Daily UX Crash Course — User Psychology: 14 of 31

Your job as a UX designer is to create experiences, not just observe them. So we need to do more than reward and punish what users naturally do. We need the science of training people to do something new. And keep doing it. Forever. We need:

Conditioning & Addiction 


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


“The first taste is free.”

As any good drug dealer knows, nobody can be addicted to something they haven’t tried. So: your mission is to get the user to a positive emotion within a minute or less, on the first visit.

This is so important, in my opinion, that you should not launch anything until you achieve it.

Important: a “punishment” doesn’t have to be painful. Think of it as a cost. It could be effort or money. People will do a little work or pay a little cash to get a reward, if the reward is worth it.

BUT: the first reward should be free. Always.


Types of Conditioning

Classical: Connect a signal of your choice to an existing behaviour. e.g. — when a bell rings, food comes out. Food makes dogs drool. After the bell is strongly associated with food, the bell will make a dog expect food, and drool all over themselves. Therefore, the bell now causes drooling. And if drooling is your goal (that would be a weird app) you can trigger it any time you want.

Operant: Reward or punish a random action. Let’s say you find a new website and write a comment. 10 people like it. Cool. You write another comment. 5 more likes. Wow! Now you’re hooked. You write a third. Somebody calls you an idiot. Hmmm. No more comments like that, I guess. The next one will be more like the first two. 6 likes! Now you’re being trained.


Type of Rewards & Punishments

You can reward someone by giving something good or taking away something bad.

If you do something good, I can give you a treat. Or I can stop putting dog poo in your shoes. Either way, your experience gets better.

Both work.

However, if you do 100 things I like, you will have 100 treats. Or you could just have your shoes, still without poo in them.

As a UX Designer: focus on  giving, so there is a sense of progress over time. Plus your users will become loyal instead of resenting you.


Shape Their Behaviour

Big, complex behaviour starts small. Want your pigeon to learn bowling? No problem. Reward it when it goes near the ball. Punish it when it moves away. Then demand more. It must touch the ball to get the reward now. Then it has to push the ball to get a reward. And so on. 

Eventually it will be giving high-fives and drinking beer with the team.


Timing Matters

How often does your design reward the user?

Regularly: If users are rewarded every time or “every X times”, they will begin to feel like they deserve it. Like a salary. It is hard to take that away, but it is also hard for users to walk away. Over time it gets boring though, and it creates quantity, not quality. If your design can’t function without something, like the economy needs money in real life, then guaranteed rewards-for-work is useful.

Randomly: Slot machines will reward you often enough that you get hooked, but the rewards are unpredictable. This can be the most addictive, because there is always a chance that “the next one might be the big one.”

As a UX Designer: random rewards based on the quality of content — like blogging or social media comments — will raise the level of content overall. If users cannot control rewards — like slot-machines — it’s just as effective, but makes them more selfish.


Make it Addictive

Up until now we have talked about rewards and punishments as if you only do one or the other. But what if doing an action gets a reward, and not doing that action gets a punishment?

Many real drugs make you feel amazing the first time. That’s why people try them. However, after a while, not doing the drug makes you feel terrible. You can’t stop.

That’s addiction. Or Farmville.

In Farmville it was easy to get started, and if you keep playing, your farm becomes big and successful. However, if you stop playing, your crops die and your work is ruined.

Unless you invite your friends… or pay…


Speaking of games, tomorrow we will learn how addictive games are much more than badges and points: Gamification.