Does hard work build commitment to use a product?

I’ve struggled with getting organized for years.  Recently, I’ve tried out lots of “Getting Things Done” (GTD) task management apps to help me change my daily routines. In the reviews, I saw things like “it’s hard to use, but once you’ve mastered it, it’s amazing!” (e.g., ThinkingRock, Omnifocus).


Image from geezaweezer

That reminded me of a common counter-argument I get when I preach simplicity in behavior change apps: that hard work, and mastery of a product, builds commitment. From my own experience with Getting Things Done apps, there’s something subtle and wrong about that idea.

Sure, hard work does build commitment, but requiring hard work in an application is still usually a bad idea.

The GTD first apps I tried I couldn’t make heads or tails of.  I dumped them.  Then I hit on – the basics made enough sense that I could at least add some projects and contexts. Then I hit some snags.  I couldn’t figure out how to hook it up to my email. I eventually figured it out – and felt great. I’d mastered the darned thing, and had accomplished something. I was ready for the next challenge!

So, in most cases with, can’t order the tasks  (yeah, amazing, right?). But, I’d already invested time, so I kept on going.  But it doesn’t actually work.  I hit the fallacy of sunk-cost – it’s a well-known mental blip in psychology and economics, that the more work you put into something, the less willing you are to let go of it – even when it is not in your economic interest (read: even when you’re wasting your time).

In both cases, hard work -> more commitment to keep using the app, right?

It’s a mirage.

They are a mirage because, for better or worse, hard work upfront means few people actually devote enough time and energy to become masters. Those people are really really vocal, and can convince you that the app is perfect! They succeeded and they are rightfully proud.  Unfortunately, the rest just stop using the app (what I should have done with earlier).  That’s one reason it’s dangerous, when developing a new product, to only listen to “your tribe” of early adopters.

With apps that seek to change behavior, this mirage is especially important.  Having a really good impact on a few people (the masters) doesn’t mean the app is working.  It may mean you’ve scared away everyone else and the stats are lying to you.  Usually, when you’re designing for behavior change, the goal is to get as many people as possible across the finish line. You should count all of the missing people, who you don’t have data about, as failures. Zero impact. That isn’t the case for all products – but when you’re trying to help people change their behavior, it is.

Building commitment is great, but it should be done after the fact – like leveraging the ways that people change after each time they use a product (the topic of my last post), and Nir Eyal’s “investment” step in habit formation.  It doesn’t mean that each step needs to be a pain in the butt, or that we should design an application to be difficult.  For any “hard” behavior (exercising, learning a language, etc.), there will be things that the product can make easier, and things that it can’t. Make the things that can be made easier, easier  – and then build up user  excitement and pride around the remaining tasks that are hard.

Provide users with a sense of accomplishment for the tasks that truly are difficult – and not just badly designed.

I wish that had done that.  But, it all worked out in the end. I found another task management app that was easy to use from the beginning – Nozbe.  And it reminded me to write this blog post.