Reducing Fear Is the Killer App

🧑‍🎨 Creator(s)
🗓️ Publish Date
October 14, 2006
📚 Publisher(s)
🍿 Media Type(s)

🗃️ Archival copy:


The high-pitched screech of the drill. The sickly smell of antiseptic and fear. The long nervous wait for the attendant to call your name and take you... back there. We assume that people are afraid of the dentist, but we don't usually think of software as scary. Maybe we should rethink that. Our users might be more afraid of us and our products than we think. And those who can reduce or eliminate that fear have a huge advantage. Not to mention a passionately loyal following.

Something extraordinary happened to me yesterday, but before I tell that story I want you to look at these pictures:


One, a drab but typical medical office. The other, a warm, inviting, spa-like environment. The spa-like place is actually my dentist's office. And I would drive 100 miles to go there, because the people there work their a** off to reduce my fear. And the pictures don't do it justice because you're missing the smell (freshly ground coffee beans and warm cookies) and the sounds (jazz, not drills).

Here's another picture, of the Boulder Community Foothills Hospital, the first hospital in the US to earn the LEED certification for being "green."


It doesn't look like a hospital. It doesn't feel like a hospital. And it doesn't smell like a hospital. I'm not sure how they do it, but no matter when you go, it smells like fresh popped popcorn. Think about that... almost nobody has a bad association with the smell of popcorn. I instantly think movies and theme parks. (And the live piano music reminds me of shopping in Nordstrom's.)

In a medical scenario, reducing fear means a lot. But think about all the ways our users (or potential users) might be afraid. Not in mortal terror, but afraid nonetheless. The fear of not being smart enough to learn a new product, programming language, or procedure. The fear of being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous company and/or sales person. The fear of making the wrong purchasing decision. The fear of looking stupid or slow in front of our co-workers.

I've often said that reducing guilt is the killer app, but now I'd put reducing fear way up there too. He who reduces fear better than the competition can, potentially, stop competing on price, convenience, or just about anything else. Reduce my fear, and I'll be grateful forever.

So here's my story:

Y'all have probably seen a lot of pink lately, inspired by the fight against breast cancer. Yesterday, I went to the Boulder Foothills Hospital (in the picture) where I was scheduled for a mammogram. I was terrified. I'm not exaggerating. As many of you know, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age, younger than I am now. She did not survive. The most tragic part was that she probably would have, if it had been detected earlier. But she was too afraid to have the exam... afraid of hearing the results she ultimately got.

Cancer has been on my mind a lot this year. Less than a year ago both myself and my daughter were diagnosed with a form of cancer that had not yet become invasive, but that could have killed both of us had we not been tested.

But worst of all, I have--quite irrationally--not had a mammogram in 10 years. A monumentally stupid choice, given that I'm at very high risk for breast cancer. But... I am more terrified of that test than anything I've ever done, and I've spent the last few years convinced that it was already too late. Thinking about it sends me straight to the childhood moment when I learned the results of my mother's mammogram (and the awful period that followed). It was selfish of me, as a mother myself, to not do everything I can to stay healthy and alive, but fear does bizarre, irrational things to the brain. Finally, though, all the pink-awareness and a visit to this extraordinary hospital convinced me.

When I arrived, I told the technician my story, and literally begged her to rush the results. "7-10 days is how long it takes for the doctor to review it and get the results to your doctor," she said. "There's nothing I can do to speed that up." I could barely breathe or walk, but I managed to get through the exam. But now the worst part begins... The Wait. The first wait is for the ten minutes it takes for the tech to review the film to make sure the pictures aren't too dark, light, or blurred. Once they've checked the film, they either walk you back to repeat the test, or send you home to start The Wait. So there I sat, waiting for the tech.

Five minutes passed. Ten minutes. 20 minutes I sat in that little room. Finally she walked in and said, "The film is fine, you're free to go." And then something happened that I'll remember for the rest of my life. She sat down next to me and said, "Oh, so how would you like to enjoy your weekend?" I was confused. "I convinced the doctor to break protocol. He said everything's perfect and we'll see you in a year." We both cried.


Reducing fear doesn't have to be about life or death or pain to be meaningful and powerful. If you can help your users feel more confident and less stressed, you've given them a wonderful gift. Whether it's a policy change, better documentation and support, or more user-friendly design, anything you do to genuinely reduce my fear improves my life. Why not ask customers about their needs before you agree to sell them something? (And be willing to "downsell" rather than trying to convince them to buy something more expensive than they need.) Why not keep Consumer Report magazines in your dealership, or give potential customers a quote from your competitors, even if it means you lose that sale? Why not work harder to make sure new users (or students) realize that they really ARE going to be able to "get" this, and that you'll be there every step of the way?

Reduce my fear and I'll love you forever. : )