Thinking about easy

I’ve noticed a fundamental distortion in how I view the world:

  • If I know the answer or how to do something, it’s easy.
  • If I don’t, it’s hard.

This is a distortion because this worldview devalues my accumulated experience and knowledge. It’s funny because I know how long it took me to learn what I’ve learned, and yet because it seems easy to me now, I assume it’s easy for everybody. A trivial example: I consider myself a low-intermediate ultimate frisbee player, and yet when my coworker asked me a question last week about various terms, I was diagramming plays on the whiteboard, explaining different defensive strategies, etc. – things which took me a couple years of playing regularly to learn.

I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers recently, and one of his points in the book is that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become a master of a discipline. I’ve commented before that this is because it takes that sort of repetition to move the skill to the unconscious so that the conscious brain can concentrate on higher level thoughts. In some sense, it’s become “easy” to my conscious brain because the unconscious brain is doing all the heavy lifting.

That’s part of the power of making things easy. Designs which make things easy provide a shortcut to a sort of “mastery”, at least with regard to accomplishing a certain task. The downside is that such shortcuts do not provide the full context necessary for true understanding, and so poor decisions will be made when parameters stray outside the boundaries for which the application was designed.

The mortgage meltdown is a good example of the perils of these shortcuts, as the ability to securitize anything and pass it on was amplified to the point where it brought down the global economy. It shows the importance of being a good information carnivore, somebody who understands their information food chain and the assumptions implicit in that chain. It also suggests that there are times when things should be difficult – because securitization worked so easily and so well, it became the default solution (creating CDOs etc.) without anybody questioning whether it was an appropriate use.

An ideal design would make it easy for users to do what the application was supposed to do, and difficult to do what it’s not. I don’t necessarily think that an application should make it impossible to do “off-label” things, as there are times when people will need to do that, but it should make it very clear that the user is likely to shoot themselves in the foot if they proceed. In other words, “making things easy” isn’t the only goal of design – it’s making the right things easy, and the wrong things hard.

P.S. I await Seppo’s comment explaining how this relates to game design 🙂

8 thoughts on “Thinking about easy

  1. “An ideal design would make it easy for users to do what the application was supposed to do, and difficult to do what it’s not.”

    This isn’t quite a comment on this statement, but this statement reminded me of something I keep encountering in games – and in talking about design with what should be experienced designers…

    There are a lot of times when a metric of a game has to do with the size and scope of the world. Fuel, for instance, recently promoted the fact that they’re in the Guiness Book of World Records for the largest in-game world at 5,560 square miles. Compare that to GTA IV’s ~10 square miles, and yeah, that’s a pretty huge world.

    In stuff I’ve worked on in the past, people have wanted to push the size of the game world – but the thing is, none of our resources allowed us to actually populate that space with anything interesting. So the suggestion was always, “Well, we’ll fill it with procedural stuff,” or worse, “Well, it’ll be empty, and that’ll encourage the player to go back to the interesting places.”


    What it WILL encourage is for someone to go explore the world – that’s what people do. And when they find that 90%+ of your world is a dead, lifeless nothingness, the size of your world actively works against you, because what happens is people find the easiest thing to do and do that – REGARDLESS of the design of the thing. The key is to make the easiest thing fun.

    So if you’re game’s about a huge world and exploration, you have to do something to reward exploration. Nothing is obviously a TERRIBLE reward for that.

    Anyway – I guess my point is simply this – people will do what’s easy, whether that’s what you’ve designed the thing to do or not. If the easy thing is boring and lame, your thing sucks. If the easy thing is interesting and rewarding, you’ve created something good.

    Applying that, of course, is harder.

  2. Good point, Turil. I’m conflating two concepts here, operational and ethical.

    From an operational point of view, the “right” thing is whatever the designer intends, and the “wrong” thing is when the user does things the designer does not want. This is what I intended throughout the post.

    There’s a larger ethical question, of course. What if the person designs a system that rewards “wrong” behavior? For instance, it’s fairly easy to create a corporate culture where everybody is out for their own personal gain (e.g. Enron), but that may not be a good thing in the big picture. I’m not even attempting to address that bigger question here, because, wow, hard 🙂

  3. Mmmm, two concepts.

    Hard – a student vet consults the prof. Should it be so hard to do this? The reply might be differentiated – this is hard, this you will learn with thime, this is easy. Basically hard means complicated – feedback is not very helpful.

    The 10 000 rule is from Nobel prize winner – Simon. A Grand Master needs to know 10 000 real chess boards. Put a random board in front of them and they are no more successful than you or I.

    10000 scenarios/200 working days/ at 5 a day = 1o years corresponds to the QUICKEST time to expertise of value in the world – fully fledged surgeon. Tenure at a world clas uni etc. We also notice that our work becomes noticeably easier about this point. We suddenly get fluent.

    Designing skill uptake is important. It can’t be hurried but we have to learn 5 new sceanarios a day. So the level of the scenario is important. For surgeon it will be relevant ops equivalent to chess boards. The principle in management is 10 000 profit and loss accounts. We need to be learning at the level we expect to work at. To make that concrete, if we are training hotel managers they need to go through 10000 cycles of managing the entire hotel. Within that cycle they can loop through food&beverages, front office etc – but never leaving the focus of the whole.

    Hope this helps. Some things are genuinely hard. Your question has to be is this hard and do I want to master it. Figure out what you need to know and what the 10 year expert needs to know and whether you are one or the other.

    Expertise relies on real experience. There are no shortcuts. Some people don’t get there – either the wrong focus or just too low a work rate. Someone with the expertise will have worked really hard to get there. An object of art almost.

  4. on an interpersonal note: if you know something and you think it’s easy, when you meet someone who doesn’t know that same thing, do you get confused or impatient as to why they don’t know it? for example, you think mathematically really easily, you have several years and advanced degrees of physics behind you. i like math, but it isn’t how i naturally or most often think about things. that can provide us with a really neat opportunity for exchange of ideas if we both realize the expertise behind each others’ ‘ease’ and respect that the other has different experiences. but we can also get confused as to why the other person is lost and get impatient for them to catch up. after all, it’s so easy, it’s downright obvious.

    on the design note: recall that sometimes the most interesting thing people can do with your application is use it for things it was not intended to do, or at least not designed in at the outset. instead of assuming that an ideal design should make good things easy and bad things hard, why not build for the kind of flexibility that allows users to come up with new and interesting and useful interpretations and uses for which you couldn’t possibly have imagined in the first place? especially if, for some, what’s easy for you isn’t going to be easy for them.

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