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Can you have too much ease-of-use?


We all talk about user-friendliness and usability, but is it possible to go too far? The answer really depends on the context, but yes, it is possible to make something so easy that it loses value. And the things people are passionate about always involve some level of continuous challenge. Something users can keep getting better at. Opportunities for growth.

Think about it... skiing, dancing, chess, photography, flying, dressage, gardening, dog training, environmental activism, religion... when people are into any of those things passionately (as opposed to casually supportive), they keep wanting to get better! People who are passionate always have an opportunity (which they grab) to keep improving. To keep learning more. To improve their skills and knowledge about whatever it is they love so much. They read and they practice.

So if what you offer doesn't have any challenges associated with it, and things for which people can continually learn and improve, you'll have a harder time getting people passionate about it. Now, this doesn't mean you should make your user interface challenging. If you're writing software, it's usually because the user is going to use your software to do something else. And if that thing they do using your software is challenging, then you want your software to get the hell out of the way and let the user get on with what they really love--correcting the colors of old photos, creating three-dimensional images, writing the next great novel, finding real information in the noise of a signal they're analyzing, whatever.

And in that case, you want your software to be as easy as possible, and let the challenge lie in the thing they're passionate about. And anything you can do to make that activity a better experience for the user is one step toward helping them be passionate. Because the more time they spend in a state of flow, where they're completely focused on a challenging activity for which they have the right level of knowledge and skills (and without having to think about the interface they're using to do it), the more likely they are to stay engaged.

But if you're trying to create an environment in which people can be passionate, something (just not the interface) needs to be challenging, and there must be a way for users to build and grow their knowledge and skills in a way that keeps pace with the increasing challenge.

If the thing you want users to become passionate about is simply too easy, without enough opportunity for continuing challenge and growth, they'll get bored. It's not worth it. And if the thing you want them to be passionate about is too hard, they'll get frustrated. It's not worth it. This is tricky, because you have to find ways to balance that challenge level, while also providing opportunities for your users to keep getting better.

The key to inspiring passion is to have something worth learning, and a way for that learning to happen.

If you look at things that people are passionate about, there is always some way to tell that people have really become experts. They ski double-black diamonds. They have a black-belt. They are a grand master. They grow rare orchids. They speak conversational Klingon. So one of the ways to help people become more passionate is to figure out what it looks like when people are better at that thing, and help find ways to make that happen for people. A ski resort with nothing but bunny slopes won't last long, even though everyone will have a wonderful happy and easy first three days, before they get bored and realize skiing isn't very fun. If there weren't those blue slopes beckoning (and all your friends already up there), there'd be little value in going back. And after blue, there's black, then back country, and...

Where there's passion, there's usually a user kicking ass.

Help give your users an "I kick ass" experience, and you'll greatly increase the chances that they'll become passionate.

[Update: you can get an interesting twist on this that we'll be talking more about in the future, in Dave Roger's UXCentric blog post on doing the Leonardo.]

Posted by Kathy on March 7, 2005 | Permalink


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Kathy – your post reminded me of one I read sometime back at Design By Fire. You might want to check that out.

Should you, as a designer, be bound by some ethical mantra to make your work deeper, more thoughtful and complex, not aimed for the lowest common denominator of your user base?

We make things so easy to use, do, digest and process these days that we're faking out Darwin and cheating Mother Nature, getting what we want regardless of the cost to ourselves or the planet. Most likely, though, it's probably just a facade. We only think we're cheating death and have advanced past clever monkeys with keyboards and a few choice words beyond a simple grunt. The question is when will it all come to roost?

Well please tolerate me to mention the clichéd quote from Albert Einstein
"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

Posted by: Anol | Mar 8, 2005 12:27:12 AM

I think I recommended this book to you in a previous post, but I have a semi-quote from it that applies to this discussion as well...

The book is The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley from IDEO. The semi-quote ("semi" because it is from my notes, not the actual book) is this:

"Designing new experiences is about striking a balance. Toss in too many new features, and its like the movie that’s too long or has too many characters.
... e.g. [from IDEO] layered menu approach which is simple to use for primary tasks but has additional layers for more sophisticated users ... The best products and services aspire to the classic design principle “Make simple things simple and complex things possible.”

This fits right in with your "grow with the user" and "create passion through levels of challenge" ideas. As I wrote that last quote, it seemed to describe a good video game ... while we get bored playing "PONG" pretty quickly, but we can play multi-level games for hours (or days, depending on how much time is available).

Keep up the good work !

Posted by: Dave Wheeler | Mar 8, 2005 8:15:25 AM

I think I understand the point here, yet I am still torn between two extremes. My job as a software engineer is to design applications that a) do a job with high accuracy b) make the "doing" part easy c) do a job with consistency. The "extremes" are the people using the system. Some are extremely advanced computer users, and the others aren't. So if I listen to your suggestion here, my software will always appease the advanced users and typically frustate the others.

I hear you when you say strike a balance, but my question is, should "maintaining a challenge" be a real focus for software?

Posted by: Clint | Mar 8, 2005 8:47:54 AM

Great comments, everyone. Clint, you bring up a really important point, and I have a couple of thoughts on this (but it obviously varies widly with the type of software). There are some programs that lend themselves to multiple user settings and modes, from beginner to advanced, although that practice is somewhat controversial. I suppose the idea scenario is one in which the software supports very advanced use, but is intuitive and easy to do "just the basics." But a lot of times, there isn't a one-size-fits-all product. Apple has three different apps for people doing digital video, for example (and now three different apps for audio, too). Each product maps to a different level of user. GarageBand is dead easy, for instance, while Logic is a lot more powerful but comes with a steeper learning curve for sure.

