Advantages and Disadvantages of a Learning Curveby Todd BowermanUpdated September 22, 2017
A learning curve, as a rule, refers to how much time a person has to put into a specific activity before she understands its elements. Learning curves are present in every task, from learning the controls and inner workings of a video game to mastering a new hobby like woodworking or painting. Learning curves can be steep or shallow, meaning some activities have tough learning curves while others have relatively gentle ones. If you are planning on marketing a product or game with a steep learning curve, it is important to understand the potential advantages and disadvantages.
Cost of Entry
Every activity in which a human can engage has a cost of entry. For example, if a person chooses to play a new video game, the cost of entry is purchasing the game plus whatever time it takes to master the controls. Activities with steep learning curves have a high cost of entry since participants must spend more of their time learning the basics before they can truly enjoy themselves. A high cost of entry may turn off potential customers or participants who decide that your product’s steep learning curve simply is not worth their time.
Any time you learn something new, there is a chance for frustration to build. New tasks are unfamiliar and require careful attention, and in activities with steep learning curves, mistakes can be quite costly. If you were trying to teach a person to sculpt marble, for example, every mistake could cost that person hundreds of dollars in supplies. When the amount of frustration experienced by a person learning a task outweighs his potential enjoyment of that task, he is more likely to quit than continue. A steep learning curve may force new customers to walk away from a product or service before truly experiencing its benefits.
One of the benefits of offering an activity with a steep learning curve is the participants that hang around are truly dedicated to the task. By weeding out people with casual interests or low frustration barriers, you ensure that your customers are all of a certain mindset and caliber. A steep learning curve is an easy way to keep people who may not stick with a given activity or product from wasting too much of your time, as it pushes them out much earlier than they would naturally lose interest.
When a service or product has a steep learning curve, the people who do stick around to master it feel an immense sense of accomplishment they would not get if the product were simple to use. Following the example of video games again, in games with high difficulty levels and brutal learning curves, the gamer who sticks it out to the end is going to feel a greater sense of satisfaction from completing the game than she would if the game were easy from start to finish. Steep learning curves may keep some people away, but they can also keep some people coming back for more.