Sometimes, increasing the time and trouble required to complete an action is beneficial for the user. At times, we need difficulty to slow us down; to make us either consider or confirm a key action. So, no matter how counterintuitive it may seem, sometimes designers need to make things difficult deliberately.
The key is in identifying “desirable” difficulty, and planning when, how, and why to add friction. However, designing difficulty, or rather, the right kind of difficulty, can be every bit as challenging as designing a smooth, easy user experience. So, how can UX designers turn difficulty into a force for usability good?
Desirable difficulty is a concept taken from psychology. It refers to a “just right” level of difficulty: not so hard as to be unattainable; not so easy as to be mindless. The belief is that this difficulty Goldilocks zone improves learning capacity and leads to improved engagement.
While desirable difficulty was coined with the classroom in mind, it can also be seen daily in the world around us. Take the roundabouts we navigate in our regular commutes, for example. A roundabout is commonly found to be “confusing”. It requires us to think about our decisions more than a sign or a four-way stop would, and in doing so brings about substantial safety gains.
Alternatively, think about the deliberate creation of poor-legibility fonts. Studies show that we are more likely to retain information if it is displayed in an ugly, harder to read typeface, as we have to concentrate more to make sense of the text. So, fonts like Sans Forgetica are used to force us to try harder to read.
Desirable difficulty, then, is about encouraging us to engage attentively. Although it flies in the face of traditional ‘don’t make me think‘ usability principles, it can still serve a valid UX purpose. Namely, desirable difficulty, in the right circumstances, can create a more cognitively engaged user experience with mindful interface interaction.
Outside of psychology concepts, there is already an established UX technique for creating disfluency. That technique is commonly labelled intentional or “good” friction.
Intentional friction is what it says on the tin: a calculated insertion of friction into the user experience to slow users down and create journey blockers. Again, this sounds like a usability nightmare. Friction is so often the enemy; something against which UX designers so often wage war.
In some instances, however, friction is a much-needed UX element. Such situations are heavily context-based. For example, you might find intentional friction when completing an irreversible action, or handling sensitive or financial information, or when a potential fault has been detected.
The goal of “good” friction is to ensure the user knows and understands what they’re doing before committing. In doing so, it helps safeguard against any accidents or errors. So, rather than being user-friendly, intentional friction is about being user-solicitous.
The Dangers Of “Easy”
Making things as easy as possible is usually the best UX policy. However, “usually” does not mean “always”. In fact, making some things too easy can put the user at a disadvantage and damage their overall experience.
Easy can be risky. One of the fundamental drawbacks of universal easiness across every action or workflow is that it can also make it easier to err. Just as perfect can be the enemy of good, easy can be the enemy of careful. If everything can be achieved in the speed and smoothness of a single click, how can you prevent accidental actions and protect more consequential steps?
Your users will not thank you if they delete all their files with a misclick. Nor will they be appreciative if they inadvertently make a purchase while their smartphone rolls around unlocked in a bag. As much as good UX should break barriers for the user, it should also create them at decisive moments.
Another (and somewhat less tangible) downside of “easy” is the lack of concern it inspires in users. Gliding through a product is great, but it also creates a particular type of passivity; a thoughtlessness that encourages skimming content and coasting through actions that may require more in-depth consideration.
This thoughtlessness then births a class of “mediocre user“. There is no allure of mastery for power users who find pleasure in learning new and intricate systems. If using your app or service nurtures an unswervingly blasé approach, then your product may be as easy to put down as it was to pick up.
The Joys Of “Hard”
This brings us to the oft-forgotten upsides of designing specific tasks to be “hard”. Firstly and most obviously, some tasks demand more thought. There will always be impactful, sensitive or potentially incorrect actions that require confirmation or verification. In these instances, adding layered difficulty is patently desirable.
Looking beyond the obvious, the right level of “hard” can also be attention-grabbing. You might want users to read essential set-up instructions, for example. Alternatively, perhaps you have a more flexible product that requires users to customise their setup.
When focus is vital, a certain level of disfluency can make brains work harder, forcing users to engage meaningfully where “easiness” might relax attention.
Plus, some harder elements can help win the long-term attention of power users; the technical subset of your audience who value control over usability. Not every user wants to give the bare minimum effort to navigate a solution effectively. Some like to tinker and explore. For these users, a level of desirable difficulty is key to accomplishment and product advocacy.
Traditionally, friction is created by well-established methods such as confirmation dialogs and two-factor authentication. Such practices increase the number of steps required to complete the requested action, thereby adding an extra indemnity layer.
However, we are now starting to see new and more imaginative ways of designing desirable difficulty. Rather than increasing steps, apps are popularising methods of making the step harder in the first instance – by asking the user to drag items, for example.
Alternately, designers can also increase difficulty by lengthening the required time of the task. So, this is where the user might have to press to hold for a set period of time to confirm their intentions.
All these tactics serve a common purpose: to slow the user down and heighten the security of their actions. Whether they do so by increasing required time, effort, precision, or information processing, they add strategic speed bumps to any riskier steps.
As with anything, however, there is a caveat to designing difficulty. It is crucial that any inserted friction does not lead to user frustration. For example, consider the challenges of older or less-abled users. Your methods should not demand heightened levels of dexterity, or become so exacting as to become inconvenient.
The best friction is difficult to do accidentally, but quick to accomplish.
You should also add difficulty only when it obviously and conclusively benefits the user. For example, making it difficult for a user to log out is shady, self-serving design. Making it difficult for a user to make bad decisions, however, is a value-added step with clear gains.
In the words of Sangeet Choudary: “Friction in design is helpful if it facilitates the interaction instead of getting in the way of it.”
Difficulty Is Not A Dirty Word
We strive so hard to create smooth, “easy” user experiences that ‘difficulty’ has become something of a UX dirty word. But not all things should be designed equally in easiness.
Where actions are sensitive, critical, influential, or extreme – friction can serve as a function. For these vital processes, difficulty snaps your users out of auto-pilot and makes them feel more in control. Of course, difficulty by default is not the way forward. Instead, we should accept that difficulty has a viable and advantageous (albeit atypical) place in the user experience.
Used correctly, difficulty transforms from UX enemy into UX asset.
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