Thursday, May 18, 2006

Innovate or Die - KISS

Focus effort on making the product easy to learn for beginners
Not everybody is a seasoned PowerBuilder user, but a great deal of the documentation and samples are written as if they were. People who are new to the product need to be able to establish an early meaningful success with the product in order to form a good first impression. As Kathy Sierra notes:

It's about getting the challenge level right, and creating opportunities for people to want to get to The Next Level. It's about giving people the "I Rule!" experience. But first, you have to get yourself out of the way, since it doesn't matter if users think YOU kick ass. It only matters that they think THEY kick ass. Give users a way to kick ass. And giving them brighter whites in their laundry doesn't count as kicking ass. Giving them slightly stronger garbage bags doesn't count. Tastier chile isn't enough. Nice-smelling soap doesn't do it either.

The true feeling of kicking ass comes from challenge. If you get the challenge level right, people enter that state of flow where they lose track of time because they're so fully engaged and involved. They feel good about what they were able to do and learn. It's a kind of natural high, and it's been directly linked with happiness. More flow==more happiness. And game developers (and the researchers who study flow states) know exactly what creates the right challenge level (although it isn't one size fits all--what's challenging to some will be too difficult or too easy for others, although there are ways around that with dynamically adjusting challenge levels... but that's a different topic).

Challenge depends on your skills and perception of the task. If you perceive the challenge is too difficult, the flow state vanishes because you become frustrated and ultimately give up. If you perceive the challenge as too easy, the payoffs aren't worth it, and you lose interest. You can't feel like you kick ass (I Rule!) if the thing you're doing is dead simple or meaningless. Games or activities (skiing, rock climbing, running, etc.) that keep people engaged have a challenge level that matches the user's skills and knowledge and most importantly--keeps increasing.

The key is to have a cycle where the user can keep building their skills to reach higher and higher levels! In other words, the challenge keeps building, but so do the user's skills and knowledge. The spiral is a continuous cycle of motivation/seduction followed by a period of intense activity toward a goal followed by REACHING that goal which then gives you more skills and knowledge (superpowers, tools, whatever) that let you achieve still higher levels... and on it goes. Five hours later you're at Level Eight, or skiing bigger moguls, or helping save the world.


The PowerBuilder Application Server Plugin is an excellent example of the issue. The technology is solid, the ease of use is currently problematic. If the latter is not corrected, the former will never be discovered. Again from Kathy Sierra: "How long do your users spend in the "I suck" (or "this product sucks") zone? Once they've crossed the suck threshold, how long does it take before they start to feel like they kick ass? Both of those thresholds are key milestones on a users path to passion, and it's often the case that he-who-gets-his-users-there-first wins."

Part of this is accomplished by taking a fresh look at the PowerBuilder IDE and asking whether the steps are intiuitive to new users or are overly complicated. For example, if I want to start a new application for the first time, why do I need to create a workspace, then a target, and then an initial window. There should be a shortcut process that creates all of those for me. I seem to remember that there used to be a new application wizard. That might have been removed, perhaps because it actually generated some sloppy code. Rather that removing it, perhaps it should have been enhanced instead.

That's just one example though. The key is making the new user as comfortable and productive with the product as soon as possible, but in ways that move out of the way of the experienced developer once they have mastered the product.

3 comments:

Jim Cameron said...

Simplicity and PowerBuilder. PB 7.0 was the kiss of death of the product - as far as attracting new users is concerned - becasuse the product, in addition to being unstable, was wholely unaproachable for new users. It was said at the time by some - including me - that Team Sybase should have spent more time thinking independently and criticising the product harshly rather than extolling its virtues.

But in any event, Sybase management was quiter clear at the time - they explicitly stated - that as far as they were concerned, PB was in the late stages of the product cycle and attracting of new users was neither feasible nor a goal going forward.

So the thrust of much of your well-written case study is irrelevant.

bruce.armstrong said...

>>It was said at the time by some - including me - that Team Sybase
>>should have spent more time thinking independently and criticising
>>the product harshly rather than extolling its virtues.

Actually, TeamSybase was rather vocal in private communication with Sybase managment about their concerns with the 7.0 release.

>>So the thrust of much of your well-written case study is irrelevant.

So the alternative is to lay down and die? I don't think so. So long as there is some possibility that they're willing to listen, I'm willing to speak.

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