Kathy Sierra

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Recent posts by Kathy Sierra

Hey Stan,
Thanks for these questions. They get to the heart of what I've been doing for the last ten years! My answers could themselves be book-length, so I'll try to just give the highlight/overview:

I have enjoyed several of the Head First series and I like the way the books presents the material. I wonder, how has your delivery changed since you did HF Java all those years ago? What have you learnt that makes this book more engaging than HF Java?

HF Java (the first HF book) was an attempt to take a wide range of theories and research around learning, cognitive science, game design, etc. and throw "everything we had" at the problem we defined simply as "help people learn Java." The problem we addressed was less about getting the right content *about Java* and more about helping people keep turning the pages and getting something from the experience. There were literally 2,000 Java books at the time HF Java was released, and a whole bunch of them were quite good. We knew the challenge wasn't about making a "better" Java book, but about making a book that people could stick with, especially those who were new to OO and who weren't all that confident (or hopefully) that it would be anything other than painful.

We always said that HF Java was just *one* possible implementation of endless possibilities. And yes, we've learned a lot since then that I would do differently and *am* doing differently today.

I see on forum comments and such that even though I like the HF style there are many that find it distracting. Have you explicitly decided to write to a special kind of reader? Do you think that there are different modes of learning that fits to different people or is there a "best" way?

When it first came out, the assumption was that it was "a particular style for a particular type of reader." But then it became the bestselling Java book ever, and is now the longest running technical bestseller on Amazon, despite being a decade old! What we learned from this is that yes, it IS reflecting a specific 'learning style' but that 'style' is one that most humans share. However, the book *also* includes a lot of OTHER things and some of those are distracting for certain people and don't *necessarily* add to the learning for all people. So a lot of people are learning from the book *in spite of* some of the distracting elements, simply because the bulk of the experience is still giving them an effective way to learn that they weren't able to find in most books.

But to answer your question, there *is* a "best" way for most people. HF is not that "best" way, but it's better than most. The idea of learning styles is mostly a myth -- what the science shows is that while most people *believe* they have a "preferred learning style", most humans learn from having access to *multiple representations* of what they're trying to learn, and that there IS a "preferred learning style" for specific types of content/learning. In other words, there is a *best way to represent [x]* not a *best way for person [x] to learn things.* HF was based heavily on this science: when in doubt, teach with *multiple representations*, not just one. So although HF does have a graphical/theme style (including its personality), the *actual learning* is coming from the simple fact that the difficult topics are represented in multiple ways including graphics, examples, stories, metaphors, anthropomorphizing, etc. In other words, the BEST learning style is to have multiple representations. But there IS one representation -- one "style" -- that is superior for virtually *every human brain*. And that is graphics/visuals. A picture really IS worth 1000 words in terms of speed AND accuracy of processing. But we also used graphics so heavily because we are not at all confident that our ability as writers to convey a difficult concept verbally will be enough to guarantee that the mental model WE have is transferred error-free into the head of the reader. A graphic solves most of this problem because no translation has to happen in the person's mind.

I have always said that if we took out everything that makes a Head First book a Head First book, the two things that absolutely are necessary are the heavy use of visuals (especially the diagrams) and the annotated code. The annotated code is a dramatically powerful way to help reduce the cognitive load experienced when trying to learn how things work in code. Part of that annotated code (not Java-code-annotations -- I mean the way we make 'notes' on the code) is also that we are able to keep repeating parts of the context in which the code we're discussing lives. A code snippet without repeating its context is a very difficult way to learn because very few people can see the original context just once and then remember it perfectly on the next page.

Another one; personally I find that I learn best through doing and one of the good things about the HF books is that they break up the material with frequent excercises. Do you think that the content of this book could be even better delivered through some kind of interactive experience? I'm in two minds myself. Sites like Khan Academy and Codecademy etc. are already very good and has very good potential. On the other hand, books are standalone packages and probably live longer.

I'll answer it this way by revealing something NOBODY knows (until now ;) -- my current project is working on a form of interactive learning for Java 8.

Thanks for your time (and your books)

Thank YOU!
9 years ago
Nope, way too late. But I will tell you that it was a long and agonizing decision to call it "Badass". I didn't come up with the subtitle "Making Users Awesome". I think my original was "Creating Badass Users" and some of my talks have been called "Building the Minimum Badass User."

