Design Psychology

Reward your users: A lesson from dolphins

Originally posted at

One of the great satisfactions of working in user experience is that it is a fundamentally helpful discipline.  Our job is to make it easier for people to do what they want to do with a device or piece of software, with none of the pressure to convince or persuade that is characteristic of sales or marketing.  Ideally, a happy user becomes a happy customer.

But in the real world, the situation is often a bit different.  Clients consult usability experts with a goal in mind – more sales, greater visibility of ads, and so on.  These goals can sometimes seem to be diametrically opposed to what the typical user wants.  So how do usability experts serve two masters, the client and the user?

This is a place where it can be helpful to think of the user experience in terms of the rewards it offers.  Allowing the client’s agenda to dictate the user’s experience can leave users feeling frustrated and lacking in control.  But by providing reinforcement for behaviors that the client is hoping to see, users can be encouraged to act in certain ways in a manner that respects their autonomy.

In psychology, a technique known as shaping is used to teach animals complex behaviors.  In order to get a dolphin to jump through a hoop, for instance, a trainer first rewards simpler but related behaviors.  He’ll lower the hoop into the water and deliver a fish when the dolphin swims close to it.  Once the dolphin knows that swimming close to the hoop is a good thing, the trainer will then start to reward the dolphin for swimming through the hoop.  Once this behavior is learned the hoop can be gradually raised until the dolphin is consistently jumping through the hoop.

Of course, users are not dolphins, and any thought of “training” your users is antithetical to the philosophy of user advocacy.  But like the dolphin, users can be encouraged (or discouraged) at various steps along the path prior to arriving at the ultimate goal.

One site that excels at encouraging users is, a purveyor of custom skateboards.  On the Build-A-Board section of the site, users can select board shapes, paint jobs, and wheels, all while getting instant previews of what the finished board will look like – and even a performance meter displaying the board’s stats.  Despite having no pre-existing interest in skateboarding, I was motivated to spend several minutes on the site exploring options and perfecting my virtual board.  Of course, every time I finalized a decision and clicked on to the next area, I was one step closer to the check-out.

It can be extremely valuable to take the time to identify the steps required for users to complete a desired behavior – such as completing a purchase – and to focus on reinforcing them at each step in a way that makes sense for those users.  Of course, reinforcing a user doesn’t require bells and whistles (or fish).  It can be the simple reassurance that he is in the right place and completing his intended goal.

By paying attention to how users are rewarded along each step of tasks, particularly those that are especially important to clients, designers can increase successful outcomes for clients without sacrificing user experience.

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