Daily UX Crash Course: 25 of 31

Design skills may be the nuts & bolts of UX, but you need to understand how people think to do UX well. So far we have focused on design, so today we will learn the first of three lessons about user psychology:



(If you’re just starting the UX Crash Course: Start Here)


What is Conditioning?

It has nothing to do with how far you can run, but it has everything to do with what you expect and what you want.

If you have heard of Pavlov’s drooling dogs, then you might be familiar with “conditioning” in a scientific context.

In fact, if you have a dog, you might have even used conditioning before, when you trained them to sit, shake hands, do your taxes, and so on.

It works just as well on people.

Conditioning is the fundamental principle that animals — including humans — will do something again if they are rewarded, and they will avoid doing it again if they are punished.

That might seem obvious, but 99% of the designers I’ve met ignore it in their UX designs. Even though it is the only way to make your design addictive.


Rewards and Punishments are feelings, not things.

When we talk about rewarding users, 9 out of 10 people automatically think about offering the chance to win an iPhone or movie tickets or something else equally dumb.

We’re talking about millions of people here. Get a life.

The most effective rewards and punishments are free because they are feelings, not some random stuff.

Imagine we took you up on stage and told 50,000 people that you are one of the best friends a person could ever have, and that the world is a better place because you’re in it.

Would you like to do that more than once? Probably.

Now imagine we took you up on stage and told you that you had been voted “most useless” by all your closest friends & family.

Would you like to do that again? Probably not.

Those are a bit extreme — unless you’re on reality tv — but notice that we didn’t give you anything or take anything away from you. It’s all about perception. But the feelings those perceptions create can get pretty intense!


Create a Feedback Loop

So how do you actually use conditioning in your design?

The trick is to create a loop of feelings and behaviour that never ends, so using your design becomes endlessly rewarding. The basic feedback loop model is:

Motivation > Action > Feedback > Motivation

For example, let’s say you took a cute picture of your baby. You are motivated to post it on Facebook so other people can see how cute your baby is. So you take action and post it.

Facebook had to design a way for you to take that action.

Then you get feedback from all the people who “Like” it and post compliments. You might even get an email about it.

Facebook had to design those ways of providing feedback too… which creates motivation to take another picture and do it again!

That “loop” will continue until people stop giving good feedback or until you get “punished” by people who can’t stand to look at one more fucking picture of that little monster!


The trick: if you design a feature that allows people to feel good, they will come back again and again so they can feel good again! If that feature achieves your business goals, you have just created a successful product!

Be careful with punishments: The user should try to avoid punishments, so design your features that way. DON’T actively make your users feel bad. That’s a good way to lose them. The ideal case is where not doing the thing that makes them feel good will also reduce the amount of points, or attention, or productivity they want.

For example, there used to be a “farm game” — which shall not be named — where playing the game made your farm bigger and better over time (reward). If you stopped playing for too long, your crops would die (punishment). But… you could also pay to speed things up and get new stuff for your farm (big reward!)

No wonder it was one of the most successful games of all time.


Beware of your own conditioning!

Conditioning trains everyone, everywhere. However, we are all conditioned in different ways. That’s why you have a favourite colour, or why you prefer certain styles of design, or why the smell of McDonald’s is like crack to me.

Don’t assume that everyone loves specific things as much as you do.


Tomorrow we will learn the things that all people are motivated by, which you can use for conditioning, or: Persuasion.