This is a critical inflection point where the user is weighing the following: is the amount of investment I’ve made to date worth banging my head against the screen trying to figure out what to do next?
I’m going to compare Portal and Photoshop. Yes, they reside in two entirely different universes with entirely different motivations. This is about how these two universes should collide and that means what I’m really talking about is gamification. There’s a reason I didn’t mention this until paragraph 17 because there are a lot of folks who think gamification means pulling the worst aspects out of games and shoving them into an application. It’s not. Don’t think of gamification as anything other than clever strategies to motivate someone to learn so they can have fun being productive.
When we talk gamification we often think of those stupid reward systems that many applications use to try and keep us “engaged in the app”. Badges in Foursquare are a perfect example. They’re super fun until we realize months later that we’ve given up a tremendous amount of our personal data in exchange for meaningless symbols. Recently, applications like Clear for the iPhone and Photoshop for the iPad have been showing off a second breed of gamification, an experience where the application teaches us to use it in much the same way video games orient new users.
In simple cases such as the iOS to-do app Clear, this orientation happens when a user first starts the application and introduces the functionality all at once. In more complicated examples, learning happens over time as new skills are needed. The interactive tutorials in Photoshop for the iPad are a perfect example of this. While interesting and often helpful, I’m still not sure that this is what developers, especially those of applications that appeal to power users, should be focusing on.
Let’s look at OmniFocus for the Mac, an application that is utterly unintuitive to learn. It has a steep learning curve, but it was exceptionally easy to use once I was over the hump. I don’t suffer when using OmniFocus; I only had to get through the training. Time spent by the developer improving this initial stages might have gotten me oriented earlier and may make the product more appealing to new users. While these are both good things, I worry that this shift has the potential to defocus the developers. I would rather know that the OmniGroup is working on new features that improve everyday use than optimizing the three hours of my life it took me to watch David Sparks training videos.
I don’t always want to learn as I go. I don’t always want to discover. When it comes to the tools that I use, I often want to learn and then go. Over the past two years, I’ve banged my head against the wall of learning several powerful applications. While the learning process wasn’t always thought out (I’m talking to you OmniFocus… no matter how much I love you), the pain of learning was offset by the power and usefulness once I was up and running. Powerful applications will always come with a learning curve. Things can be easier, but not everything is Portal: a cool, but limited world with finite rules and finite lessons to learn.
This really isn’t about gamification, it’s about intuitive interfaces and better user experiences. And to be honest, I think more restrictive interfaces like the iPhone and iPad are doing far more to drive application design than any inspiration drawn from games like Portal (although, I won’t argue, Portal is easy to learn and a lot of fun to play). We’re already starting to see the impact of this with applications like OmniFocus and Photoshop on iOS. The limitations of the iPad, iPhone and iOS are driving innovations that lead to a more intuitive experience. And hopefully, we will continue to more of these innovations working their way into the full blown versions of the applications.
Can developers like the OmniGroup rethink the “on boarding” experience? Absolutely. Would I rather them focus that energy on the interface and features that I will use every day rather than just at the beginning? Certainly.
How about you? Would you prefer a better learning experience, a better user experience or is Michael right and developers are going to have to find a way to balance both?