“Desirable Difficulty” And Why We Should Care

First, what does the phrase, “desirable difficulty” even mean?

The phrase comes from the education and psychology world. It suggests that if we make encoding, that is, interpreting information from one form into another, a little harder for the learner, then the learner will force themselves to start processes in their brains that will encourage long-term retention and learning.

It makes sense. We as humans tend to remember concepts that we really worked hard on; items and information we struggled to retain or learn but finally ‘getting it’.

Sure, this is important for teachers and psychologists to know, but why do we as marketing professionals bring this up?

It’s simple- it deals with consumer behavior.

When businesses and brands prepare something new for consumers, the common thought is to make it as simple and easy as possible. The easier the consumer can understand and use the product, the better product adoption is going to be.

And in a sense, that’s true. But we argue, though adoption for a simple and easy product is good, we believe that adding a little bit of difficulty to ‘product mastery’ could possibly increase the brand’s chances of creating loyal customers.

How so?

An easy and simple product doesn’t provide any real reason for the consumer to continue to use the product. Yes, it lowers the switching costs and risks for the consumer, but it doesn’t instill any real ownership or work for the consumer to consider the easy and simple product as valuable.

But, imagine if the product or brand made it just a little difficult for the consumer to use the product, getting the consumer to think about how to get the full use of it. Not too hard for the consumer to opt for the Path of Least Resistance route, but hard enough to create the ‘Ikea Effect’ Dan Ariely and other behavioral economists have discussed in detail.

Some examples for adding Desirable Difficulty-

-Making the consumer put the product together
-Having the consumer go through a series of steps to activate the product
-Forcing the consumer to give the product a name, label or number
-Having the consumer pass a test or tutorial before using (short, 3-5 question quiz)
-Intentionally making the UX a little hard to navigate

Should all brands and products do this? By no means. Commodities cannot survive with this strategy, but some products, especially in the digital and mobile realm, could reap significant results with this strategy.

Just something to think about.