Tolerance of the learning curve

Having read David’s post about Dwarf Fortress (I keep wanting to call it Gnome Fortress for some reason) I had a “quick” play.  Admittedly my interest in computer games peaked when I owned a SNES (a D-pad and six buttons really should be enough for anything) and since then my tolerance of computer game complexity just about stretches to Command and Conquer style offerings.

But there was something strangely compelling about Gnome Dwarf Fortress.  ASCII graphics: check. Near-vertical learning curve: check. Certain defeat: check.  It doesn’t sound like a winning combination, but I was compelled to delete it before addiction set in.

Afterwards I kept thinking about the link between a product’s learning curve and the willingness of the end user to invest time and energy in learning how to use the product sufficiently well to obtain what they consider to be a successful outcome.

Then at the next Blogotron McMeeting this emerged…

Graph of Learning Curve -v- Pain Threshold

I’ve annotated it slightly since, with the additions shown in red.

During my time supporting software in schools, which included training staff how to use software and then encouraging them to use it, I came across a lot of “Product B” situations. A user’s tolerance of the learning curve (pain threshold/patience) had been reached (1) before they gained any kind of usable outcome (A) from the software.  This kind of software lay untouched on the user’s desktop with the glossy but intimidatingly thick user manual gathering dust on a shelf.

Then there was the “Product A” scenario.  Here the user could be shown how to obtain a useful outcome (A) before they reached their technological pain threshold (1).  This led them to commit more time and effort to the product, raising their threshold to (2) and allowing them to obtain more useful results (B).  Eventually they would reach their eventual goal of outcome (C) before their overall patience with the product failed at dashed line (3).  Once they had reached point (C) the user was able to use the software for pretty much whatever they needed to achieve with it and would probably continue using it.

Lots of questions:

For the Product B situations was the learning curve particularly steep or were users’ tolerances low?  If it was a tolerance issue then why was this the case?  Were they too busy to give it enough time?  Were they sceptical and therefore naturally hostile to the new product?

Would their tolerance have been higher if they could see a genuine use for the new software?  Had they been given input in choosing the software or was it dropped onto them from above?

How could the Product Bs have been presented differently to make the learning curve seem less steep?

Is there any way to raise a user’s initial patience/pain threshold before they start using a piece of software?  What makes some users more tolerant of the learning/tinkering process than others?

Dwarf Fortress has the look of a Product B to me but its devotees clearly have a Technological Pain Threshold that is somewhere in the stratosphere.  Or at least they do for Dwarf Fortress.  Why is this?



3 responses to “Tolerance of the learning curve”

  1. Good Stuff..

    I often quit something if I don’t see any form of results quick enough. I think for me gnomtress has lots of little wins that keep me going rather than major steps. I feel like I am learning something new (and fun!) all the time and it doesn’t matter that I don’t and will probably never have a full understanding of the game.

    The learning curve for LD made me laugh as much as finding out one of my dwarfs is stealing socks (only right ones for some reason) and stashing them in hiding places I might be a LD pro.

  2. […] One thing I have noticed is that by posting every little achievement I make in unity on blogotron spurs me on to do the next thing. I think that it helps with things Tim outlines here. […]

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