Learning vs. Using Our Applications

Michael Loop on Gamification:

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?

7 Responses to Learning vs. Using Our Applications

  1. Since I like beating my head against the wall, I’m going to say the developers’ time is better spent on the user experience. Other people can supplement the learning experience with tutorials or make suggestions, but I think telling a developer to keep that learning experience in mind while trying to develop the program isn’t a smart thing to do. It would be like me trying to edit my work while simultaneously writing it. It doesn’t work, and it’s frustrating. Build the thing first, then worry about the other details.

    • It can be fun from time to time :) As to your point, I agree. Although the problem is that most app design doesn’t begin with code (in the same way writing begins with words). It begins with a document sketching out your idea or literal UI sketches. The form often does come before the function in that case.

      • Perhaps it’s more like having an outline then and filling in that outline. It’s true, though, that most apps (even my website) start with the form first. I don’t know that that has an impact upon choosing to focus on the user experience or the learning experience.

  2. OTay. You said a lot. Here. And we have a lot to cover so hang with me.

    You bring up Gamification. And UI. And Experience.

    The question Signor is why do we use and app or software. What is the value. Foursquare with badges is perceived vs real value. We moved on quickly. Now I see people check in to places with thousands of people and they are there with 50 others on 4SQ. Yawn. They want a deal. A bribe. Not a good platform if that is what the goal is.

    Then there is UI if it sucks we leave. We won’t stay just for the UI but if we Experience something we will come back for. But it has to give us a reason.

    The fact is competition. Does doing X give me better reward/feeling etc over Z. And if making a sandwich and eating it is more exciting than checking in to TGI Fridays for no other reason than saying ‘I’m here’ then I am making a freaking sandiwch!

    • Yeah, but where I’d argue is “feels better” over “does the job better”. I dealt with Things shortcomings for a long time because I didn’t want to deal with the challenge of OmniFocus. It felt better, but did the job worse. Something tells me if most people are really honest with themselves they have quite a few things in their lives that feel better for them then they actually are.

  3. I agree with Loop’s “Great design makes learning frictionless” and believe that friction-free adaptation should be a goal of every new tool, game, app, process – anything that requires a change in behavior. I also agree with your contrarian counterpoint that it can be a goal, but shouldn’t always be THE goal, especially if it comes at the costs of functionally. 

    And you are spot on that it is not about gamification which is not only difficult to spell (autocorrect keeps trying to change it to ramification), but gamification is also NOT the only path to frictionless learning. In fact, I’ve experienced game play elements that actually create more friction either by slowing down the learning and making me complete steps I don’t care about or adding too many silly bells, whistles, stickers, levels, and/or checkpoints.

    Where I think you cross the line in your argument is with the implication that if it’s not difficult to learn, then it’s just not that powerful. I understand the badge of honor a steep learning curve can provide once it’s climbed, but that sense of accomplishment should not be confused with productive learning. 

    This was recently driven home to me with my son’s first driving lesson. I, like you, hold some old-school “learning should be painful” beliefs, and my instinct was to “make him learn on a stick shift” like I did. My wife challenged me by asking how that would make him a better driver. My best answer was, if you learn in the most challenging conditions, then all others seem easy by comparison. Saying that aloud helped me hear how ridiculous this rationalization was.  

    After a few family discussions, lots of pondering, and watching my clutch take more abuse than the Companion Cube in Portal, I re-evaluated my premise. Perhaps, just maybe, something great, something truly powerful can be learned with very little friction. I can’t think of the perfect example yet, but I’m confident it exists.

    Thanks for getting me thinking. I’m on a new quest (and hopefully it won’t be too steep) to start looking for examples to compare the level of usefulness with the degree of difficulty in the learning. And lastly, thank you for introducing me to the phrase “Utterly unintuitive.” I can’t wait to use it in a meeting. “That idea is utterly unintuitive.” drink

    • It’s funny, my wife kept asking me why I was talking about ramifications every few minutes (missed a couple of autocorrects). I see what you’re saying about where I cross the line, I think it may have just been poor wording on my part. Something like TextExpander is incredibly easy to learn and utterly powerful. What I’m really saying is that the functionality should trump friendliness. Or at least be prioritized over it.

      More than anything, I approve of the utterly unintuitive drinking game.

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