It's the [?], Stupid!

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🗓️ Publish Date
February 1, 2006
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Do you know what the "comma-stupid" phrase is for your product or service? In other words, do you know what is most meaningful for your users? Because whatever that word or phrase is (i.e. the part that comes before the ", stupid!"), it should be driving everything from product development to documentation to support and marketing.

The "comma-stupid" phrase popped into american culture in 1992, with the political message, "It's the economy, stupid." But the one that got me is from the game industry. In the early 90's, a company was founded that most agreed was a dreamteam combination of Hollywood and Silicon Valley ("sili-wood", as it was called then). Made up of some of the best and brightest from both the entertainment and high-tech worlds, "Rocket Science Games" was a cover story on Wired before their first product was released.

And they got more than $10 million initial financing. Those of us struggling to develop CD-Rom games on $100k to 300k budgets were envious and a little resentful. Sure enough, Rocket Science's first games were technologically spectacular. But...they were complete and utter failures in the market. And then a rumour started that one of the founders allegedly said something like, "Oh, we get it now. It's about the game play." I have no idea if anyone ever said that, but the meme spread throughout our little entertainment/tech game world that went "Well... DUH! It's the game play, stupid!" Of course, defining what game play meant in that context is an entirely different subject for another day... ; )

Meanwhile back at Microsoft... in the Search Champs program they talked and demo'ed and listened and demo'ed and questioned and talked and demo'ed. Throughout most of it, I saw and heard about features. Cool features. Innovative features. Sometimes jaw-dropping features. But I almost never heard any over-arching context for this collection of features. I almost never heard discussions of the meaningful benefit this collection of stuff would give the user. In fact, most discussions about the user's perspective were around usability.

Usability schmusability... where's the part where we talk about how this helps the user kick-ass? So what if the feature is brilliantly implemented and dead simple to use? Where's the part where we ask, "use it do WHAT?" Where's the part where you say, "We've decided that our mission and message is, "It's the [something-goes-here], stupid!"

Framing it this way might not change the product one bit. Or it might change it profoundly. It might mean a deep change in the way we talk about and teach and support users in our products. And yes, of course, it might mean a deep change in how we market that product or service. But if we don't figure it out and stay focused and clear, we risk heading in directions that don't serve the user's ultimate purpose. (The most obvious result of not staying "on message" is featuritis.)

We all have to figure out what the user cares most about, and drive everything from that "comma-stupid" phrase. For our books, we use, "It's the learning experience, stupid!" Not the depth of technical expertise, not the breadth of coverage, and definitely not the writing quality.

Yet, even that still isn't getting to the heart of what matters to the user. Because somewhere behind "learning experience", there is a reason why the user wants that learning experience! And it is really that reason that matters. In other words, "learning" is not really the user's ultimate destination/reason for picking up one of our books. It's simply a means toward some other goal. But what is that ultimate goal? That's what we all have to ask, uncover, and focus on for whatever we're creating/offering/teaching/evangelizing.

And that's why we're so fond of the phrase, "kick ass", because it serves as a placeholder for what the user ultimately wants. That "I Rule!" experience should drive what most of you are trying to build or promote. [Note for clarification: we mean "I Rule!" like that "YES!" feeling you get when you do something tricky, successfully.]

Some of the most common high-level answers to the "comma-stupid" phrase (and which are forms of "kicking ass") are:

It's the [user spending more time in flow], stupid!

It's the [user feeling a sense of belonging], stupid!

It's the [user having more sex], stupid!

It's the [user experiencing peace of mind], stupid!

It's the [user having more fun], stupid!

An example of a NON useful answer might be:

It's about the [user getting more work done], stupid!

While this may be the key benefit of your product, it's not the user's ultimate goal. You must ask, "how does getting more work done help the user kick ass?" The answer may be, to spend more time in flow.

But how do you know when you've arrived at the ultimate answer? After all, "spending more time in flow" isn't necessarily the end state, right? Well... given that the flow state has been linked to human happiness, we consider it an end state. Ditto with sex, belonging, peace of mind, fun, and other meaningful states that speak to deeper human needs and/or desires. But really, the way you phrase your "comma-stupid" depends entirely on what keeps you and your team motivated toward the right things.

I believe we all should spend time--a lot of time--figuring out exactly what should be in our "comma-stupid" phrase. We can start by asking, "What does the user care about?" Followed by, "OK, but WHY does he care about that?" Follwed by, "And why does he care about that? until we get to the heart of it. Then we pick a phrase... a message that expresses this in a way that everyone on the team can understand. Then from that point forward, every decision should include two questions:

1) How will this [thing we're about to do] support, enable, or amplify what the user cares most about?

2) How will this [thing we're about to do] potentially hurt or stand in the way of what the user cares most about?

And I actually believe that for 90% of us (my work included) the answer to the "comma-stupid" question is "the user kicking ass", but of course it's up to us to define exactly what "kicking ass" means for our particular context. So that's my challenge to you--ask yourself if you have a clear, "It's the [something], stupid!" Then ask yourself if it gets to the real heart of what is most meaningful to the user. In other words, if you say, "It's the usability, stupid", you aren't there. You could have a highly usable tool that doesn't help the user in something they can kick ass at. And once you have that clear message, take a hard look at your product or service and see how much of what you have supports, enables, or amplifies that user goal, and see how much--if any--stands in the way.

Most importantly, keep asking yourself, "How can I help my users kick ass?" And to answer that, you'll have to know the context in which users interact with your product or service. Chances are, whatever you provide is NOT their ultimate goal. It's just a tool to get to something that is meaningful.