Daily UX Crash Course — User Psychology: 13 of 31

If psychology were math, today’s lesson would be when we move from adding and subtracting to multiplying and dividing. It’s easy, but it allows you to design behaviour that grows over time. I’m talking about:

Rewards & Punishments


(Just starting the User Psych Crash Course? Start here.)


Feelings, Not Things

Most people are familiar with the general idea of a reward or a punishment. Reward = good. Punishment = bad.

The part that a lot of people don’t understand is that rewards and punishments are feelings, not things.

Your parents might have given you a toy for doing well in school, but the toy caused a happy feeling, and the feeling is what we’re interested in.

Similarly, your parents might have taken away your bicycle because you started a meth lab in the basement, but it was the negative feeling that was the punishment, not the bicycle.

i.e. — Rewards and Punishments are emotions. You can cause those emotions in a million different ways.


Feedback to Yourself

The mind-blowing part about emotions is that they are your brain giving feedback to your brain about something that happened. I N C E P T I O N.

But since you, the designer, can control what happens, that means you can control the feedback. Which means you can train your users by rewarding them for something you consider good, and punish them for something you consider bad.

That is a powerful thing. It’s how we learned everything we know.


Learning = Associations = Beliefs

The last really fundamental piece in our psychological model is the concept of associations. Over time, we can learn to feel positively or negatively about anything.

Your favourite colours, your lucky number, and the type of people you find sexy are all examples.

You “associate” those things with positive feelings, because they have been relevant when you experienced rewards in the past. Even if those associations are actually just superstitions (false beliefs). Punishments work the same way with negative associations.

That’s how beliefs — including religions — are made, baby! So if your goal in this course is to start a cult, you’ll love the next few lessons.

As a UX Designer: Users have plenty of their own natural associations and beliefs when they see your design for the first time. Use them. But you also get to create certain associations through your UX, UI, branding, and copywriting. Pay attention to when users feel good and bad. Over time, those rewards & punishments can create lasting associations and behaviours that boost engagement through the roof, or crush your entire company.

If you have ever wondered why people spend hours per day on Facebook but nobody can be bothered to use Google+, now you know.


Tomorrow we will learn to create behavior continues even after the rewards and punishments stop: Conditioning & Addiction.