How psychological phenomenons shape user experience

This is the second in a series of articles taking up psychological phenomenons, describe their influence on humans and their actual or potential usage in modern technology.

Issue #1: The magic behind good UX #1


  1. Endowed Progress
  2. Negativity Bias

1. Endowed Progress — Closer to the finish line

What is it good for?

  • Increase retention
  • Increase likelihood of conversion
  • Increase user commitment
  • Decrease bounce rate in sign-up and check-out

This phenomenon was first described in a 2006 paper by Joseph C. Nunes and Xavier Drèze. They witnessed an effect, that can be described as following:

The likelihood of completing a task increases, if people are provided with artificial progress towards this task. *

The feeling of progress, even if it is artificial, can be extremely motivating for people.

Nunes and Drèze showed evidence of the effect in a series of experiments. One of them used something most of us have encountered in our life.

You all know these stamp collecting loyalty cards. The ones where for each time you buy a parrot, you get a stamp and the fifth parrot will be for free.

Their experiment was all about such loyalty cards. Customers of a professional car wash were put into two groups. Both groups were handed loyalty cards on which each individual had to collect 8 stamps (get 8 car washes) to get the next one for free.

Group one was handed a card with 10 stamp fields from which 2 were already stamped (two out of 10 or 20% artificial progress).

Group two was handed a card with 8 empty stamp fields (zero out of 8 or 0% artificial progress.)

During the next 9 months, each time a customer paid to have his car washed and presented the card, the cashiers provided a stamp that included the date of the visit.

When the experiment ended, 34% of Group 1 and 19% of Group 2 had completed their cards. This relative uplift of 56% between groups was not only significant but also acquired in a shorter amount of time.

The Endowed Progress effect actually consists of three additional phenomenons that I just want to touch briefly:

The Zeigarnik effect: People remember incompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.

The Goal Gradient effect: The closer a person gets to their goal, the higher is their motivation to reach it.

The Goal Visualisation effect: External representations (a card with stamps), which increase the ease of visualizing the goal, enhance goal pursuit.

Utilization in modern UX

The effect can be used everywhere, where a progressive process lies at the center of a users’ task. Or as described in the first experiment simply as part of a loyalty program.

Amazon start page

Amazon uses a sort of Endowed Progress on its start page. They display a reduced progress bar below recently viewed articles. Even though, the only progress done so far was looking at the product. This is already enough to make me feel the Endowed Progress effect and its corresponding effects (Zeigarnik, Goal Gradient and, Goal Visualisation effect).

Sign-up and check-out flows

While a user is at the first step of a conversion funnel, a progress indicator can already show some advance, even though the only progress achieved was clicking on the “sign-up” button. It looks like 1/3 of the progress is already done.

Progress bar with artificial progress

Pre-filled form fields

Form fields are everywhere. If you have the chance to know some information about your users in advance, like their location, language, name, etc. you can prefill the input form and therefore create an Endowed Progress effect.

The usage of the users’ system or browser language is a first easy step. Single Sign-On buttons like Facebook, Google, Twitter, and others provided for registration can be used to prefill user data, that is connected to the corresponding account.

Typical single sign-on buttons
The form filed already understood, that you are from Middle Earth, Frodo, no need to give that information, so you are practically almost done with the registration

There are plenty of ways of creating artificial progress for your users and therefore increasing their motivation towards finishing the intended process. The understanding of the Endowed Progress effect and especially also of its corresponding effects (Zeigarnik, Goal Gradient and, Goal Visualisation effect) is worthwhile knowing for everyone who wants to increase the likelihood of task completion.

For a deeper understanding find the corresponding paper here.

2. The Negativity Bias

What is it good for?

  • Increase positive user experience
  • Increase positive memory of user experience
  • Decrease stress level of users

Imagine you are having a beautiful summer day at a lake but when you are about to go home from the lake you step on a bee and get painfully stung in the foot. What do you think you will remember more vividly from this day? The nice clear lake or the bee incident? Most likely it will be the sting of the bee because negative experiences tend to affect us much more than positive ones. This is what we call the Negativity Bias:

People remember the bad more than the good. Encounters of a negative nature have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than neutral or positive ones.

Numerous studies suggest that negativity is an attention magnet and the more attention is directed towards something, the greater the likelihood that it will be remembered.

