Psychologists have long known that our memory and performance are strengthened when we are faced with obstacles while we are trying to learn. A few examples of obstacles that actually help us learn are:
1) TESTING (e.g. repeatedly testing your memory on what you’ve learnt instead of only studying)
2) DISFLUENCY (e.g. using study materials that are slightly difficult to perceive)
3) CONTEXT (e.g. changing up the location where people learn).
Those examples may not seem like big obstacles at first, until you consider how you prefer to learn. Imagine yourself back at school, trying to prepare for an exam. Were you more likely to cram all the information into one study session or across several mini sessions...and be honest? Did you prefer to study material that is easy to read or did you like to squint? What about where you did all your studying. Typically, did you study in the same room or space, like the library or coffee shop, or did you change up your study location every time?
Those obstacles are by no means meant to make learning impossible, but they are not supposed to let us passively take in new information either. Instead, the obstacles that help us learn fall in a "difficulty sweet spot" – not too difficult, but not too easy. For that reason, they are called Desirable Difficulties.
The basic idea behind desirable difficulties is that force us to learn new information under conditions that keep up optimally engaged. They do a better job of making sure our attention is focused on what we need to learn and not open to distraction. Research on desirable difficulties first focused on applications for teaching, but the topic of desirable difficulties reached the mainstream in Malcolm Gladwell's book - David and Goliath.
Creating desirable difficulties in the digital space
The applications of desirable difficulties extend far past the classroom since they touch on scenarios where people are required to learn something new, whether that is a new behaviour or new information.
This becomes particularly interesting in the digital space where new things are being developed all the time, and consumers are continually asked to learn something new as the technology changes. Just think of the last time Apple released an IOS update. But introducing desirable difficulties in the digital space also run counter to the entrenched opinion that we need to make the user’s experience as easy as possible.
The challenge is that we want to create optimal user experiences on our digital channels, but “optimal” doesn’t necessarily mean easy. This is especially true if we want users to change their behaviour and remember what they’ve learnt for the long-term. That is where introducing a desirably difficult experience on digital can have the greatest impact.
By keeping users optimally engaged, they will be more likely to engage in the actions we want and retain the content (e.g. brand messaging) over a longer period of time. While this may create a little bump in the road initially, it will prevent larger problems from impacting the user experience later on.
Consider the following examples of how digital channels can incorporate desirably difficult experiences.
When I refer to “Testing” outside of the classroom, it takes on a different meaning. I’m actually referring to the act of retrieving something from memory, which is a high-level way of thinking about what we do when we actually take a test. The act of retrieving something from memory doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, a simple example would be re-entering your password when you are creating an online account. The act of re-entering your password is like a mini-test, which is an example of a desirable difficulty. Being asked, “What is your password?” is still more difficult of an experience than being asked, “Is this your password?”
An example of a "Testing" desirable difficulty would also include the recent change Uber made to its surge pricing experience. After complaints from Uber riders who found themselves with exorbitantly expensive cab fares when they mistakenly didn’t pay attention to the surge pricing alert, Uber had to find a way to create a digital experience that ensured their customers learnt the new surge pricing information. Uber created a desirable difficulty when surge pricing for fares went over 2X by having its riders enter in the surge price before they could confirm their ride. This user experience was not as easy as clicking a button, but was necessary to ensure that Uber’s riders remembered the new information for the long-term (or at least until they woke up the next morning).
Introducing disfluency into a user experience runs counterintuitive to everything you’ll hear from designers, UX specialists, and just plain common sense. Essentially, creating the experience of disfluency is what you feel when your perception has to do more work. For example, reading words printed in black and on a white background is easy to perceive (i.e. perceptual fluency). But, if the background is changed to dark grey, then reading becomes more difficult because the words are harder to perceive (i.e. perceptual disfluency). In other words, it makes your eyes do a “double take”, and then you have to really scrutinize each letter to make it out.
Normally, you’d think that if it things are more difficult to read then no one will read them. And while that may be true in general, there are certain conditions where you want to ensure you’ve captured people’s attention. Disfluency is one way of capturing people’s attention through desirable difficulty, but it can be manifested in any way that forces people to perceptually scrutinize (e.g. font style, contrast, volume, audio noise).
An important factor to keep in mind is that the desirable difficulty zone is not rigid. It will depend on a lot of factors that come into play when you are creating an experience on a digital channel. Factors such as the type of device someone is using, someone’s purpose for visiting your site, the time of day, etc… all impact what level of “difficulty” is appropriate for keeping someone optimally engaged. Figuring out what contextual factors have the most impact on your desirable difficulty then becomes a question of experimentation.
Always in moderation
Desirable difficulties are not effective when used all the time, but introducing desirable difficulties when you need to ensure your users learn new information (e.g. updates to the new IOS) or a new feature (e.g. surge pricing on Uber fares) can cause some minor pain upfront, but save everyone a lot of pain down the road.
Have any ideas for other digital nudges? Or do you know of digital nudges already in practice? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below or on social media.