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