There are people who won't get or recommend the book because of the word "badass", and I knew that going in. But it was literally the only word I could think of that would not lend itself to misinterpretation. I spent many years discussing this as "passionate", not "badass", but I always MEANT the kind of passion people develop for something they truly become involved with and get better at, like a strong hobby. But marketers and product creators are often so obsessed today with getting people to love THEM or love the PRODUCT, that the discussion always turned back into something like, "How can we get people passionate about OUR PRODUCT". I was constantly having to correct that and explain "no not THAT kind of passion..." And I also wanted to make it very clear that the emphasis was entirely on *the user* and not on the product.

So in a way, I have limited the people who'll be willing to read and/or suggest it, but for the integrity of the message I care about, I was prepared to take that hit. Of course it won't stop people from saying something like, "That company made me FEEL badass..." which may or may not mean the company helped you *become* more badass, which is the entire point of the book -- the difference between helping someone *feel* something vs. actually helping them do and become something.

But yeah, it's not a title I am in love with, but it's better than our certification book title which I can't even remember. ;)
9 years ago
Ahh -- the 'real meetings steal your soul' that was in my book trailer video was just an over-the-top reference to struggles of normal daily life. I've seen so many products (and especially documentation and support of those products) that appear to have been designed and created for people who have literally NOTHING else to worry about in their life at the moment in which they are using the product. We have to put our users in the context of not just what they're doing at the time they sit down to interact with the product but the rest of their day. And week. And life. Because by the time they start interacting with our product, they may be so low on cognitive fuel. It's not that they are stupid, or lazy, or not willing to RTFM, etc. -- it's that they have a brain that has been struggling with a million other things unrelated to our product.

The book is about how to help them move forward *within the context of life-is-not-perfect*.
9 years ago
Hmmm. Parts of it are based on research going back more than 60 years. But it wasn't as *necessary* prior to the kind of lifestyle we're all in now. When people had a longer period of time to learn new skills, and less distractions taking away brain cycles, the way we acquire skills didn't have to be all that efficient and effective. Now, we're all pretty overwhelmed most of the time AND the things we need to learn are changing constantly (especially if you work *in* tech). Us, our employees, our users are all dealing with a lifestyle that makes learning new things especially painful no matter how motivated we are. There are just too many factors working against us. So I could say this book *could* have been written many years ago (with different references to technology of course). But it is only recently that I think we all have become more desperate in our need to reduce cognitive resource waste and to acquire skills more quickly and with less stress.

9 years ago
Thank you for these amazing and thoughtful questions!

I might be back later today if I can, but otherwise I'll see you in the morning (pacific standard morning) for more.

I have my biggest horse show of the year in three weeks and I'm working almost round-the-clock right now to prepare both myself and my horses. I am also going to attempt to qualify for the U.S. team in the world championships for Icelandic horses. It's not likely I'll make the team this time (happens every two years), but I have been steadily coming closer and it's certainly *possible* this time. And I will say that people across the world (the Icelandic horse world) have been watching me with my horse(s) making progress and thinking it's nothing short of a miracle given how bad we BOTH were ;) But I just keep saying, "Science. That stuff works." Because it totally does. Not that there isn't a lot of art/creativity in figuring out how to apply it, but... I have been approaching my own skills and that of my horses from the POV of "we're doing experiments". Some of them nearly cost me my relationship with both my mentors, but they always come around when they see that sometimes the most unconventional approach can lead to a deep, real result ;)

I think I'm going to just start riding with a lab coat on.
9 years ago
There's feedback and there's feedback... but for deliberate practice, the key is that the feedback must be instant. So a code review sometime after the fact is still crucial for learning, but is not functioning as deliberate practice feedback. Deliberate practice has to fit that criteria of being fine-grained sub skills that you are consistently refining to get 'right', and can be thought of almost (or actually) as muscle memory.

A form of pair programming can work for this. Also a series of short exercises where you immediately find out if you had the right answer, like for example some code koans. The only problem I have with code koans is they almost always ramp up too quickly. For deliberate practice, the point is not to 'get the right answer' -- the point is to get the right answer so reliably that this particular subskill becomes automatic, thus draining few cognitive resources so you can move forward. If you read the book -- and I know you did THANK YOU -- think of deliberate practice as the way to cope with the PILE UP ON B BOARD problem. Anything you can think of that can provide that, but with code, of course it's not just important that you solved the problem (i.e. the code gave you the correct result) but that you solved it in the best/appropriate way, and for that you need a model of how it *should* be done.

There can never be enough examples of 'good' code, and at every level of scale/granularity from using a consistent good style in a single simple line of code all the way up to architecture choices. And of course there is no ONE single 'right way', but there are certainly a lot of good conventions, idioms, patterns out there. Of course all of this is shifting as FP ideas (and capability) moves into Java and we haven't yet settled on what the best practices are (and in what context) for this FP-in-an-OO world.

