What is Henderson’s Law?

Henderson’s Law also known as a variant of the “Power law” is a mathematical formula for calculating experience curves and their economic impact.  It was first proposed by Bruce Henderson in 1968 while working for the Boston Consulting Group to generalize unit costs of production over time and by volume.

As both time went on and production increased, the cost per unit would decrease. This mathematical model is used in calculation costs when a company starts supporting a new product. But it has also been adopted by the gaming industry to help control how quickly new players are given new skills or tactics to learn in a game.

A specific example is World of Warcraft (WoW) vs Eve Online (EO). During the entire process of creation, Blizzard, the company that made WoW, was very careful to control the pace at which players were given new skills. This meant it took a longer time, and you got further into the game before you had a good fundamental understanding of the game. By contrast, CCP creators of EO did not have a well-thought-out learning curve when the game was first created. This led to players leaving the game after only a few hours of play because it had such a steep learning curve and it did not have a very good tutorial, most people, including myself, only got through it with the help of friends that already played.

This lack of consideration and the failure to take Henderson’s law into account led to graphs that do not unfairly look like this.

But what does it really mean?

To me, at least, it is an easy way of talking about the difficulty of first learning something and the amount you learn in overcoming those challenges. Once you are passed the initial challenges, it takes a lot more time to learn new information. There is a diminishing rate of return for time invested. Learning the first 75% of something is easy and can be done quickly, the last 25%, or what I would call mastering a subject, takes a lot of time, energy, and effort.

On the vertical axis is the amount of new things you are learning
The horizontal axis is the time spent learning a subject or getting experience with a subject.

The graph above gives a great example of what I am talking about. When you first start learning something new, whether it is a video game, a new piece of computer software, or trigonometry, you start off having to learn a bunch of new things. The more you learn over time, the longer it takes to learn something new about that subject.

How does it apply to me?

I love to learn. I am interested in lots of things, most of them related to science, computers, or engineering. While most people have places to go on their bucket list I have things I want to learn and it is a long list and is always growing. But if I want the thrill of learning, I can only focus on a single subject for so long. Not to mention the time crunch of trying to master everything I enjoy learning about. 

For me, Henderson’s Law is a frame of mind, balancing my love of mastering a skill to the point of expert designation versus picking up a new project so I can achieve that “Ah ha!” moment with a new knowledge base. And then forget it months later because I haven’t practiced my skills.