Desirable Difficulty in UX

I have been thinking about the notion of desirable difficulty – a concept first formalized by Bjork (1994), which basically says that retention of a material is enhanced if it is presented or practiced in a way that purposefully makes it more difficult than it needs to be. So if a material is presented in a way that requires more effort from the learner, they will be forced to pay more attention to it. Which basically means that teachers should make the material more difficult to digest instead of easier so that learners would remember it. One example is a text written in a font hard to read.

How does that translate into the user experience arena? We normally want to avoid pain points, we want the flow to feel natural and intuitive, just the right size text and icons so that the user would not have to struggle with the application. And that makes sense … except there are times when we do want the user to slow down, pay more attention, otherwise they are likely to make a mistake they would regret later.

What are those special cases?  Mahtab Rezai was talking at the UXPA meeting last month about Purpose and Familiarity and it all made sense. The more critical a task is, and the less experience we have with it (say signing up for a healthcare plan), the more desirable it is to have “difficulty” with it. We want the process to take time and be “unsmooth” by frequently requesting our response in the form of confirming /editing /canceling. We want to be led step-by-step, with informational support available to us to help with the decision-making. We want to be able to process the information piecemeal wise, so we can digest it. And multiple opportunities to review and if needed, edit the information entered before we hit “Submit”.

How experienced we are with a task and how important it is to us

Depending on where our users are relative to the task, we need to design the information architecture and the interface differently.

Quadrant 1 – Not Critical and Frequently Used
Examples: Facebook feed, emails, ordering food
Users expect to
  1. immediately see what’s new
  2. scan a lot of information quickly
  3. complete the task in a simple step
  4. go from high-level view to more detailed information
Quadrant 2 – Critical and Frequently Used
Examples: hotel booking (for a frequent traveler). looking up account information
Users expect
  1. intuitive, easy to learn and use, familiar patterns
  2. quick and simple confirmations built into the process
  3. consistent behaviors for similar functions
Quadrant 3 – Non-Critical, Rarely Used
Examples: exploring museum websites, learning about a person/historical event

Users expect

  1. interesting, innovative new interfaces that encourage exploration
  2. no feedback or response, no confirmation
Quadrant 4 – Critical and Rarely Used
Examples: choosing  health insurance, doing tax returns, applying to college

Users expect:

  1. step-by-step processes, with limited amount of information to review and process at each step
  2. multiple opportunities to review and confirm the information the user entered
  3. easy access to tools and information that are necessary for the decision-making

The information architecture and the interface need to correspond to the user’s needs –  tailored to the task. It does not need to be easy – it just needs to be just right!

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