Kathy Sierra – Building Badass Users

As a means to help myself learn more about product management I’m going to start creating summaries of material I find online. These are created purely for my own learning, so if they seem totally incoherent, I’m sorry, but tough luck 🙂

Today I’m going to summarize and distill the content provided in this presentation from Kathy Sierra on how to build badass users.

“We’ll fix it in the manual”

Anyone who has worked with user stories before in product management knows that when starting off your user stories describe the most literal interpretation of the user ability you are providing to your users. For example, you may start off with “As a user I can create an project” for you project management software. Building this on the backend using Rails isn’t that difficult to do and very quickly your user can technically create a project in your app. However, it might not be immediately obvious to your user how your UI works. Also, just because your tool allows for all of the functionality that your user needs, doesn’t mean that it helps them within the context that you user cares about. Your user wants to become better at managing their projects. They want to be more organized, and more than anything I bet they just want their projects to be successful and not be messy gong shows. So instead of just making your product more effective at helping your users succeed in their context, you just provide a manual that describes how to use the feature. That is not very helpful.

“Or, We’ll fix it in marketing”

This mindset is what frustrates me most about the “internet marketing” industry. They’re actually very good at selling things. They understand the psychology of why people buy things. They understand the idea that customers desire to be good at the context, and not the tool. The problem is that they emotionally manipulate people to buy a product and then rarely do the work necessary to ensure that their customers adhere to what is necessary for success. They use the cop out that “success is up to the customer”. It is similar to the fitness and weight loss industry which is built upon a foundation of low adherence. The problem isn’t a lack of desire to succeed, or an inability to learn what needs to be done, it’s non-adherence.

“We CAN fix it in the USER.”

This is what is meant by improving adherence. Make it easier for your user/customer to adhere to the program which will result in their success. Give them the ability, give them super powers. Or at the very least don’t make it hard on them, and them blame their failure on their lack of character.

“It is NOT that the PRODUCT is amazing, it’s that the product makes them feel like THEY are amazing.”

“Key attributes of a successful product are in the users’ results. What does this product make your users kick-ass at?”

“We make a tool, customers are interested in the context of what they want to achieve.”

“For example, customers don’t say ‘I’m awesome at using this camera’, they say ‘I take beautiful photos’.”

A great product should be like steroids for you users. It should make them feel like they are better at the context of what they are trying to accomplish. The product doesn’t really matter to them, what matters to them is their success in the context which they are using the product. Sprinters don’t take steroids because they like sticking a needle in their bum, they take them because it helps them become bigger, faster and stronger. It helps them win races, medals and huge endorsement contracts. There are of course products that people use for the sake of the product itself, like drugs. If you give a rat a cocaine pellet dispenser it will keep pressing the button to get more cocaine until it dies. This is where social products differ from B2B SAAS products, and is probably a very important distinction to make. When people use consumer social apps they become addicted to them because they’re seeking that hit of dopamine from getting likes, and comments. This is the digital equivalent of drugs, or junk food.

“We must help our users: 1) build capability (2) stick with it.”

“The user journey: from first time to totally badass –> driven by motivation”

“However, can’t just add more motivation, the challenge is the derailers that pull people off track. Lots of derailers throughout user journey.”

“The user journey take ability and willpower.”

“Adding cognitive friction reduces your will power and ability to complete tasks.”

“Your cognitive resources come from ‘one tank’, meaning if you tire users out in one area, that affects them elsewhere. Using willpower taxes cognitive ability.”

Kathy described an experiment where they split people into two groups. The first group had to remember a two digit number, and the second group had to remember a seven digit number. Then as they thought the experiment had concluded the asked these people if they wanted some fruit, or some cake. The people tasked with remembering 2 digits were more likely to eat the fruit while the people tasked with remembering 7 digits were more likely to eat cake. What they determined was that the use of cognitive resources also taxed their willpower. Essentially they came from the same “tank”. If one was depleted, so was the other.


“Reduce cognitive leaks! This can be anything that taxes cognitive ability.”

“Knowledge in the world vs Knowledge in the head”

“Reduce cognitive leaks with defaults and trusted filters – choices are hugely cognitively taxing”

“Reduce cognitive leaks by eliminating need to use willpower – building habits is very helpful in this regard. Habits are automatic. Help them build habits around the bigger context.”

“Reduce cognitive leaks by letting their brain LET GO. Let your users stop worrying about something.”

We can help our users by making it easier on them. This could include using a more obvious UI that makes it clear how to use the product without needing to guess or refer to a manual. It might not be as pretty and minimalistic, but if it’s obvious it won’t tax your users brains trying to figure it out. Eliminating extraneous design elements could be helpful as well. Flashing GIFs are also probably a bad idea 🙂

Kathy also talks about how building habits is very helpful. When we have habits we have grooved behaviour to the point of becoming automatic. Almost like muscle memory. If I had to look down at the keyboard for every keystroke I would be a much slower typer, but with muscle memory I can move a lot faster. It is the same thing with habits. Also, you can have bad habits and good habits. By helping to train our users to have good habits (or at least habits that we want them to have) then we make it much easier for them to use our products. Nir Ayal’s book “Hooked” as a good example of a framework for why products can be habit forming.

“By pretending like your users shouldn’t have any problems, you’re gaslighting your users, because when they inevitably come up against challenges they’ll feel like THEY are the problem.”

While presenting your customers as uniformly happy and problem free you may see benefits on conversion at the top of your funnel, you will see problems with retention over time. Whereas if you show empathy for them and make them feel as though it is totally normal and understandable for them to be struggling with certain things then they won’t give up when they run up against challenges. It is kind of like if you were to start a marathon race with the expectation that it will be easy as opposed to the expectation that after about 15km you are going to want to collapse. If you expect the run is going to be hard then you won’t give in. It reminds me of a happiness equation someone once told me about. The equation says that your happiness = reality – your expectations. So if your expectations are low and your reality is higher (ie better) then you will be happy. This is obviously a SUPER simplistic framework, but useful to me.