Book review: Badass: Making users awesome

Mar 5, 2017  

I can’t remember the last time I felt such joy reading anything! Kathy Sierra’s Badass: Making users awesome book is funny and has pictures with speech bubbles, but that’s not all. It’s packed with information that flows perfectly from one section to the next. You know how some books have just one main point and could be replaced by a couple of paragraphs? This book is the opposite: every few pages I felt I had a new lightbulb moment.

The main premise of the book is the following: focus on making your users awesome, not your product.

Imagine two product reviews. One says “Awesome product!”. The other says “I used this and made an awesome thing in a week! I’m awesome!”. The second focuses on the user and the result and is much better.

Another idea is focusing on the wider context. If your product is cameras, the wider context could be photography or making videos. Help your user become a good photographer, instead of just a good user of your camera.

“What I really want to do is be THE best tripod expert”. Said no one ever.

The book then continues uncovering the formula behind successful products. There is a really interesting section on how to help your users learn. It describes ways in which experts do things differently than non-experts. One such thing experts do is practice better. Not longer or harder, just better. I’ve read discussions on deliberate practice before but Kathy’s description stuck with me.

“Deliberate practice takes a fine-grained task from unreliable to 95% reliability, within one to three 45-90-minute sessions”

For this to work the skill needs to be fine-grained. For example, let’s take typing. To master touch typing someone can break down the skill into fine-grained subskills. One deliberate practice task could be: “Type words using the middle row of the keyboard”. This is something that can be mastered in one to three 45-90-minute sessions. In contrast, if someone spends years just typing as usual they might make no progress.

If we can’t get to 95% reliability in 1-3 sessions, it’s better to stop trying. Otherwise we just create bad habits. It might mean that the skill is too complex and we need to break it down and pick a subskill.

“Practice makes permanent”

There’s another fascinating kind of learning called Perceptual Exposure. It works kind of magically when one is exposed to high quantity, high quality examples of expertise.

One application is chicken sexing. In the beginning most people can’t determine the gender of a newborn chick. Imagine a new chick-sexer trainee tries to learn the job. He looks at a chick and makes a guess. The expert chick-sexer stands next to him and gives feedback. “Yes, no, yes, yes”. For all he knows the trainee is just guessing. But over time the guesses become better! Until he becomes as good as the expert. The amazing thing is that he doesn’t know how he knows. He just knows. And he can’t teach someone else either.

It’s like the brain has this machine learning algorithm which picked up a pattern, but you don’t consciously know what it is. It has the same gotchas as training a machine learning algorithm too. Perceptual exposure only works if there is a high quantity of good examples available, to avoid overfitting. And you must not expose the users to examples of bad.

There are more real world examples of perceptual exposure, like in flight training. I’d like to think about how it could be applied in software development. Perhaps with reading a large amount of high quality code?

The last section of the book talks about helping the users move forward. An idea that I liked was giving users early benefits. What can they do within the first 30 minutes?

Reading this book made me want to create something so I can try applying its ideas. It made me want to apply the expert learning techniques not only on my users but myself. And it made me want to be able to write like Kathy one day.