How much effort should you require from users when they engage in your experience? A lot. In some surprising ways, challenge is good for user engagement. The effort required from users doesn’t just affect their experience - it changes their cognitive processing.
Usability experts strive to make experiences easier. However, I want to share an example of how making things harder may improve outcomes.
Exerting more physical effort improved performance on cognitive tasks
Earlier I wrote about how people with Botox have a difficult time identifying the emotions of the people around them. This is because they cannot mimic the expressions of others since Botox paralyzes their facial muscles - their brains lack feedback that comes from mimicry. The consequence is that the Botox-ed participants were less empathetic compared to control groups. The same researchers who did the Botox study conducted a follow up where half the participants applied a gel mask on their face and half wore it on their arm. Then, they all went through the same “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET - more details here), which measures a person’s grasp of the emotional states of others.
The participants who had the gel mask on their face outperformed the ones with it on their arms by a statistically significant amount on the RMET empathy task. The face mask people had a 77.2% accuracy compared to 72.5% for the arm mask participants serving as a control. The researchers inferred that by forcing people to exert more effort to mimic others, this exaggeration led to afferent nerves (the same one that Botox had paralyzed in the first study) being amplified, and firing stronger signals to the Central Nervous System.
This study provides further evidence that people are thinking with their bodies and not just their brains. The “amplified emotion” face mask group performed better than the arm-mask control group at identifying emotion because they had to work harder to move their facial muscles to mimic the faces they viewed in RMET.
Higher effort can deepen engagement
The lesson is that when people exert more effort to perform a task, they tend to process the information on a deeper level, which increases their engagement. There is additional research on the benefits of requiring more effort from users to improve outcomes. Different researchers discovered that people who read in a difficult, cursive-y font do better on subsequent memory and analytical reasoning tasks compared to those who read in a normal print font.
For anyone making a VR experience, consider how you are calibrating the level of effort required from your users. Are there physical tasks you can build in that would help amplify emotions and deepen engagement?
Neal, D. T., & Chartrand, T. L. (2011). Embodied emotion perception amplifying and dampening facial feedback modulates emotion perception accuracy. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2(6), 673-678.
Alter, A. L., Oppenheimer, D. M., Epley, N., & Eyre, R. N. (2007). Overcoming intuition: metacognitive difficulty activates analytic reasoning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 136(4), 569.