"Badass" by Kathy Sierra: book notes

March 9, 2019

This article collects my notes from a read through of Kathy Sierra's "Badass: Making Users Awesome"

I liked the book a lot, and would highly recommend reading it. There's more information in it than I managed to cover here. It's a great learning tool, since it serves a practical demonstration of some of the methods she describes. Also, it's funny. Get it, read it.

Creating a sustainable bestseller

A bestseller is sustainable if you can stop promoting it after the initial outlay.

Recommendations are free marketing

Recommendations are a great way to achieve a sustainable bestseller. They must be honest and unincentivised.

A user will recommend a product if the product made them successful at something meaningful to them. (It's even better if their results speak for themselves and product reputation spreads through word of mouth.)

Shifting focus to user success

In order to get recommendations, we need to shift focus from company success to user success.

Exercise: replace "our" with "our users'" in your brand questions.

  • How can we our users get more social media followers?
  • How can we get people talking about our our users' brand?
  • Design a T-shirt that makes us our users look good.

Design not for your users, but for your users' users.

Describe (to yourself) how your users are, or will become, better than your competition's users.

User success is what happens after purchase, signup, etc. That means we need to change the materials available post-purchase.

Finding meaningful context

Ask yourself:

  • What are you and your competitors a subset of?
  • How is the context more compelling than your product offering?


  • "Taking inspiring photographs" is more compelling than "using tripods"
  • "Filming entertaining videos" is more compelling than "using a camera"

Making users successful

Don't just make a better product, make a better user of the product.

Upgrade your users: give them new skills and deeper perception of the meaningful context. You should design a training path from zero to expert. Let the users follow as much of it as feels rewarding to them.

Growth is rewarding for users

  • It makes them more successful in their existing communities
  • They can join a new community, that of experts at the meaningful context
  • The new perception enriches and deepens their experience ofthe meaningful context
  • They gain mastery of new skills
  • They can use new knowledge in meaningful ways

Sidenote: making users feel successful

Making users feel successful is not the same thing as making them actually successful.

Typical badges and achievements are designed to benefit the company ("brand engagement") rather than users. They are a bad, short-term strategy: avoid it.

How to teach new skills

Common sense / popular ways of teaching skills are actually inefficient. Expertise is rare partly because we hold the wrong ideas about how to get there.

Skill cycle

The popular view of learning is a progression of skills from new to effortful to effortless, through consistent practice. We imagine an expert as a person who has finished learning and is therefore performing effortlessly.

In fact, experts are people who are constantly learning and struggling. Firstly, they are constantly discovering or formulating new skills to learn. Secondly, they re-evaluate and modify their performance of skills that they've previously considered "automated", in order to refine their technique.

(Side note: ...and if you suffer from impostor syndrome, this should blow it to bits. There will never be a moment when you've "arrived". It is normal to constantly feel like you've got all this new stuff to learn, while also relearning the old stuff.)


Common sense dictates that improving practice means repeating the same exercise for longer periods of time, with more effort. Additionally, we often consider it to be practice when we apply a group of skills to a situation (playing a game of chess, giving a speech.) There are several problems here.

Practice makes permanent.

Practice, understood as repetition, making something automatic, can make bad habits permanent. That's why experts need to re-evaluate skills they have previously automated.

Deliberate Practice

The goal of deliberate practice is to learn something, so the skill must be out of your comfort zone. You also need to be able to get it right relatively quickly, so the skill must be just outside of your comfort zone.

  • select a skill
  • split it into a number of fine-grained skills
  • design exercises for fine-grained skills that take the trainee from"unreliable" to "95% reliability" within 1 to 3 sessions that lastabout 45-90 minutes.
  • after 3 sessions, if the trainee still cannot reliably achieve success,stop and refine the exercise further
    • if too complex: break it into smaller pieces
    • if too difficult: make performance criteria easier ("...with one hand" or "...four times slower than normal")

Perceptual Exposure

Sometimes experts know, but they don't know how they know. This is due to unconscious pattern recognition performed by our brain. It is access to high quality examples, rather than inherited talent, the reason why children born into a specialised family may perform better at the specialty (eg. a family of musicians.)

Perceptual exposure can move parts of a complex skill straight into "unconscious / automated." Mastered skills also tend to be of higher quality.

  • gather a lot of examples for a specific fine-grained skill
    • small samples
    • high quality content
    • diverse content and source
    • do not include bad examples
  • expose the trainee to these examples in sessions of lengthas described above
  • if the trainee has to categorise the content, perform an action etc,give immediate feedback on whether they got it right

Bad examples will be recognised by not conforming to patterns evolved from good examples. If you must show bad examples, make them feel wrong (play jarring music, overlay with a STOP sign) and make the good examples feel right (play nice music, use a pleasing, clear layout.)

Make the good feel good, and bad feel bad.

Skills progression stages and obstacles

Competency chart

Vertical chart axis is labelled "competency." Horizontal chart axis is labelled "time."

