Kathy Sierra – Opening Remarks at SXSW 2007 Part 1

Download audio here.  See here for her SXSW post.

[2:12] That’s all I have. I want to thank you for part of SXSW Interactive in 2007. It is my great pleasure to introduce Kathy Sierra.

Kathy Sierra: Thank you.

[2:44] I thought we’d start the conference by finding out why you guys are actually here; why did you come to SXSW? I’m going to have you tell me in a minute, but first, is anyone livebloggging this? A few — I’ll get there. Okay, a few people. So let’s think about this: we could strap those people into the presentation appreciation chair and everyone else could leave. There’s no reason for you guys to be here. Someone’s liveblogging it; they’re recording it; there’s chat — I’m sure there’s some of that going on back there; and of course, there’s Twitter.

So — this is really confusing. You all are the ones responsible for making the products and evangelizing the products that make this whole thing unnecessary so that you don’t have to be here.

But you’re still here. So we have to think about why. That’s a really important question, and it’s a question that we’re going to have to address, because if we’re out there telling people that, “Well, our software’s all you need. You don’t actually need real humans.” Clearly, you’re all here. There’s really only one reason, logical reason, why you’d be here.


That’s one a little trickier in your software, although people are working on it; probably some of you.

Now, there are scientists that have a theory about this. This is actually of great interest to scientists; what is that thing about being with real human beings? One of the main theories is that it could just be smell. That’s the cute, gratuitous picture; this is what it’s more like. So they think that might be why we actually have this interaction with real humans. But there’s a lot of other theories, too. We’re probably not going to put smell in our products right now, although I’ve heard that’s coming, too.

So, if we want to make applications that have some little lovable quality, we need to put a little bit more human-ness — now I’m not talking about the humane interface, or having good usability, or all the things that — there are lots of talks about that going on at the conference; lots of you are working on that. We’re going to talk about something a little extra, a little different from just having a more human interface; something that’s actually a little bit more human.

First, I want to know who’s here. I’m going to divide you into groups, and — there are three groups; some of you may fall into more than one group. So, when I mention your group — and I’ll tell you when — I want you to stand up, so we can all see the people that are in that group. They’ll be three groups. Again, if you fit in more than one group, you can stand up for each one of your groups.

There’s going to be designers, coders, and money people.

I don’t know how to describe the money people. They’re VCs, or the business people; the ones who are looking for the rest of you to do something for them.

So, first one we’re going to do is designers — don’t stand up yet. If you are a designer, then this quote probably makes sense to you. (Laughter) So if that’s you, stand up right now and stay standing. If you’re a designer — ooooh, a lot! Okay, and I see that there’s little clusters, too. So, that means there must be clusters of coders somewhere.

Alright, excellent. You guys have good hair, too.

Here’s the next group: coders. (Laughter) I had to use real models for this one. So, this question: if you could choose between coding an open-source web app or having sex — there’s actually no gender difference, it turns out; it’s just a language questions (laughter) — so if that’s you, you’re a coder. Stand up. And again, you might have been a designer, too. Lots of overlap! Okay, very cool. Ruby or Python? (Audience participation) I don’t have a category for ‘assembler.’

I couldn’t figure out what to even show — I don’t even know if the money people have a sense of humor, so if you’re a money person — VC, business person, anything like that, and you might also be a designer and a coder, too, but I still want you to proudly stand up. Marc Hedlund, the one I know — oh! Lots of you!

Alright, so stay standing. The rest of you, who are looking for work, you want to be looking at these guys. Alright, go ahead and sit down. Thank you.

So, right now, I want you to just take a minute, and I want you to find two people — and it’s going to be tough, because you were in little clusters; clusters of designers, clusters of coders — I want you to do introduce yourself to two people who were not in the group that you’re in. So go ahead and do that now. I’ll give you just a minute, and that’s it.

[8:48] This is not the time to do job interviews; just introduce yourself.

Okay, excellent! Thank you. You can stop now; you have the rest of the week.

