A few thoughts on “Using the Difficulty”​ in User Experience Design

Introduction

While looking through articles and examples of UI Dark Patterns, I stumbled across a paper titled “Use the Difficulty through Schwierigkeit”: Antiusability as Value-driven Design”. I was intrigued by the title of the paper, and the essay style used by the author.

On an initial read through, the paper felt like a meandering essay, which touched upon various aspects of the “Anti-usability/Schwierigkeit ” school of thought. A couple more read-throughs later, I was able to understand the various nuances within the points presented by the author.

The author really exemplifies the point he’s trying to make with the words used in the first couple of sentences. I mean, wording such as  “This aphorism also encapsulates the raison d’etre…” has to have been a deliberate choice.

Definition and Origins of “Using the Difficulty”

Antiusability is defined as

“…a novel way of design that centers on the finely tuned integration of graduated difficulty into user interfaces to systems in a variety of contexts.”

It’s important to note that Antiusability is not the opposite of usability, it is in fact part of usability and user experience design. Lenarcic makes note of this by suggesting the use of the term “Schwierigkeit” (which means “difficult” in German) as an alternative.

Lenarcic cites the example of Michael Caine, who asked the director of a play he was in, about how to deal with a chair that was on stage. The director told him to make use of the chair in a way that helped him express the nature of the scene (smashing the chair of it was a dramatic scene, or tripping over it if it was comedic). In this way the chair went from being an obstacle to an object that could be used in a productive manner.

Key Points

Here are the key  points that Lenarcic went over in his paper:

  • The usability of a device can modify a user’s behavior.
  • Difficulties can be used in such a way as to have a net positive effect.
  • Choreographing obstacles in a way that allows the users to regain the feeling of being in charge of the interaction process rather than being “madly addicted” to it.
  • “Calibrated difficulty in practical design to accentuate the greater good in system use”
  • How easy should things be? How difficult should things be to enable an end user to feel they have performed a useful task?
  • Regaining control over our lives- “slow” movement and moving away from hyper-efficiency as an end goal for all interactions
  • Exploring “viscosity” in user environments, affordances that allow resistance to local changes.

What follows is my attempt at summarizing and reflecting on some of the points presented in this paper. The paper was written in a meandering essay style and my thoughts tended to meander as I wrote this, though I have tried my best to create some coherent structure.

“Calibrated Difficulty”: Gamification and Homo Ludens

The author talks about “calibrated difficulty in practical design to accentuate the greater good”. My mind naturally went to levels of difficulty in video games. Games are a great example of difficulty being an important aspect of the user’s experience or indeed their enjoyment. Most games have different levels of difficulty to cater to different people’s preferences.

Today, gamification of interfaces has become a buzzword. “Gamification elements” have become synonymous with things you can tack onto an interface in order to make it more “delightful”. Things like leaderboards, scores, achievements, and badges. I feel like the benefits of adding such elements without proper thought is limited at best and questionable at worst.

I believe that this idea of using the difficulty has an application in truly gamifying a user experience. True gamification involves using aspects of the interaction itself, using the “Core Drives” of the user, as this article by Yu-kai Chou brilliantly describes. Imagine if you got a sense of accomplishment on completing a tedious task, rather than exasperation. (Something like, say, editing an image-laden document in Microsoft Word without messing up the layout.) Providing a challenge, timely positive feedback and competition can definitely act as motivational drivers as is described in this paper.

But gamification at its core still aims to improve the user experience with the goals of the user in mind. It is still about getting things done by providing a sense of accomplishment to the user for doing “grunt work”. Lenarcic’s Schwierigkeit is more in line with William Gaver’s “Designing for Homo Ludens”. As Gaver describes, his definition of “playing” is different from “gaming”

“Not only are these forms of ‘play’ fundamentally goal-oriented, but in striving for a defined outcome they impose rules about the right and wrong ways to go about things… Pursuing such an instrumental version of ‘fun’ does not help provide an alternative model for computing. On the contrary, it co-opts play into the same single minded, results-oriented, problem-fixated mindset that we have inherited from the workplace.”

Gaver goes on to provide examples of open ended forms of engagement with no fixed goals, rules or outcomes. He says that scientific approaches to design should be complemented by open ended and exploratory ones.

“It is difficult to conceive of a task analysis for goofing around, or to think of exploration as a problem to be solved, or to determine usability requirements for systems meant to spark new perceptions”

Regaining control over the experience- allowing the user to reflect on their actions

Another aspect of Lenarcic’s paper is about allowing the user to reflect and rest as they use the system, instead of having a singular goal of reducing the time on task and increasing efficiency. The more time you can save, the more work you will end up doing, as Landauer expressed in his book The Trouble with Computers.

He argues that allowing time to reflect over actions may help the user feel more in control over the system, as opposed to being “madly addicted” to the process. He argues that adopting a more mindful and “slow” approach could lead to more user satisfaction. Allowing users to reflect on their actions be used to improve learnability and understanding of the system.

A personal reflection on Usability, User Experience and “Delighting” the user

Usability discussions are often centered around ease of use, and when people talk about user experience the end goal is often times “delighting” the user. The end goal of UX design and research is always creating an ideal experience for the user based on their needs and behaviors. Words like simple, easy, desirable, and efficient are the ones that are used, while words like difficult always have a negative connotation.

This paper really got me to think- is making something easy to use, more efficient and less time consuming really the only way to improve the user experience? Can the difficulties inherent in some experiences be leveraged to a positive end?

Of course, there’s a difference between making something usable and making a delightful user experience. I feel like Lenarcic’s idea of “using the difficulty” has a place in discussions about the latter. Some may equate the ideal experience with the most efficient, but reading Lenarcic’s essay made me go back and re-read ideas like Gaver’s Designing for Homo Ludens, and made me realize that there’s a lot more to user experience or human centered design than simply designing for efficiency.

Thinking back to my days as in Grad School, I remember the discussions with professors and peers about ways to “delight” the user. It almost always ended up being about how the interface reacted to the user- beautiful transitions, animations, innovative 404 screens or other ways in which to provide information about system status, and so on.

There’s so much more to user experience and “delighting” the user than a focus on making things easier to use. Exploring, playing around with something with no end goal, some level of challenge, all of these are ways in which we may seek fulfillment. I’m glad I picked apart this paper despite my initial hesitation, because it made me go back and re-read so many things that I had forgotten about or was unable to appreciate because of the stresses of being a graduate student. This in itself is a case in point- I read all these academic papers with a goal oriented mindset, I wanted to extract their meaning, write a summary, and discuss them in class, all with the goal of passing my class, with the incentive of good grades (or the fear of bad grades). My goals were set, and I developed methods to efficiently accomplish the tasks of summarizing and discussing papers. It’s now that I have the time to reflect on these papers that I realize how important and thought provoking they are.

This paper reminded me of my initial wonderment about the human condition. I feel like I had lost sight of the complexities of the things that make us tick, and it’s refreshing to remove the blinders of efficiency and ease of use to look at things like difficulty from a new perspective.

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