Did you grow up learning that the depths of your brain are as vast and endless as the universe itself? Well, that’s nice. How’s that going for you?
Is it, by any chance, an exhausting unending mental circus?
Each day, we set ourselves up to learn much more than we can actually handle. You might start by scrolling through the news in the morning, listening to a podcast on the way to work, attending a webinar at work and later Pocketing some how-to articles for the evening or weekend. All that counts as learning.
“I have so much to learn,” you think cheerfully to yourself. Your optimism is admirable, but unrealistic.
There’s no way you’re retaining most of what you read. Your brain physically cannot and does not want to participate. Just look at what we retain of a one-hour lecture over a thirty day period:
“Our brains are constantly recording information on a temporary basis: scraps of conversation heard on the sidewalk, what the person in front of you is wearing. Because the information isn't necessary, and it doesn't come up again, our brains dump it all off...” - University of Waterloo Counseling Service
That’s just the beginning. You have all these background distractions to fight all day:
- You are battling with a hundred other tabs
- You are battling with notifications and pop ups
- You are battling with external noise (e.g. kids, the dog, beeping washing machine)
And once you’ve been interrupted, it takes you on average 23 minutes and 15 seconds to fully regain that focus. Your brain is willfully and actively plotting against you and your learning goals. Your brain wants to sit in front of the couch with a bag of chips and a Kardashians marathon. Your brain wants EASY, the path of least resistance.
In an ideal world, we would conquer our lazy brains and absorb everything we’re learning in our stacks of reading, podcasts and tutorials.
But that’s not how it works. We're not learning nearly as much as we think we are.
We live in a world of busy, distracted, preoccupied, multitasking brains
If you’re paying attention, you’ve seen a pattern forming among your competition: Businesses that are designing their services around the attention-deficit brain are winning the customers.
Products with the easiest onboarding, the tiniest steps, the simplest path from problem to solution are getting user attention and keeping it.
It’s a race to the bottom. The only way to compete is to think small and aim lower.
If you’ve been thinking manuals, it’s time to think smaller. If you’ve been thinking day-long training sessions, think smaller. If you’ve been thinking courses, think much, much smaller.
The Mango Languages app teaches foreign languages by the sentence.
Slack trains us for its interface step-by-step with a friendly bot.
If you’re out to build a habit-forming product, you have to enable your users to acquire and retain information the way they already do elsewhere in their lives.
Our brains have rewired to engage with new information through a constant stream of small, digestible chunks from everywhere else on the web: newsfeeds, Twitter cards, bulleted lists, and so on.
This is how users learn now: through the smallest possible denominations.
Design for bite-sized goals
Bite-sized learning is like candy for our brains. We set out and completed a goal, even if it was tiny. It helps us form positive feelings around the experience - and it’s just enough for us to want to come back for more.
So if your job is to teach users how to use your product or service, you have two questions to answer:
- “What job is my customer trying to complete?”
- “How can we break their journey down into bite-sized pieces?”
Can you build a training experience that requires only a few minutes, and perhaps even only a few glances at a time? That’s how we want to learn - and it’s all we really have the time and energy for anyway.
Whoever draws the shortest line from A to B wins the customers. Whoever enables them to retain, recall and build on that knowledge gets to keep them.