Eschew Easy. Effort Makes it Better.


Designing for VR is unique compared to other digital experiences because you have the opportunity to demand how people move through space. The rigging of VR devices provide hundreds of opportunities to ask users to stand or move in a particular way.  It's important to consider exactly which actions that designers should require from their users and what's the right level of difficulty.  If the movements are too hard, people may abandon the experience. If your VR experience is too easy, people will get bored. But, if it requires just the right amount of effort, it will be more immersive and the experience will be processed at a much deeper cognitive level, which has surprising implications for what people remember and value about it.

This is my second post on gauging the right level of effort for users going through a digital experience. In my first post on why it can be good to require high effort, I reviewed a scientific study where people wore a gel mask and then took an empathy test. People who wore the gel mask on their face outperformed those who just wore it on their arm. This is because part of how people can understand the feelings of others is by mimicking them. The face-gel participants had to work harder to mimic the expressions of others, and the result was higher empathy. 

Physical or mental effort changes our cognitive processes and subsequent experiences.  Digital designers must be mindful of what demands they are putting on their users and how those demands affect emotions and decision-making.  Effort should be considered as part of every use case. Once upon a time, I did UX for an e-commerce site and minimizing effort was a priority.  The entire UX team wanted to eliminate friction and make it as easy as possible for people to find a product they wanted and then input credit card info. Sometimes it felt like my entire job was getting digital experiences in front of users and then reporting back to the design team on what was easy, what was hard, and how to make the e-commerce flow easier.  

However, what's desirable for e-commerce isn't the same for every experience. In the context of games, effort is a key element. If it’s not challenging, people will get bored.  Jesse Schell, author of The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, discusses effort in the context of game design and here are his key questions on presenting challenges to your users:

1. Are your challenges too easy, too hard, or just right?

2. Can your challenges accommodate a wide variety of skill levels?

3. How does the level of challenge increase as the player succeeds?

4. Is there enough variety in the challenges? 

Jesse’s work is great because he makes the guideposts of effort so explicit. Also, it underscores the importance of testing and validating experiences before launching them.  Since the game designers have insider knowledge and have multiple rounds of practice, they lose touch with what is effortful and what’s not. 

Niko Christenfeld, a psychologist at UC San Diego, analyzed sports like baseball, basketball, and American football and suggests that these sports survived to the present day because of natural selection.  They offered fans and players the right combination of skill and chance in predicting the outcome.  “Contests with too much chance are pointless as measures of relative ability.  Those with too little chance in the mix provide no suspense.  The superior team should probably, but not certainly, win.”  For a sport like baseball, it’s unclear that it was ever a calculation that the baseball season must be 162 games long in order for the best teams to emerge into the playoffs. Rather, the length of the baseball season is driven by giving all teams the right balance between demonstrating their skills and luck. 

Designing for the right level of effort is a complicated thing. While some designers, such as game makers, have either a conscious or unconscious frame of mind about calibrating the right level of effort, many other designers eschew challenges. For the latter group of designers, I want to highlight a handful interesting studies on how more effort translated into a better experience. 

 1. Difficult cognitive experience: People who read fonts in cursive (vs. print) had better reading comprehension. 

2. Easy cognitive experience: As people become more expert, they value their own expertise less.  This means that if a task is easy, people interpret the task being easy as the task being less valuable.

3.  Difficult physical experience #1: People who were only allowed to write with one hand turned in higher quality essays.  By slowing people down from their normal typing speed, the study participants constructed better sentences and used to time to choose better words. This resulted in higher quality essays compared to a control group that typed with two hands.  Quoting one of the study researchers, Srdan Medimorec, “It seems that what we write is a product of the interactions between our thoughts and the tools we use to express them.”

4. Difficult physical experience #2: Students who assembled their own IKEA furniture liked it more.  In the words of the researchers, “Labor Leads to Love.”

These academic studies show the various ways that there’s more to evaluations and decision-making than just what your actual experience is.  Perhaps this company BlueSpec has taken its cue from the research on effort.  See their advertisement here (and h/t Bret Victor for originally posting this):

blue spec.jpg

The brilliance of this marketing is that they have equated the value of solving your challenges with the value of your learning something difficult.  Of course, fixing your problems is difficult so why would you expect the solution be easy?

Here are the main takeaways on how effort changes experience.   

1. More effort often means that the experience is internalized and processed at a deeper level. 

2. If something is really easy, it can be valued as less important

3. Consider setting people’s expectations that what they are about to experience may be challenging, and that is a good thing. 

Test and iterate to find the sweet spot of challenging users and giving them a free pass through your experience.  I hope this post has persuaded you that minimizing all effort inside of the experience is the wrong goal.  Aim to right-size the effort instead.  


Further reading

Alter, A. L., Oppenheimer, D. M., Epley, N., & Eyre, R. N. (2007). Overcoming intuition: metacognitive difficulty activates analytic reasoning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General136(4), 569.

Christenfeld, N. (1996). What makes a good sport.Nature383(6602), 662-662.

Norton, M. I., Mochon, D., & Ariely, D. (2011). The'IKEA effect': When labor leads to love.Harvard Business School Marketing Unit Working Paper, (11-091).

People Who Write Well Do This One Simple Thing, Psych Study Finds

Schell, J. (2014). The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses. CRC Press.