Appealing to Different Users? Consider the Learning Curve

From websites to software, new types of interactions require designing with a learning curve in mind. How do you appeal to both novice and expert users at once?

When designing anything that targets multiple types of users — a robust web site, an application, a video game, or software — it’s important to think about the different levels of users you’re creating for: beginners, intermediates, and experts. And how you will thoughtfully structure a learning curve for each of these levels.

Designing the Difficulty Levels of Guitar Hero

When I was working on the first Guitar Hero, designing a learning curve for each level of difficulty in the game was a critical element of success. Both the developer I worked for, Harmonix, and Red Octane, the publisher in 2005, wanted the game to have a super-easy difficult level that could appeal to 7-year olds and seniors alike — but also an expert level that would engage and challenge even the most uber gamer dorks.

The game design of Guitar Hero made it easy to figure out a perfectly tuned learning curve for each difficulty level. At the easiest setting, only 1-2 notes would appear for the user to perform per bar of music. At the most difficult level, we literally transcribed the guitar parts, putting nearly every note in the game to be hit on the five buttons of the guitar controller. And the middle two difficulty levels fell in between these two extreames.

But the real design challenge of Guitar Hero was finding out a way to make sure each difficulty level had it’s own learning curve, while at the same time, considering how players would revisit the game at new levels (see below).  For example, many players who ended up starting the game at medium difficulty, finished it only to then replay the game over again at a “Hard” difficulty level.

This usage was by design — increasing the replay value of the game through tuning the difficulty levels.

Crafting an Interaction Hierarchy
In thinking about tuning the learning curve of any project, here’s one suggestion: create a interaction hierarchy that ranges from beginner to expert. Take a list of all possible interactions or features and then rank them by complexity — or look for natural ways in which types of interactions can be broken down into simple and complex versions.

For example, in Guitar Hero, using the whammy bar and Star Power are treated complex game elements — and appear only in higher difficulty levels. Software features and website functionality can be treated in the same way.

Once you have this interaction hierarchy, it will become clear how you can group features and interactions together into difficulty levels.

Takeaway: Build difficulty levels into everything you design

What if you’re not designing a game, but instead a web site or something without explicit difficulties? Make the difficulties implicit. Simple interactions should be prominent and essential to the experience, while more expert interactions can be treated as icing on the cake — features that aren’t readily apparent or necessary to know — but that over time users will discover at their own pace. This builds a natural longevity to the design, and inherent ease-of-use.