Don’t make your users feel useless — help them level up instead!

Get smart about how you help users do incredible things.

Know how they say ‘teach a man to fish and he’ll never go hungry again’? Well, it’s the same for products: simply giving a customer a product or service will only satisfy them for so long. Teach them how to master it and they’ll be yours for life.

Why help your customers level up?

Gone are the days where organisations were the sole purveyors of expert knowledge or skill. The user or customer of today is able to do so much more thanks to the world they live in and the devices they carry.

People have always been motivated by progress — we‘re hardwired to strive for better versions of ourselves. If your products aren’t instrumental to this vision, they’ll find another that is.

Most of us know to design products or services that make people faster, smarter, more popular, or efficient. But, people rarely go from zero to hero quickly. You’re going to have to nurture them and help them grow if you want them to stick around.

What’s your product’s compelling context?

Products or services always reside within a greater ecosystem that people are trying to get better at or compete within — this is known as a product’s compelling context. If you sell cameras, the compelling context is photography — not cameras. This means you operate in an environment that includes products like Photoshop, tripods, and photography classes.

Do you sell project management software? You’re playing alongside accounting software, corporate training, and HR solutions. All of these products and services contribute to a singular compelling context — becoming better at doing business.

If you understand your product or service’s compelling context, you can help your customers become better at it. This makes them more likely to want to upgrade to more advanced versions or features as they become expert users.

Don’t just try to make a better version of a product. Your goal is to make better users of your product too!

The more skill someone has in a compelling context, the greater their appreciation for quality products.

Adapted from Badass: Making Users Awesome (Kathy Sierra, 2015)

Minimise the ‘dip’

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to learn a new skill at the best of times. It’s not for lack of motivation — people tend to like starting the journey towards mastering a new skill. But, they are very easily discouraged when they hit what’s known as the ‘dip’ or the barrier they need to break through after learning the basics (a term popularised by Seth Godin in his titular 2007 book to refer to the difficulty associated with different types of ventures).

The dip is where things suddenly get really tough after learning the basics. Your users need to push through the dip if they want to level up in a meaningful way.

This is where you need to encourage and support your customers. The first step? Simply let them know when things are going to get hard and reassure them that it’s not their fault.

The last thing you want is customers that feel dumb or out of their depth. Don’t just give them a manual or sales brochure and expect them to ‘get it’. If they don’t, all you’ve done is alienate them. Be up front about the dips in your product or service and do whatever you can to motivate them when they’re struggling.

Create a product knowledge scaffold

We’re often too close to our products or services to realise just how tricky they can be to master. Don’t forget that you’ve probably channeled years of experience into a product. Your customers don’t have that kind of time or that kind of motivation — they’re busy people with busy lives who turned to your product to make them better at something. Don’t make them work too hard for the payoff.

Your task is simple: help your customers minimise the gap between novice and expert by punching through the dip as effortlessly as possible.

The first step is to scaffold your product or service in terms of difficulty and level of detailed understanding to appreciate more complex or sophisticated products or services.

Design meaningful ways for your customers to level up

Once you’ve scaffolded your products or services, you’ll be able to start designing ways for customers to improve their skills.

This includes things like tutorials and knowledge bases, community forums, and YouTube tutorials. For example, Adobe has an ongoing partnership with that ensures that thousands of expert users are created annually, hungry for new products or add-ons as they level up.


Remember, competition has never been more fierce. If something discourages customers from punching through those barriers, they’re going to drop your product or service in a flash for one that they perceive as easier to level up in. Don’t make your users feel useless — help them become masters.