Participants, when asked to evaluate other people by looking at photos of them, spent a longer time looking at negative images than they did look at positive ones. Similarly, participants increased blinking when studying negative words than positive words (blinking rate has been positively linked to cognitive activity). **

So why are humans so affected to the negative? Because negative things signal danger. From the standpoint of evolutionary psychology, it is vital for humans to learn and identify potentially hazardous situations. Even though today’s world is much less dangerous, we are still wired to our evolution.

The Negativity Bias in UX

This bias is nothing we can use to our advantage in creating user experience, but the awareness about it can help us to create better user journeys. It is impossible to create flawless experiences for everyone at all times. That’s why it is important to anticipate moments of negativity, frustration, stress, and anger in our users’ journeys and handle them in a way that weakens the emerging Negativity Bias.

Reroute anger in moments of failure

As stated before, it is impossible for your products to not fail once in a while. This means you need to design for error. Error messages that are not helpful and maybe even unfriendly in their tone of voice will potentially increase the negative emotions towards your product and therefore the Negativity Bias.


A friendly and informative error message, on the other hand, can weaken negative affect towards your brand and might even create moments of delight.

When users try to register with an email address that is already in the Mailchimp system, the error message is friendly and funny, not demanding and harsh

The anger of a user about potential failure is redirected and in its best case absorbed by the delight, a user gets out of it. The most common occasions of delightful distraction in the web are without doubt thoughtfully crafted 404 pages and the infamous mini jump ’n’ run in Google’s Chrome browser when being unable to connect to the internet.

Funny 404 pages and Google’s T-Rex are good examples of how to handle frustration

Delight in moments of tension and stress

There are moments in your users’ life, where they are in stress. They are afraid of making mistakes and afraid of these mistakes possible consequences. For example, sending out a newsletter to thousands of people for the first time.

The wonderful people at Mail Chimp anticipated this stress and tried to calm their users down by being funny and understanding and therefore decreasing negative affect, even creating delight.

Mail Chimps Chimp is feeling you

Anticipate users’ thoughts and address them

Same as we can anticipate possible areas of failure we can anticipate possible thoughts our users might have during their journey through our product.

At Netflix´ Conversion Team they thought about the fact, that potentially everyone hates filling out forms. By addressing this in their copy “We hate paperwork, too.” they not only show a good understanding of their users but also directly show empathy towards them. Even though they kept their input fields to a minimum, they address the feeling of displeasure towards filling out forms and create a little moment of bonding between user and interface and thereby decreasing the level of annoyance towards the registration process.

Netflix being sympathetic in their sign-up funnel

Something else that is quite common in today’s technical products is loading screens. It is not always possible to show a progress bar or loading indication. It might be a moment in your product that is unusual to load.

It is wise to anticipate these moments and serve your users with corresponding information about the loading process, making them aware of something working in the background, even though they can not see it right now.

Informative loading message in moments, where a progress indicator is not possible

Most shown methods to diminish the Negativity Bias only work if they are coherent to your brand. It might be inappropriate and even of negative influence on trust if a large bank would use some of these methods to tackle failure (poor them). A rather professional, conservative but none the less helpful tone might be their way of handling things here.

Issue #1: The magic behind good UX #1 can be found here

*The Endowed Progress Effect: How Artificial Advancement Increases Effort, Joseph C. Nunes, Xavier Drèze. Journal of Consumer Research, Volume 32, Issue 4, March 2006, Pages 504–512,

** Fiske, Susan T. (1980). “Attention and weight in person perception: The impact of negative and extreme behavior”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 38 (6): 889–906. doi:10.1037/0022–3514.38.6.889. Retrieved 2014–11–19.

Ohira, Hideki; Winton, Ward M.; Oyama, Makiko (1998). “Effects of stimulus valence on recognition memory and endogenous eyeblinks: Further evidence for positive-negative asymmetry”. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 24 (9): 986–993. doi:10.1177/0146167298249006. Retrieved 2014–11–20.

Costantini, Arthur F.; Hoving, Kenneth L. (1973). “The effectiveness of reward and punishment contingencies on response inhibition”. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. 16 (3): 484–494. doi:10.1016/0022–0965(73)90009-X

The magic behind good UX #2 was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.