Two horizontal lines divide chart in three zones, from the bottom up: "suck zone", "competent zone" and "expert zone."

Four curves start at 0 point.

The first curve rises and falls without touching the first horizontal line, remaining in the "suck zone". Label: "This is too hard, I give up."

The second curve rises into "competent zone", then falls. Label: "Upgrade after a hard-won competency: I suck again, I give up."

The third curve rises into "competent zone" and levels out. Label: "Stagnant, not growing, won't come back to the product, engage with it, or recommend."

The fourth curve rises in a linear fashion and continues into expert zone. Label: "Ideal."

Early user experience: staying in context

Users start motivated, wanting to be awesome at the meaningful context. Typically, marketing materials focus on context. However, post-purchase materials usually focus on the tool (eg user manuals.) This disconnects users from context and demotivates them. Make sure your post-purchase materials continue to be context-focused.

You need to find a way to give them early successes, even if you have to teach people to half-ass something, because early reassurance and successes are more critical than gaining good habits. If they don't stay, they won't learn the good habits.

The first 30 minutes

  • how can they be impressed by what they did? (rather by what the tool did)
  • what would they do if they knew they couldn't break anything? (reset-to-defaults buttons)
  • high payoff tips, tricks, shortcuts
  • half-assed skills to get them hooked
  • meaningful results don't necessarily have to be practical

Early user experience: I suck

After users buy your product or join your service, they typically hit "the wall of suck" (in terms of their skills) and blame the problem on themselves.

If not possible, or in addition to that, you must reassure them that struggling is normal. This is how you build trust.

Manage their expectations ("it's painful for everyone at the beginning.")

If your product has shortcomings, admit them openly ("it's not you, it's us.")

Anticipate problems: discover them via online discussion forums, user groups (the best results will be found on forums other than your own.)

Compensate for the fact that you're not there to reassure the user; repeat your message everywhere (user manual, blog, website, user groups, posters, youtube tutorials.)

Mid-stage user experience: skills progression

Create a performance path map that describes what the user will be able to do (ability, mastered skills, demonstrable results.) It should contain:

  • a description of the path
  • how to evaluate which milestone you have reached
  • ideas and tools to help you use existing skills, early and often

In the best milestone progressions, early milestones are closely spaced, and later ones are distributed farther apart. One good heuristic is to roughly double the time needed to reach each next milestone. Example: belts in martial arts.)

Paths can be found in:

  • existing professional organisations
  • industry standard groups
  • college degree program curriculums
  • user groups and forums
  • table of contents of the book known as "the bible of..." (relevant skill)

Get users into the following cycle:

Payoff: intrinsic rewards, such as flow and higher resolution motivate people more than extrinsic rewards (money, badges, praise.)

Stopping cognitive leaks

Cognitive resources share the same reservoir as willpower. If you make it easy to understand, you will leave users more energy to overcome obstacles. (Conversely, the less willpower your product requires, the more complex information they can process.)

Make sure your users spend their scarce cognitive resources on the right things: context, not tool.

Zeigarnik Effect: brain keeps a background process running for unfinished or interrupted tasks


  • Delegate cognitive work to something in the world (like labels)
  • Don't make them memorise things (when there are too many options, provide cheat-sheets)
  • Make the right thing most likely to do
  • Don't make them choose

Having choices is different from having to make choices.

Reduce the friction

Reduce the need for willpower. Assume your users don't have any. How does that change your design process?

  • Help automate skills
  • Give practice hacks (notebook for tracking practice and personal state, tracking apps)
  • Give them reminders
  • Help build automatic habits
  • Help have rewarding experiences

Make your message significant

Human brain has a spam filter and defend themselves against spending energy on learning and understanding unnecessary things. It prefers Just-In-Time to Just-In-Case.

Here are some things that trigger a "this might be important" response:

  • Scary things
  • Faces expressing emotions (can be cartoon or animal faces)
  • Young, helpless things
  • Funny and feeling-generating images
  • Tension and resolution ("...what happens next?" Zeigarnik effect)
  • Odd, surprising, unexpected images

However, if you use them repetitively, people habituate and stop paying attention again. (Like with popup dialogs.)

Focus your message

The best way to get past spam filter is to reduce the amount of things that you want people to "get."

Validate what needs to be said by asking for a reason, three times:

  • Materials say "Do this..." - Ask: "Why?"
  • Explain: "Because ..." - Ask: "So what?"
  • Explain: "Well, ..." - Ask: "Who cares?"
  • Explain: "If that happens..."

The third explanation is most compelling. This is what should be given as the motivation for acting in the first place. If you haven't gotten a compelling answer, don't present the information to users.

Validate the usefulness of information by mapping it to skills (see: skills progression.) If you can't map it to skills, skip it.

Bibliography / Books mentioned

...and don't forget the main star, "Badass: Making Users Awesome" :)

Tags: grok book-summary