problems.

A strategy based on out-friend or out-trend the competition is exhausting and fragile.

Sustained bestsellers are recommended.

When we say word of mouth (WOM) think only of honest, non- incentivized comments about either the product or the results the user got with it.

When people talk about a brand’s contest to win an iPad, or a funny viral video, they’re talking about the brand’s marketing, and that’s not the word of mouth we’re looking for.

92% say they trust recommendations from friends and family above all other forms of advertising. 70% say they trust online consumer reviews, the second most trusted recommendation above all other forms of advertising.

It’s not about our product, our company, our brand. It’s not about how the user feels about us. 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.

They don’t say they like the product because they like the product. They say they like the product because they like themselves.

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

Sustained bestsellers help their users get badass results.

The don’t want to be badass at our thing. They want to be badass at what they do with it. They want badass results.

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.

Badass means higher resolution. Badass means deeper, richer experiences.

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

Badass users talk. They’re our best source of authentic, unincentivized word of mouth

Word OF Obvious (WOFO) is even better than Word Of Mouth (WoM)

Gamification awards for purchases, visits to a website, comments, etc. typically reward behavior the company wants, not what the user wants.

“Feeling loved by a brand” does not mean badass. If we love our users more than the com- petition loves theirs, the proof doesn’t live in what we do, but in what our users do as a result.

The most vulnerable time for new users is in The Suck Zone. If we lose them here, we won’t get them back. (Later we’ll look at ways to help them through it.)

Your users clawed their way over the Suck Threshold. Finally they can do something. They’re competent. Along comes the NEW AWESOME IMPROVED version. “Upgrade!” we said. “You’ll love it!” we said. And just like that, they’re back in the Suck Zone. Whether it’s a new version of a product or a new process, change is most painful when we lose previously hard-fought ability. It now takes more effort and frustration to do what we used to do.

Returning to the Suck Zone rarely seems worth it, despite promises that the upgrade will makes us more powerful.

Our users don’t have to go all the way to world-class to experience the intrinsic rewards of high resolution knowledge, skills, and results. Simply getting past the Suck Zone can feel badass

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.

Given a representative task in the domain, a badass performs in a superior way, more reliably

The skills we use but don’t consciously practice can slowly deteriorate, even if we’re using them every day. The phrase “use it or lose it” is misleading. “Using it” is not enough

Those who became experts practiced more effectively than experienced non-experts with the same amount of practice hours.

The single biggest problem for most people oonn mmoosstt eexxppeerrttiissee ccuurrves is having too many things on the B board

We try to learn and practice too many things simultaneously instead of nailing one thing at a time.

Practice activities that are not Deliberate Practice can be riskier than just not practicing at all.

Practice makes permanent.

Most practice locks-in whatever is practiced

Half-a-Skill beats Half-Assed Skills

Mastering one tiny useless-on-its-own sub-skill at a time is nearly always a more effective, efficient way to move explicitly-practiced skills from A all the way to the C board.

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

For your domain, what’s the minimum viable skill set for “actually doing the thing”? Your users need as many fat-grained, half-assed skills as it takes to do at least something.

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

Pick a small sub-skill/task that you can’t do reliably (or at all), and get it to 95% reliability within three sessions. (Getting to 95% in a single session is often better).

NOTE: If you’re interested in other possibilities for exercises that can work as Deliberate Practice, refer to Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance.

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

Any practice activity for which you do not become significantly more reliable in a task or skill within one to three sessions, is not Deliberate Practice

The wrong ways to practice feel right

Most of us were taught that to practice means doing more of it more often. We’re told it’s about putting in the time and working hard.

The right ways to practice feel wrong

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

Many of us at least subconsciously resist doing what we can’t do, even when we want to practice and think we’re practicing. We keep repeating what we can already do, hoping to get incrementally better by doing more of it.

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

Experts in all domains develop and use unconscious perceptual knowledge.

Good Perceptual Exposure exercises don’t explain. They create a context that lets the learner’s brain “discover” the pattern.

If the exercise did fail (they did not learn from the perceptual exposure), the most likely causes are:

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

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.

But for some domains you might need to show the expert actually performing, demonstrating, making choices.

WARNING! Don’t expose them to examples of bad

Even when we know (consciously) that we’re seeing examples of bad or beginner quality, our brain might not get the memo. Worse, our brain is not just failing to distinguish bad from good, it’s actively learning and trying to imitate those bad examples.

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

The best way to learn to spot “bad” is by learning the underlying patterns of “good”

Teach people to recognize bad/wrong/errors by developing and strengthening their recognition of good/right/correct.

Those who become experts differ from non-experts with the same amount of experience in two main ways:

  1. Experts practice better (with activities that meet the criteria for Deliberate Practice)

  2. Experts develop deep perceptual knowledge and skills through high-quantity, high-quality exposure with feedback

Once they’ve started on the path, the “secret” to helping them move forward is to focus on reducing what slows or stops them.

