The Aha! Experience: Insight and Discontinuous Learning in Product Usage

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Lakshmanan, Arun., Krishnan, H. Shanker. (2011). The Aha! Experience: Insight and Discontinuous Learning in Product Usage. Journal of Marketing, Volume 75, Number 6, pp 105-123.

Reviewed by Jaiganesh Ramachandran, March 2012

Executive Summary

Arun Lakshmanan and H.Shanker Krishnan have studied the different paths taken by consumers, in learning and using a new product. Through four studies conducted with the help of few hundred undergraduate marketing students in exchange of course credits, the researchers have modeled and tested a framework of how customers learn to use products. The authors hypothesize and demonstrate discontinuous learning, its strong correlation with the consumers ability to form a mental model of the product and the behavioral impacts of discontinuous learning.

To explain discontinuous learning let us think about a consumer with a new video game. According to a well-accepted consumer learning theory, known as the power law of practice, the consumer's game performance will keep improving with practice. However, the rate of improvement will drop as the number of practices increase. The researchers argue that this theory is true at the aggregate level but may not fit at the individual level. According to the research findings, consumers may begin playing by first spending a few minutes on the instructions. After a few trials, at some point the consumer will get a "hang of it”, leading to an sudden increase in the performance. This is discontinuous learning at the simplest level. The first study found 54% of the study participants to fit the model representing discontinuous learning. Presence of insight had a positive correlation with discontinuous learning. There was no observed difference in the overall product usage proficiency between the learners who fell in the discontinuous group vs. the power law learning group.

From the business perspective, the above findings leads us to an important question - does facilitating one learning path over another make any difference? In other words, how does a learner on a discontinuous path perceive the product as opposed to a traditional power law learner? The second study conducted by the researcher proves that discontinuous learning has a positive affect on the product and influences consumers towards greater usage of the product.

The third and the fourth study focus on what precedes insight-driven learning and how marketing practices have an effect on facilitating or interfering with insight driven learning. The findings from the third study lead to the conclusion that encouraging exploration during initial product trial results in the consumer following a discontinuous learning path. As a result, there is broader product usage and a positive sentiment towards the product. The results of the fourth study suggests that ,step by step instructions or help manual, does not encourage product exploration consequently not facilitating insight-based learning.


The authors have added valuable research findings to the extant research on consumer learning. This theoretical framework provided by the researchers on the different learning paths has immense scope for further research. Similar research could be conducted on different types of products, different demographics, new vs. old products and also different levels of product complexity.

While step by step instructions may impede product exploration or insight-based learning, it is definitely not possible to do away with that. The onus is on the product development/usability team to develop the right set of support documentation coupled with the right ingredients to promote exploration of the product.

The research findings provide a different avenue for the marketing organization to think about. Couple of questions that immediately come to my mind are - While the online product trials may generate sufficient leads, what is the user experience with the trial? Is the trial promoting product exploration which may generate a positive affect about the product, leading to greater adoption and extended usage?

In line with what most digital marketers believe in, the authors acknowledge that using social media and internet forums would encourage consumer interaction and promote cross-consumer insight based learning. Arun Lakshmanan and H.Shanker Krishnan have exposed us to a very important theory on how consumers learn to use a product, which is key to any product development, marketing and support organization.

I recommend this journal article to members of the Digital Analytics Association.

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