Product Bookclub Wrap | Badass: Making Users Awesome by Kathy Sierra

Justin Farrell

Badass Making Users Awesome

Why is it that some products are so much more successful than others? (hint: it’s neither luck or a good marketing budget!)

Kathy Sierra addresses that very question in her book Badass: Making Users Awesome, and we read it for our first book club of the year. Brainmates once again provided delicious drinks, snacks and conversation as we discussed it well into the night.

What’s the book about?

At the centre of this deceptively easy-to-read book Kathy offers one main lesson: most users don’t care so much about how awesome your product is. They do, however, care about how awesome they are when they use your product. And when they’re awesome using product, they’ll tell everyone about it.

Thankfully there is a science to it. It starts by shifting your thinking from creating an engaging product (the tool) to helping users of the product be Badass at what it helps them to do (the compelling context).

Creating a compelling context

In explaining the idea of a compelling context, Kathy follows the story of a person buying a new camera. Ultimately they want to become a better photographer and the camera is just the tool to get them there.

Good marketing sells the dream of the camera leading to better photography. But when the budding photographer brings the camera home they hit a steep learning curve. Equipped with no more than an instruction manual they suddenly face a deluge of complex buttons, dials, and new features to learn about.

Anyone new to photography will tell you they can stick the camera to auto and worry about the rest later. But, the true test of them becoming awesome photographers is how soon they move away from the auto button and learn to use the camera properly.

As product managers we agreed we should design products that effectively set them on a learning path. That way they can achieve the dream that marketing has sold so well.

Human behaviour

There was a lot more to learn from Badass than figuring out a compelling context. Kathy takes the reader on a journey of understanding human behaviour and what motivates people to keep learning and being the best at what they do.

The insights about human behaviour resonated with each of us in different ways, prompting these takeaways:

  • Julian spoke to the enduring value of mastery and deliberate practice. People don’t become experts at something by how much they practice, but how focused they are when they practice.
  • Arthur was curious about ways to guide users through his product and help them level up so they get a sense of progress. Designing a motivating path with a clear sense of direction mapping what users do not what they learn.
  • Remove cognitive leaks so that users spend their limited time on the right things. Corinne pointed out that this extends the phrase “don’t make me think” to “don’t make me think about the wrong things”
  • Nick brought the book’s teachings back to finding the core user problem and the context for which it exists. That’s what product management is all about, right?
  • For Bruce the concept of guiding users out of the ‘suck zone’ was compelling. Acknowledging to users that things won’t be easy at first is more likely to keep them engaged longer.

What about software?

A general criticism of the book is a lack of examples or case studies related to the software world. This is, after all, a book written for digital product creators. We come from different workplaces and manage a bunch of diverse products, so we spent a bit of time unpacking what Kathy’s teaching means to each of us.

In the software world customers and users can afford to be more fickle. Ivy reminded us that there is a smaller investment on their behalf so we have to work hard to keep them engaged with an ongoing approach. The advantage of working in digital is we have access to a bunch of tools to analyse, measure, and engage with customers like never before.

On the topic of mastery, it wasn’t clear whether it was an achievable or desirable goal for users of all digital products. For example, how would a transactional product like a banking app or 3rd party booking system help a user become Badass at life?

The answer to that question perhaps relates to designing your product to be as simple as possible for the user, minimising their cognitive load.

Personal development

In wrapping up, Sarah reminded us of something we all agreed: we could easily apply the principles from Badass to our own lives.

We find out at the end of the book the clever way that Kathy has written it. The beauty of her use of imagery, layout and casual language use the very approaches she’s teaching to drive home the core messages.

Keen to know more?

Product book club meets every two months at Brainmates in Sydney to discuss a book voted by you. Join the Meetup group here:

And one more thing… We’ve started a Slack group to keep the conversations going. Head over here to sign up:

Justin Farrell

Justin Farrell | Author

Product Management Training