UX Design: Desirable Difficulty (Part 1)

Easy In, Easy Out

Disclaimer: This article is mainly taken from The Smarter Screen book, written by Shlomo Benartzi with Jonah Lehrer.


Digital Reading Gap

I bet you’ve heard about this problem or thoughts where people think that reading offline / real books will make it easier for you to remember the content compared to when you read it in digital / online form. It’s called digital reading gap.

Back then, we assumed that that might be true because of the screen quality. The text might be blurry and clearly not at its finest condition for us to read. This was the case in the several decades ago when the reading materials were presented on flickering monitors and pixelated fonts just like the image below.

Poor font rendering, taken from Micro*soft Com*munity

From 1985 till 1992, scientists and researchers continued to experiment to find nagging differences in how people read on papers and on computer displays. They eventually concluded that the phenomenon was driven by a multitude of seemingly insignificant visual factors, most of which were caused by low display resolution.

Is It Really Because of Insignificant Visual Factors?

Needless to say, the quality of computer monitors has improved at a dramatic place. We now have screens capable of displaying millions of colours. The latest i*Mac desktop now can display up to 1 billion colours on 21.5-inch 4K. FYI, in 1984, the best monitors featured 175k pixels.

Given this stunning progress, we might expect digital reading to have leapfrogged paper reading. Perhaps we now read better on screens, as their stunning clarity makes reading even easier. If reading comprehension is a function of visual ease, then we should be reading on these “super screens” at unprecedented levels. We should remember more than ever before.

But that hasn’t happened — the dramatically improved quality of screens has not led to higher levels of comprehension. If anything, the opposite seems to have occurred.

Reading on paper vs. reading on screens, taken from hots*design

An experiment at 2013 to replicate previous studies on reading and screens was held once more. The results were sobering. It didn’t matter what text the students were given — they always comprehended less of it when they read it on a computer.

The persistence of the digital reading gap, even in an age of gorgeous LCD displays, is a remarkable finding. For decades, scientists assumed that the quality of the display was the essential variable when it comes to reading comprehension. Yet, now we have screens that are often better than paper, and the digital reading gap continues to exist.

“Screens allow us to read more than ever before, but they also encourage us to read poorly, and to remember less of what we read.”

The Downside of Easy

Initial studies blamed the poor quality of the monitors for the digital reading gap — they made reading excessively difficult. But now, current generation of LCD screens makes reading too easy, the brain doesn’t work hard enough.

“Easy in, easy out.”

Isn’t ease supposed to be a good thing? Isn’t what we as UX people strive to do? Isn’t “Make it easy.” our mantra?

Easy websites make consumers more likely to engage with the content, making things easy also makes people far more likely to complete transactions. That’s why Ama*zon patented the one-clicked buying system and the best e-commerce sites autofill relevant information.

Apparently, making things easier is not always ideal. In particular, when it comes to learning and memory — excessive ease has serious drawbacks. Sometimes, people actually remember more when the information is slightly harder to process. The perceptual struggle is a good thing.

Making material harder to read — what the researchers call disfluency — can actually improve long-term retention.

Disfluency in action

While some fonts are objectively more difficult to read, the main reason most fonts are disfluent is simple, we are less used to them. They are less familiar. When we are less used to them, we read it more carefully, and we get the educational benefits. The only long-term solution is to engage in a form of dynamic disfluency, switching up things a bit so the brain never gets too fluent at reading.

“The irony, is that all of these tricks we need to do is necessary to simply create a reading environment on screens that’s as effective as the ancient technology of paper.”

That’s all for this part folks. See ya around on the next part!