Upon seeing the widget, the participant paused a moment. "I don't know what I'm supposed to do here," he said.
I sighed, and glanced at a colleague who was already giving me the YFU smirk.
But a moment later, the participant said "Oh, I get it. All I need to do is [action] and it [results]. That's really cool." And he spent several seconds toying with the widget and watching the screen change.
I smirked back at my colleague. His opportunity to haze me had just evaporated.It's worth noting that this was not a data point in which one participant found something to be delightful that everyone else didn't even notice. I got a similar reaction from every single person who tested the interface.
The point of this incident, or at least the one that I took from it, is that intuitive is good, but discovery is much better. Had the participant been able to figure it out at a glance (which was admittedly my original hope), he would have been able to use it with no hesitation whatsoever - and he would not have been delighted.
But there is value in that moment of hesitation, and the sense of pleasure that comes from figuring something out. It's a small sense of accomplishment that gives a person a sense of being empowered, and having struggled a little bit before finding success makes an interaction that would have been unremarkable into something that is emotionally engaging. That's powerful.
It's much in the same way that getting a compliment for something that took no effort at all feels hollow, while getting complimented on something that took a little effort feels good (and getting complimented on something that was difficult is really great). A reward simply means more when it took an effort.
But Don't Overdo It
Even though I have the sense that letting people struggle a little is not a bad thing - and that learnable is more emotionally rewarding than intuitive - I would not say, by any means, that more is better. If every single task a person does requires a moment's hesitation before they figure it out, the joy of discovery will likely be played out and what once was regarded as cool will be much less satisfying.
Another happy accident here is that the widget I was designing is on the last page of an application form, when the user is one or two clicks away from hitting the "buy" button. I feel very optimistic that giving them that little dose of emotion, so close to the point of commitment, is going to carry over and there will be a nice bump in the conversion rate.
That may well be a good indication of how to place a discovery boost in an application flow: a few clicks before something that will be difficult or prone to trigger an anxiety reaction. Ideally, those will be few - but you can't eliminate them all. A "buy" button is always going to give users pause, but if they are feeling intelligent and empowered when they encounter it, that may help put them over the hurdle.
I would promise to report back with the improvement in the conversion rate after the new widget is rolled out - but again, it's something I will have to keep under my hat for obvious reasons.