Alright, this is a good practice. Everyone who’s been to SXSW before knows that, that’s really the trick, and there’s the whole thing; but just make sure that you — and coders and designers don’t necessarily smell the same way — make sure that you introduce yourself to other people that are not in your group.

So, back to why we’re all here when we don’t need to be; because we’re the people that are getting rid of the reasons for us to be here. We have to think about what we’re going to do with that information. There’s something missing — there’s a lot of things missing, but there’s some human quality that was actually can add into our products pretty easily.

How many people have actually been in the interactive world since the beginning, like since the beginning of this festival? Some of you, like, weren’t even born; that’s terrible. The big thing was that we were moving to interaction from things that didn’t interact at all. Those of us who were there in the early days of CD-ROMs, it’s like, this is amazing. Now, we can actually have our software carry on a conversation. For programmers like me, this was very cool, because then it meant my software can have the conversation that I don’t want to have with people. It was so cool, and somehow we got away from that. We got into multimedia; we started focusing on all the wrong things, and the interactive part of interaction, sort of, went away; or it became just usability. We need to talk about that interaction in a more human term.

There are two things that we can do to acknowledge the fact that we’re all here when we don’t need to be. We can help our users get together with each other offline. I’m going to say very little about that, because there’s a lot of stuff going on at the conference about that. The other one is to make our interactions in our software feel more human. That’s mostly what we’re going to talk about.

[11:05] We have to accept that face-to-face matters. Those of you who’ve been to any of my Passionate User talks know that when we reverse-engineer passion, you find that wherever there’s passion, peple are getting together with other people, alive, real-time, face-to-face; people who share that passion. And the more they get together off-line, the more their passion grows. So anything we can do to support that. That one picture’s a little bit more interesting than the other picture.

So, how can we encourage off-line community? Again, they’ll be sessions about that, so I won’t say much. The easiest thing is to help start or help support a user group. I’ve seen some people do things like a three-page PDF on how to start a user group, with some very simple guidelines and materials. There’s a whole wiki on how to start your own Barcamp. You can put anything in front of the word “camp;” there’s been Winecamp and Non-profitcamp and all sorts of weird camps. Hold low-cost events where people can come together. Anything you can do. This is — probably the best resource that you have is MeetUp.com, and here are just a few that are on the front page today. There’s a MeetUp for everything.

Here are just some of the sessions — you don’t have to write these down; I’m just showing you that there’s some community sessions here. This is just a few, so make sure that you go to some of those, and start thinking about how to get your users together off-line. Now we’ll go back online.

So how can we make our apps feel more human, without the smell part?

What can a human do with another human that they can’t do with a computer? See, I was not thinking that when I read that slide, either.

They can’t do this. The user can’t make that face, to a computer. I can do that to you, and chances are, you’re going to respond in some way. You’re at least going to recognize it — although we’ll talk about why that’s questionable, too, but — the user can’t do this to your software. They can arrange their face in that situation, but the computer’s saying, “You know, that’s dead to me.” It’s not paying attention to that face. I doesn’t know it’s there, and that’s so crucial to interaction.

Can’t ask a question; and I’ll telly you why FAQs are nothing like real questions. So, there are the two things that I can’t do with the computer. There are more; these are two crucial human things that we do in interaction all the time. When I”m interacting with you, I can look confused — which I’m really good at — and I can ask a question; but people can’t do that with their software. There are a few other things. Just — I want you to look at that face. Think about whether that software knows anything about that face, and whether that’s meaningful. Think about whether you’ve ever made that face to your software, or anyone’s software.

This is crucial. Being able to look confused and having the other entity somehow respond to that — is crucial. It’s not just humans; here’s the gratuitous — (laughter).

Let’s take a little quiz detour. I’ll read these, just in case they’re too small for the people in the back. I just want you to see if there are any of these that you can answer yes to.