I will say that I haven't had to really write Java or even *think* in Java for a long time, and I never thought I'd get excited again about it (at least not the way I was back when, say, we finally got Java 2!! The only other MASSIVE change to the language), but Java 8 is just making me really inspired again about Java.
9 years ago
Alfie Kohn's book on "Punished by Rewards" had a powerful impact on me long ago, though I didn't revisit the research on which his book itself is based until nearly a decade later. It's a crucial book, in spite of itself, and one I hope more people take seriously. Dan Pink's "Drive" is based on the same underlying science (the motivation continuum / intrinsic motivation), and it ripples through every part of my book even if not referred to directly (except in a couple of pages).
9 years ago
I'm glad you love it!!

It was all me.

three things:

* I love video -- it's fast becoming my number one hobby.

* I had very little budget (and only out of my own pocket), so I couldn't do what, say, Tim Ferris did and hire a team. It had to be something I could make myself.

* I had been using the "don't treat users like stock photo people" in my presentations recently and it suddenly hit me that I could just build that "story".

I had SO MUCH FUN making it. I didn't think it would be possible until I started searching through the stock video footage on Shutterstock and realized just how much there was that used the same model(s). Though their search engine did NOT make this easy. They have a "same model" view, but it only gives you a tiny handful of shots with that same model, and no way to search on ALL of the. So instead I had to look at the company that submitted the video, then view their ENTIRE portfolio (often HUGE) and just keep searching for shots of the same people. Then other things were just the result of stock keyword searches.

I was surprised and delighted by what I kept finding there. And also surprised and delighted by the high quality. One thing that was a little tricky was trying to make footage by different videographers and using entirely different cameras and frame rates and everything somehow look like they belonged together. I didn't really nail it, but it still worked for my purposes ;)
9 years ago
Hah, I said "ooooohhhh what a lovely question!" and then I saw that it was you Jeanne, and thought, "no surprise it was from you."

I can't pick one, but I can pick *two* -- as it would have been difficult to do it without both:

1. the graphic/visual representations of the topics -- something I've always said matters deeply as brains process visuals far far far more quickly and accurately than if the brain has to map from words to a mental model. And I'm not that great a "writer", so the graphics are extremely important. It compresses a great deal of information -- accurately -- into a small chunk the brain can get with much less cognitive effort for the same gain.

2. the 'conversation' that's happening in the book. This is not necessarily a superior way to achieve the goal I had for the book, but it was literally the ONLY way I could come up with that worked for me. It helped me do the 'meta' part of the book by helping acknowledge what the reader was likely experiencing as they read it.

OK, 3 things: Having it be an overall start-to-finish journey. I wrote the book as basically a three-act 'hero's journey' story. I started with storyboards that had a sketch on almost every page, and then I mapped the storyboards almost 1 to 1 into actual pages, and that gave me the first draft. Then the rest was filling in the pages.

Some of this was about what would make it best for the reader/user, but a lot of it was also about what would enable *me* to even be able to do it. There certainly were other and potentially better ways it could have been done, but in this case this was the ONLY way I was capable of actually doing it. I'd had many years trying a variety of other ways to tell this story and create this experience.

Interestingly, the sort of argument I'm having a little with O'Reilly right now is around the extent to which this should be called a 'book'. I keep calling it a Product with Users, not a Book with Readers, but only because for most publishers today, "book" is still synonymous with "words" that are "read". I would like to think of "Book" as a "User Experience".

Side note: Head First Java has been the longest-running tech bestseller of the past decade. Nobody expected it to be successful at all let alone THE most successful (almost two million copies of HF books). If anyone wants to know EXACTLY what the thought process was that led to HF Java, the Badass book is basically that story. In other words, the very first page issues a challenge, and it is exactly the challenge that Bert and I faced, and this book is about how we thought about answering it. If we had it to do over again, the implementation would have been very very different, but the POV -- the way we thought of what needed to happen -- is exactly as described in the book.

We believe HF Java was so successful (despite a LOT of flaws in what and how we did it) solely because we were doing what most books weren't -- viewing the reader as a user, and creating a user experience that would draw the reader into actually learning, by removing as many blocks to that as possible. Again, we weren't successful in removing all the blocks, but we were doing it much better than virtually any other Java book simply because we were answering a different question.
9 years ago
Hi Dustin, why should you read the book?

I would consider the book a crucial read for anyone who is designing or building products that other people will use to (from the POV of the user) do something meaningful/useful.