But your question about "should maintaining a challenge" be a focus for software is an interesting one. It might not be, for the application itself. But if you want people to be passionate about what it is they're doing (that requires them to use your software) then "maintaining a challenge" should be the goal for whatever supports that *thing* they're doing. If you make two different apps, a high-end version and a low-end version, then finding ways to encourage people to go up the challenge curve is only going to help inspire them to need your higher-end product.

So, maintaining a challenge (but only one that can be balanced with increasing knowledge and skills!!) is part of what makes people passionate, but isn't necessarily a part of the things that *support* the thing they're passionate about. But again, anything you can do to help people maintain the right balance is usually a good thing. It could be as simple as much better hints and help for beginners, with "teasers" of the other possible things they can do with your application.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Mar 8, 2005 2:45:06 PM

One of the known contributory factors to stress-at-work is not being challenged enough. Another is when you feel your job is too hard and you can't do it (google the BBC and go on to the BBC Health page if you don't believe me) Thinking about those two states as stressors in relation to your posts really gives weight to your words, n'est pas?

Posted by: Jay | Mar 9, 2005 3:58:50 PM

A few things came to mind... First off, it sounds like you're saying that all things work this way. Methinks there's a big difference in negotiating an obstacle (akin to male / hunter-style shopping) vs. here's a tool to help you negotiate obstacles (akin to female / gatherer-style shopping). There are studies which show that most things for most people fall into the first category; while we spend our passion (and an inordinate portion of our money and time) on those few things that we really care about.

Second, the graph at the top of the article bugs me. Perhaps it's that, since you're doing a left-to-right read, the constant value, the ability bar should be on the left of each pair. But, after pausing for a moment, it seems obvious to me in hindsight that what trips my "someting's wrong with this picture" trigger is the fact that the "just right" pair isn't in the middle -- i.e., the picture doesn't practice what it preaches.

Finally, for some reason I get the feeling that a lot of views of this are static and additive. Here's a couple of blog entries railing against those views:
Rhythms in Sofware Development (http://weblogs.java.net/blog/johnm/archive/2004/12/rhythms_in_soft.html) and
Use less milk? (http://weblogs.java.net/blog/johnm/archive/2005/02/use_less_milk.html).

Posted by: John D. Mitchell | Mar 9, 2005 5:05:26 PM

Howdy John,
I like the milk thing.
Gotta tell you, I write a blog entry nearly every day, so you'll have to forgive me if I don't take the time to work out my pictures. I just throw them together in Photoshop as they hit me, and in this case... I was going for the "goldilocks" approach where "just right" has to come at the end. And I must admit that I have no idea what you mean by "the picture doesn't practice what it preaches"... ; )

"it sounds like you're saying that all things work this way."

Hmmm... I don't know how many more disclaimers I could have put in between the post and my comments. But you know, this is a personal blog and not an edited magazine article, so you get what you pay for ; )

But the passion-requires-continuous-growth is virtually 100%. This obviously doesn't apply to all software apps, because not all software is (or wants to be) supporting something for which people can (or should) be passionate about. Some of it is just supposed to get out of the way, in which case it better be as unchallenging as possible.

But because of the name and focus of this blog, I am assuming that anyone reading it is interested from that perspective, and so they probably have a product or service (or want to create one) that involves something people *are* (or can be) passionate about. I don't want my toaster interface to be challenging. Or my cell phone. But if I make toasters, and I want passionate users, I do want to give them something to grow and be challenged by, and that sure won't be in the challenge of the toast-making. The challenge there will be about something else (perhaps I can teach them to make bread with 100-year-old sourdough starter, etc.)

I have to admit that I thought the argument between you and Erik on Fartlek vs. Rhythm was pretty hilarious. : ) But anything that gets people thinking about it is a Good Thing in my book. Cheers.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Mar 9, 2005 6:40:49 PM

Re: Graph

Balance would be putting the "just right" in between the two extremes.

Re: Passion at all costs?

I understand the preaching to the choir perspective but, to continue with the point above, isn't your underlying point that there needs to be a general balance? As an individual, is the point really to try to be utterly consumed in everything that we do? Isn't there a need for someone to passionately create a toaster that makes toast as well as a Dyson vacuum cleaner vacuums?

Posted by: John D. Mitchell | Mar 9, 2005 11:08:22 PM


I just wanted to say that this is almost intuitive for game developers. (If it's not, then they don't have a clue). Blizzard Entertainment is the master of this - their games all fall under the category of "easy to learn, difficult to master." Which I think is the greatest hallmark of good design - accessible for the newbie yet complex for the advanced user.

Posted by: Gabby Dizon | Mar 10, 2005 7:36:44 PM

Nice to see your site is being updated!

Posted by: Panatey Rekolin | Oct 23, 2005 2:32:44 AM

You've got a useful site!

Posted by: Malinov Pancy | Oct 26, 2005 1:16:58 AM

It depends on the type of application you're going to make. I'm not entirely sure that our gate guards in Southern Africa want any kind of challenge when they enter their time sheets.

Actually, I’m not sure I agree with you at all. People should be passionate about the outputs and outcomes that a tool produces, not necessarily in the tool itself. Let’s take a big step out of technology, and look at tools that we probably all use every now again … let’s pick a hammer. Should we make a hammer more complicated or require more ability to use to make people more passionate about banging nails in wood? Surely, the idea would be to simplify the tools so it is easier for people to make beautiful products?

Posted by: Adam | Mar 28, 2007 7:40:31 PM

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