User Centered Design and Bridging The Canyon of Pain

Bridging the Canyon

There is such a thing as too much choice. For new users, too much choice (or control) is too much. For experienced users, too little choice is a problem. Ease of use usually comes from reduced control – but users don’t stay “new” for long. There’s a “canyon of pain” to quote Kathy Sierra in that transition from “new” to “experienced.” We call them “competent” users and we have to help them cross the canyon of pain.

Kathy’s Canyon of Pain

In her article on how much user control is too much?, Kathy talks about how hard it is to make the transition from a new user to an experienced user. We twist that idea into a discussion of feature prioritization. To illustrate her point, Kathy uses a great visual to get the point across.


On the other extreme is Apple’s iMovie. It gives you almost no control, but the payoff is high right out of the shrinkwrap. It exceeds my expectations of pain-to-payoff. But pretty quickly, anyone who gets into iMovie–and is bitten by the movie-making bug–starts wanting things that iMovie doesn’t let you control. So… Apple says, “not to worry — we have Final Cut Express HD for just $299”. The problem is, the learning curve jump from iMovie to Final Cut Express is DRASTIC. There needs to be something in the middle, to smooth that transition.

Kathy Sierra, How much control should our users have?

This is a fantastic visual, and allows us to steal an idea from market segmentation.

Market Segmentation Model

We presented the following chart in an article about how Microsoft is segmenting the market for Visual Studio (a software development environment).

Good Better Best Market Segmentation

Apple’s iMovie is in the “Good” box, and Final Cut Express HD is in the “Best” box. The problem is that users will grow out of the “Good” box, with no “Better” box to move into. Redrawn to illustrate (imagine this is an arial photo of Kathy’s canyon diagram):

canyon of pain

Kathy describes this in the context of moving from one product to another. The same dynamic will take place within a single product as users get more experience. Imagine a product that provides “limited but easy” stuff for new users as well as “full power” for experienced users. How will you get your users across the canyon of pain, when they are ready to start doing more with your product?

Features For Competent Users

A product that is designed with a focus on new and/or experienced users will have this canyon of pain. Competent users need a way to do more than when they were new users. And it needs to be easier than if they were expert users.

By developing features expressly for competent users, you create a bridge across this canyon of pain.

Bridge of Competence

There’s another reason to make sure you build this bridge for competent users.

competent users on bridge

Most of your users will be competent. Users don’t spend very long being new. They quickly want to walk across the bridge, in hopes of doing more. But only a very small percentage will invest the time and energy to make it all the way across the bridge and become experts. Most users will reach a level of competence and stay there.

If you don’t design features for those competent users, they will be in the canyon of pain, instead of enjoying the view from the bridge of competence.

Minimizing the Size of the Canyon

In an earlier analysis of the right number of features to include in a product, we looked at ways to increase the number of features without making the product overly complex.
shifting the curve

The article goes into more detail, but essentially what you are doing is making it easier for users to do more stuff with less effort. This encourages more users onto the competence bridge, and helps them move further along it as well (less effort to become an expert).

By improving features that are already there, you make it easier to get better at using the tool.

improved performance


By improving performance, you raise the utility for the users, ultimately making the bad parts less painful, and the good parts more rewarding.

Both of these approaches focus on improving existing features, versus adding new features. The challenge is to incorporate utility with ROI as part of your prioritization activities.

4 thoughts on “User Centered Design and Bridging The Canyon of Pain

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