  • I can focus on certain things for long periods.
  • I have unusually strong, narrow interests.
  • I do certain things in an inflexible way. 
  • I’m very good at picking up details and facts.
  • I’m considered highly intelligent.  
  • I have difficulty recognizing non-verbal communication, including facial expression, body posture,  and eye gaze.
  • People often say I was rude, even when this was not intended.

[15:12] What human condition that many of us here suffer from, does this describe?

I don’t know if you can read that little banner; it was a t-shirt “Aspergers Unite!”, and at the bottom, it said, “Oh, right, like we’re gonna hold hands.”

What other thing could answer those questions? Yes?

So, this is what we have to deal with. But our apps shouldn’t worry, because apparently — I saw this on Amazon, “All Cats Have Asperger’s, Too.” My daughter’s, like, “I gotta read that book?”

So, we have to compensate. So, how are we going to compensate for that fact that our computers — our software, just has no idea what that person’s facial expressions are? Well, we have to give our app a way to know that the user is confused. This is a really critical time for a user. Now remember, my focus is on creating passionate users, not just creating people who survive their first few days or weeks with your software. This is a crucial time. So if we don’t pick up on the fact that this is what he’s going through, we’re going to lose that person; and of course, then we have no chance for passion. So we’re not just going for survival. Nobody’s passionate when they suck; and this is seriously an “I suck” moment.

This is a slide that many of you have seen before. We’re going to focus on this a lot, because this is crucial. There are some key milestones when someone’s interacting with your software; and I don’t care if it’s a really complicated app or even the simplest app — it’s all relative to what perceived value they’re going to get, and how hard they think it should be. Some of the web apps that y’all have written shouldn’t be as hard as they are to use. Y’all know who I’m talking about, too. The first time — they’re a little tricky part. Just getting started.

What does it take to get up to the “suck” threshold? The “suck” threshold means “I no longer suck. I’m not good; I’m not excited; I’m not passionate, but I don’t suck any more, and that’s good.” If we don’t recognize that face, we’re going to have problems getting people past that threshold. That’s a crucial time.

The “passion” threshold is when they’re actually way past the “suck” threshold, and they’re really starting to get good, and now they have a chance at having that actually become a passion. A little bit later, we’ll talk about how it’s really not passion about your tools, it’s a passion for whatever your tools are supporting them in doing. So, that’s a crucial time we have to think about.

Really, he who gets his users up that curve more quickly — all other things being equal — probably wins. Anyone who can get your users past the “suck” threshold faster than the competition, and then also, ramp up more quickly to the part where they’re good enough to maybe even become passionate — that’s a huge advantage.

So, we still need our apps to know when the person’s confused. Well, there’s a lot of research being done; this is a whole conference; an IEEE conference just on face and gesture recognition — lots of research has been going on for years. All sorts of things; it’s very complicated; very, very, complicated. They’re working on it, and with millions of dollars and a little bit more time, we can do that. Or, we can try a simpler solution. (Laughter) And we just let the user tell us. We just let them tell us.

Yeah, don’t freak out that it says WTF. It doesn’t have to be blue; it could be a different color, so if you’re a UI designer, don’t worry about that.

[19:11] This way, when the user’s making that face, she gets to say to her computer, “All right. I know you don’t know what I look like, so I’m going to tell you what my face looks like right now,” and click that button. In a minute, we’re going to have to talk about “well, then what?” “Nice to know, but what do you do?”

FAQs and online help — this is the biggest myth of all; is that people say, “Well, isn’t that what they’re doing when they choose ‘Help?’ Aren’t they saying ‘I’m confused?’ Isn’t that WTF?” No, because the person who wrote Help thinks you look like this. They think that (laughter) you’re wearing your collar up, and you have a tablet PC, and you’re happy, and you’re kind of mildly interested in the Help file; and you’re smiling, and everything’s cool, and you’re casual, there’s no pressure — but really, you actually look like this. (Laughter) So that’s a problem. There’s a big, big gap between what the Help thinks you feel and what you actually feel, and look like. So, no, going to the menu and choosing Help is not saying WTF. So we need something different.