But it's also primarily a book about how to make getting significantly better at something -- knowledge and especially skills -- more effective and efficient. That's where most of the science behind the book is applied.

The basic premise is:
If you want a successful product, the only sustainable answer is that it must actually *work* for the users in a way that makes them significantly better *at whatever it is they were hoping to do with it*. The rest of the book is about how to actually make that happen.
9 years ago
This is probably *not* the best forum, but then again it's probably as good as any other! It's sort of a combination learning + product design + UX book. But I spent many years as a game developer, and there is some Venn diagram overlap there
9 years ago
Hi Tomas,
This is an excellent question and I think many people are having the same thoughts about this. It's an unusual book and simultaneously targets several areas and several potential audiences. That's not a strategy I'd normally recommend, but this book is sort of a first of what I hope will be a series of books on these topics, with the others being more focused on some subset of what's in the book.

The audience is -- at the highest level -- anyone who wants to help someone else (including themselves!) become meaningfully better at something. The overall premise is based on a product being competitive not because of how it was marketed or even how it was designed but because of the impact it had on the user's ability to DO something new and better as a result, and about what can really happen if you truly start thinking from this POV. It touches on every aspect from product design to support to marketing.

The most important aspect of the book, in my opinion, is the POV. But most of the book is about actually understanding and applying it.

But over half of the book is on the science around expertise development, but wrapped within the context of motivation as nobody is going to get better at something -- or use something -- if they can't stay motivated to keep working at it. But the motivation side is itself presented from a scientific perspective on how motivation actually works and how to best help people's brains, and that includes everything from the marketing to the UI.

This is not a book I expect to make a difference overnight. It's going to take time for people to figure out what it is, what it means to *them*, and how they want to apply it. The initial feedback has been fascinating, and as I expected -- it means different things to different people. What people do with it next is the question I am most looking forward to discovering.

If there were a secret subtitle, it would be: "how to actually get better at virtually anything, and potentially an order of magnitude faster..." I believe the science on which the book is based actually supports that. But it offers some very counter-intuitive ideas in a few places, and that will take time. Some of it involves letting go of things *I* believed and worked on and was good at for a very long time. But in the face of overwhelming evidence, the best move for me was to just give up on my old ways of doing things and start considering what the 'new' way would look like...

In my OWN life, it meant several things, including I went from literally *last* place in the U.S. in my particular horse discipline to now 10th in the U.S. -- with the same horse. The fun part was I was simultaneously applying these principles to both myself -- for my improvement -- AND to my horse. Quite an interesting challenge, but one that worked precisely because much of the science the book was derived from either originated from or has been validated in animal studies as well as humans. The parts of the brain where real, deep, pattern-matching learning (and motivation) come from are parts we share with other mammals and not the part we -- humans -- are so proud of -- the higher-level 'thinking' parts. This is a tough one to reconcile for people who -- like me and all of you -- value the thinking parts of our brains.
9 years ago
Hi Ivano,
This is a very thoughtful question, thank-you. The book -- which was supposed to be out ten years' ago -- is based on a wide range of factors but the trajectory began more than two decades ago. My original major in college was exercise physiology, and my work was in helping athletes work at their highest levels of performance. From there, it was a step into helping NON-pro athletes how to develop high levels of fitness and ultimately skill building. I was simultaneously working on my own skill building as a professional skateboarder in the late 70's and early 80's.

But then I discovered the field of artificial intelligence (as it was in the 80's) and that set me on a permanent path into computer science. I went back to take some AI and compsci courses at UCLA, and eventually taught interaction design courses there. The goal then was to do 'knowledge engineering' so that we could represent in software algorithms (then, mostly rule-based systems) the ways in which an "expert" performed. Of course we all learned the hard and painful way that this was a flawed idea from the very beginning for most forms of deep expertise, although these rule-based AI systems were particularly useful for configuration and planning, the area that Bert Bates specialized in back in HIS artificial intelligence days

Then I worked in game development and design for a long time but my love was always around helping people build knowledge and skills in the most effective ways, something that was the initial inspiration for javaranch back in 1997, eventually leading to Head First Java, and now today is reflected best by the concepts in Badass.

This was a painful process though, as so much of learning theory is either completely ignored or flat-out wrong. Almost all of us are far more familiar with traditional ways of teaching, learning, classrooms, books, etc. that aren't just inefficient learning but almost the polar opposite of what *is* known to work. Head First Java was an attempt to challenge the typical approach to technical books by putting the learner's brain first. Head First is not at ALL an example of what learning *should* be, it is simply ONE possible implementation of a learning journey that uses what we know about the brain.

