Kathy Sierra is a bonafide programming expert, with an innovative perspective on delivering quality products: "People don’t use your app because they like the app or they like you, they are using it because they like themselves, and they tell their friends because they like their friends!".
But Kathy isn’t the most obvious candidate for "product hero" status — not if you look at the first half of her career.
After all, Kathy’s educational and employment background is a world away from tech: she majored in exercise physiology at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, before working within the fitness industry for a decade.
It was only when she signed up for classes in programming at UCLA that her new career direction started to take shape.
Since Kathy Sierra made this radical career change, she has gone on to become recognized for her skills in educating others on programming and writing in various forms. She even returned back to UCLA some years later — this time not as a programming student, but as a course teacher instead.
Kathy Sierra has worked for various major computing brands, as a programmer and instructor. After teaching her course on "new media interactivity" at UCLA Extension, Kathy worked at a Los Angeles training center, Mind over Macintosh, which trained corporations on emerging digital technologies in the mid-90s.
She also worked as the lead programmer on a number of computer games, including Virgin Sound & Media’s Terratopia in 1998. This was equipped as standard with Windows 95 for some years.
Kathy also served as the lead programmer on All Dogs Go to Heaven, an adaptation of Don Bluth’s classic animated movie. A kids classic, if you’ve ever seen it!
As a master trainer at Sun MicroSystems, Kathy taught Java instructors on the introduction of new Java products and certification exams, before launching JavaRanch in 1998 (an online community for Java programmers).
But Kathy is just as well-known for the Head First book series — a collection of titles that are sold more than one million times and is a regular fixture on tech bestseller lists. Kathy first co-created the Head First books back in 2003, with the aim to teach programming in an unconventional way. The first release, Head First Java, established the series’ style; incorporating a wealth of visuals, puzzles, and a conversational tone.
She’s since worked on a range of other books, including Head First EJB, Head First Design Patterns, and Badass: Making Users Awesome.
Badass: Making User Awesome explores the art of creating products that stand out in competitive marketplaces and deliver the strongest user experience possible. It encourages product teams to focus on forging connections with users that keep them engaged rather than relying on "unethical persuasive marketing tricks".
Kathy also created the Creating Passionate Users blog, though this hasn’t been updated for some time, and SeriousPony (also no longer updated). Both contain fascinating insights into her thought process, product design, UX, and more — even if they are a little out of date.
Another notable aspect of Kathy Sierra’s career is the way in which she has dealt with online harassment. Her experience has helped to draw attention to the plight of people targeted by toxic individuals online and prompted serious discussions about how said individuals should be treated.
Kathy delved into this complicated, difficult issue in her post Why the Trolls Will Always Win. She published this on her SeriousPony site initially, and Wired republished it shortly thereafter.
Kathy’s harassment began with threats from a man who felt her work had received more attention and acclaim than it deserved. She canceled public appearances as a result, though she has continued to talk at various conferences since.
"If they cannot stop you, they can at least ruin your quality of life," she wrote in Why the Trolls Will Always Win. This was a "standard goal, in troll culture", she explained.
By discussing her experience of online harassment, Kathy has highlighted the way in which women in the tech world are subject to biases that their male counterparts are not.
"Sustained desirability" loops back to Kathy’s view in Making Users Awesome.
When users return to the same product day after day, year after year, a business has created sustained desirability. They’ve created a product that customers simply can’t resist, and continue to benefit from in the long run.
So how do they do it?
Helping the user to get results, achieve goals, and feel positive about themselves all amounts to sustained desirability. The better the product makes them feel about themselves, the more desirable the product will be.
During her talk, Badass: Making Users Awesome at Mind the Product in San Francisco, Kathy highlighted how important good UI elements are for a positive UX and a post-use UX.
In other words, a product must be designed to such a high standard that users feel changed — in a positive way — even after they put it down. It’s through this level of design and UX delivery that sustained desirability is formed: the user can’t help coming back for more.
Gamification is one way of creating sustained desirability.