There are two big derailer gaps

  1. The Gap of Suck
  2. The Gap of Disconnect

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.

The main reason people stop when they’re struggling is not because they’re struggling.

It’s because they don’t know that struggling is appropriate.

It’s because they don’t know that they’re exactly where they should be.

It’s because they don’t know that everybody struggles at this point.

If they don’t know it’s normal to struggle at this point, they have no reason to believe it will get better.

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

They don’t need you to be perfect. They need you to be honest.

The big problem is not that the manual is hard (or bad).The problem is that we act as though it’s not.

Derailer solution: Anticipate and Compensate

Anticipate the most likely faces they might make and questions they might ask if you were next to them when they use your product and/or work at the bigger context.

Compensate for their inability to show and tell you what they’re experiencing, and more importantly for your inability to notice and respond.

Err on the side of compensating.

It’s far better to assume it is happening even when it’s not, than to not acknowledge it when it is.

The best places to uncover what you must compensate for are usually online discussion forums.

To help users stay motivated, give them:

An ideal Performance Path Map:

Just knowing a Performance Path exists is a strong motivator

Find or make a Performance Path Map for your context domain

To create a path: Make a list of key skills ordered from beginner to expert, then slice them into groups to make ranks/levels. For motivation, the earlier, lower levels should be achievable in far less time and effort than the later, advanced levels. One possibility is to have each new level take roughly double the time and effort of the previous level.

Experts disagree on the right path because they probably don’t actually know (but believe they do)

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

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

Most of the typical approaches to acquiring knowledge and skills are fragile. Your approach can be robust.

What can they do within the first 30 minutes?

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

Design with a motivating payoff loop

The best payoff of all: intrinsically rewarding experiences

Powerful Intrinsic Motivation: High Resolution and Flow

Learning to understand and especially converse in the high-res technical jargon of a domain is both intrinsically rewarding and extremely useful.

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

Don’t discourage jargon use in your domain. Embrace it. Teach it. Invent it. Help your users learn it and find chances to use it.

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.Tips and tricks are one way to help let users practice at being better even if they don’t yet understand how and why the shortcut works.

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

Becoming badass is hard.

There will be cognitive resource drain.

You do want your users to use cognitive resources. You don’t want your users to waste them.

Don’t make them think about the wrong 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.

Your brain won’t need to spend resources “worrying” about an unfinished cognitive task if it “believes” something or someone has a trustworthy plan for handling it.

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

Don’t make them memorize

The power of affordances: to reduce their cognitive leaks, make the right thing to do the most likely thing to do

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.

Be the expert, the mentor, the guide.

To reduce their cognitive leaks, give them practice hacks

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

To reduce their cognitive leaks, reduce the need for willpower

The secret to willpower is… assume it doesn’t exist

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

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

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

When the bigger context is part of your identity, the hard- but-necessary work becomes nearly just as motivating as the intrinsically rewarding experiences.

Extrinsic rewards are almost never a good answer for getting people to do that which is not yet — but could be — rewarding on its own.

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

Always be asking,“What can we do to make the brain care about this? How can we create a feeling?”

Make it visceral

Convince their brain with context

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

The best way to deal with the brain’s spam filter is to reduce the amount of things that need to get past it

We can’t afford to waste scarce resources on facts and procedures before they’re needed.

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.

To the brain, Just-in-Case can seem useless.

Our brain filters not just what we pay attention now but also what we can later remember.

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

  1. Validate. Are you really really really certain they must know this right now?
  2. Convince their brain. Now that you’re sure users must learn this Just-in-Case knowledge, you have to “sell” it to their brain.

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.

From a badass users POV, we’re responsible for creating an expertise path for our users, regardless of where and from whom they’re getting their learning content/experiences.

The first step is to narrow down the topics.

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

Validate knowledge usefulness by mapping it to skills

Knowledge cards that are not mapped to a Skill card should be exceptions. Exceptions you make very very rarely.

The problem with “intellectual curiosity”

Yes, 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, side- trips, and so on. But in the beginning?

Cognitive resources. Scarce. Limited. Zero sum. The problem is not if they’re intellectually curious, it’s when.

You can’t entice users into spending time “engaging with your brand” and assume they’ll use the rest of their time on learning, practice, and getting better.

Scare. Limited. Resources.

If you define “engaging with the brand” as “actively involved in things we provide that make them better at the meaningful context they care about”, then it’s potentially useful.

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

You have the chance to raise the bar on what it means to care about users as people with lives. Complicated, resource-draining lives.

You have the chance to help people become more badass not only at using your tool within a meaningful context, but badass at life.