Using a bit of psychology on your users

I cleaned out my garage this weekend and looked through a few of my old college text books (why do we save these?). I found a book on art criticism and another on operant conditioning – reflective of my degree in Art Education and Psychology. I was reminded of the article on Coroflot about how interaction designers never start out that way and often find their way into the career. I come from varied fields having little to do with computers, but everything to do with human behavior. I’m a people watcher – portrait artist and behavior analyst, to be specific. So I’ve studied a bit on human anatomy, facial features, gestures, and a little more on operant conditioning of behavior. It’s the latter I’d like to elaborate on because it has an influential place in manipulating the user experience by using our designs to encourage or discourage user behaviors.

Operant Conditioning is best understood using the box model, B.F. Skinner’s box model. It’s a method of increasing or decreasing behavior based on reinforcement or punishment. Take a quick detour and read a simplified discussion of the Skinner box model.

Thanks for coming back. Now you know a little more about positive and negative reinforcement, punishment, and extinction. (If you still think punishment means spanking, go back and read the definition.) So the idea is that you can increase a behavior by giving something (positive) or decrease behavior by not giving something (negative). A real life example is I will give my child a half hour of Wii time if she cleans her room. The cleaning behavior increases because of positive reinforcement.* An interaction design example: the user clicks on a part of the screen that is designed to look like a metal button and they get the desired results. The behavior of clicking on metal looking pixels will increase because it provided positive reinforcement. A user could learn to use a different colored button, but consistency across a site or OS will help them learn the behavior faster. An example of negative reinforcement: a user scrolls down to hide the top 15% of the web page which is covered in banner ads. The behavior of hiding the top of a screen is increased because it stops the flashing banner ads. And last, an example of extinction: a web site has broken links. The user will stop clicking on links when nothing occurs. Because neither positive or negative reinforcement occurs (nothing happens), the user’s action of clicking on links eventually stops – and they will most likely leave the site.

This is a little more technical than I planned, but the concept is that we teach our users to use technology through providing rewards for their behavior. If not careful, we can also teach incorrect behavior by reinforcing the wrong actions, leaving our web sites and applications a messy user experience. If our users are struggling with a part of a web application, identifying how the design is teaching behavior through operant conditioning can help us resolve and correct the user experience.

Human behavior is an amazing thing that evolves as our environment changes. As interaction designers, we play an important part in teaching the users to evolve and adapt to new experiences.

Or maybe our users are teaching us...

*A bit friendlier approach to operant conditioning of your children: Love and Logic

posted by Emmy Southworth on Saturday, May 17, 2008
tagged with operant_conditioning, skinner_boxmodel