The new book is based on the science I studied *after* Head First, and the realization that it's not enough to just think about how people *learn* when they are sitting in front of a book or in a class, but the entire context in which people are having the experience of TRYING to learn and/or do something better. And much of that science is found beyond learning theory and in the psychology of motivation and also areas of the brain responsible for picking up patterns subconsciously. All of it matters.

But if there was any one single moment that changed everything, it was six years' ago when I started creating learning programs for a master horseman. He was the most EXTREME example of someone for whom even the most progressive approaches to learning design would not work. He was / is one of the best horsemen in the world, but he has been doing this since birth, really, and he has absolutely NO idea how he does what he does, and no idea how he knows what he knows. And he doesn't actually KNOW exactly what he knows. Faced with this, I realized that all of the science around learning theory I'd been using -- and using *well* (as evidenced in Head First Java) -- was failing in this case. There was no way to truly get at the Real Knowledge and his Real Skills, and no way to represent that knowledge and skills in meaningful ways.

So I had to radically change my point of view and approach and stop thinking about "teaching" and instead think about how do people acquire knowledge and skills -- at a deep level -- *without* explicit teaching? I already understood the science of expertise quite well -- I'd studied nearly six decades worth of research -- but being 'forced' into applying it without falling back into my more conventional teaching approaches was what pushed me over the edge into seeing the world differently. The book fell into place once I had finally made that shift.

I will say it's a lot like being a die-hard OO programmer and suddenly faced with FP for the first time... you can keep trying to add a few FP-ish things to your OO program, but you might not be able to TRULY see what's there until you force yourself to "think" in full FP, letting everything you know about OO fade into the background. Not forever, of course, just long enough to glimpse that world through fresh eyes, rather than as something you tape on to your existing way of approaching problems. I was struggling with FP, for example, until I forced myself to create a small game in Clojure, and making it as FP-ized as I could. Only THEN did I start to see and think a little more FPish, and then I could approach Java 8 from a different POV. I'm not advocating abandoning OO, of course, I'm just saying that you sometimes have to suspend your current way of thinking in order to "see" in an entirely new way, and THEN you can synthesize all the pieces into a new whole that is practical.

I hope that makes sense and is probably WAY more than you wanted to hear about ;)

Short version: the book itself refers to several areas of science/research on which it is based including the science of expertise and a lot of psychology.
9 years ago
Hi there, I have very little to say that would be *good* about Candy Crush Saga, and the book helps explain why, though... it's complicated. I spent more than a decade of my programming career working on games designed to be 'addicting'. I even taught this form of interactive design at UCLA entertainment studies, and it was something I was proud of. But I've done a complete 180° on that, and the Badass book helps explain why.

A game can make money by being 'addictive' but it is never a long-term successful business strategy and I no longer believe it is ethical to do so.

However, there are two ways in which a game can be thought of as 'addictive', and they involve two very different forms of psychology. What we think of as an 'addictive' game like Candy Crush Saga (and virtually all the Zynga games were based 100% on this) is using behavioral psychology based on BF Skinner "operant conditioning", and is driven purely by the addictive impact of 'intermittent variable reward'. (I am also an animal trainer so I know a LOT about this ;)

But there is another form of 'addiction' (though it's not technically using the same addictive pathways in the brain) and it is one EVERY programmer can relate to: the feeling of "I'm just one compile away from this working!!" This is the feeling of "Flow", and the book "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience" was the game designer 'bible' of all the game designers I knew and worked with at Virgin Sound and Vision back in the 90's. It is an experience that causes people to keep doing something, but in a healthy way that has none of the negative side-effects of the behavioral/Skinner version of 'addiction' used by most of the social and FB games we see today (and perfected by things like video slot machines in casinos).

Short answer: you want people to want to engage with a game (or any activity) *because it is enriching their experience and they are building skills and/or knowledge and awareness* and NOT because the game is pushing their reward center buttons to get low level behavior addiction.

My book does explain this, but you can also learn a lot about this just from watching Dan Pink's TED talk "Drive".
9 years ago
Hi everyone! Ohhhhhh I've missed The Ranch So happy to be here under such wonderful circumstances. I'm sure you all know just how good it feels to have finally finished a project. The "Badass" book was supposed to be done many years' ago, but... it took a little more time to "cook" than I had imagined. I will say it's both strange and sort of a relief to have a book without worrying about runtime errors; this is my first book without code.

Thanks for the warm welcome!
9 years ago