There’s nothing wrong with help and FAQs; they’re nice reference documents. They’re for a different part of the curve, and I don’t care about the part of the curve that exists where these things are written. I care about getting people through that “suck” threshold, because that’s when you’re going to lose them, and that’s where you’re going to lose any competitive advantage. So, if online help was the solution; if it really recognized that that’s what the guy looked like, the first line — the first thing you could choose in online help would be “Don’t panic” because it would assume that you’re really freaking out here. So — I’m going to burn that in.

I’m going to give you a little example in Excel. This is an extreme example, because it’s Excel, but — this is actually a real session that I captured from someone. I sat down with someone — and this was, honestly, what they were doing. “Uh, you know, I used to use Excel a long time ago,”- this is the other person talking- “and all I want to do is add up the numbers in this column. I mean, I know that’s what Excel does; that’s what spreadsheets do. That’s all I want to do.” So, I’m pointing to where those numbers are, and the person said, “I just want the total of the numbers in a column.” So he chooses, “Use the Office Assistant.” That sounds good. Then he gets the little guy, which I’ve actually covered up — yeah, now it’s the little dancing computer guy; it’s not the paper clip. So, he types in, “Add up numbers.” It gives him responses like this, that are really helpful. So, “Okay, how about ‘make a formula?’ That sounds good; I think they call it formulas.” Here are the responses. Those are really helpful. “Okay, let me go to the real help. Maybe the Office Assistant — that little computer guy with the big feet is just stupid — I’ll go to the real help. Add up numbers? I still get this huge list of hits that are either really overwhelming and complicated, or just don’t even have any bearing on the thing that I did. Oh, let’s type ‘make a formula.’ Nah, that didn’t work. Let’s type ‘make an equation.’ That didn’t work. How about just ‘formula?'” And then we get to something like, really complicated. “No, I don’t want to know the syntax; I just want to know how to do it — that easy way, where you select the things and say SUM, and –”

So, that’s a problem. And then, just for fun, he typed WTF, and it actually said — this is true — it didn’t recognize WTF. Now, if the full F-word offends you, just avert your gaze, because the next thing he typed, (laughter) and he got a ton of hits. It was hilarious; it’s like, “What’s New in Microsoft Excel” picked up on the — “Ways to Forecast Values”, “What Happened to my Module Sheet?” Anyway, it was hilarious.

There’s no WTF button, but there is a What The — you can Enter, but it doesn’t get you to anything useful. So, remember, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with the Help and the FAQs that we usually have; it’s just that they’re written for the wrong person, at a different level.

This is what we call “the canyon of pain.” The user isn’t able to express what they’re really feeling. They don’t even know what the thing is called.

For example, this is something I might want to say. This is something I could say to a person. How do I say this to the computer? How do I do that? I’m expected to know the thing that I’m using Help to find out, and that’s a big problem.

Again, it’s not just for big — that’s an extreme end; Excel; something really big and difficult. It could be the simplest thing, and maybe, if you want passionate users, maybe these things that people make a face about are not really about the tool itself. Maybe your tool’s really easy, but the thing they’re using your tool to do is not. Maybe they’re tilting their head because “Im confused about the nature of the thing I’m trying to do. I know how your tool does it, because your tool’s pretty easy to use; but I just — I’m missing something.” Well, then we’re still going to lose them, because we want them up that curve. It’s not enough for them to come up the curve on your tool. If they’re going to be passionate, they’ve got to come up the curve on the thing they’re using your tool to do.

Because when people say they’re passionate about a tool, they’re not. They’re just expressing the passion they have for the thing the tool enabled. That’s what we want to focus on; and that same face could be made about something that has nothing to do with the tool, but rather, the thing he’s using the tool to do. So the more we can help him look confused about whatever it is, the better we’re going to be. Y’all should have that one memorized by now, but I’ll show it again. [25:26]


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