A Guide to Positive Reinforcement in UX Design

We love to point out others’ mistakes. However, what about providing positive feedback when a user completes a critical action?

Often, applications lack positive feedback mechanisms that contribute to a more positive user experience. Positive reinforcement focuses on rewarding or strengthening correct user behavior.

We show the user a fun badge when they create their first invoice using our invoicing application. By turning a key action into a positive experience, the user can learn the application quicker and feel more confident using it.

In this article, we’ll discuss the following topics:

  • What’s the difference between positive and negative reinforcement?
  • How to use positive reinforcement in UX design (examples)?
  • How to use positive reinforcement to reduce worries?
  • What’s the link between Nudge Theory and positive reinforcement?
  • When should we use positive reinforcement?

Positive vs Negative Reinforcement

First of all, we need to understand the difference between positive and negative reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement strengthens the likelihood of a particular response by adding a stimulus after performing the behavior.

Negative reinforcement also strengthens the likelihood of a particular response. However, it accomplishes this by removing an undesirable consequence.

For example, every student has experienced both positive and negative reinforcement when studying for exams. Let’s say your parents allow you to meet some of your friends if you study every night during the week. This is an example of positive reinforcement as you receive the desired outcome as a consequence of particular behavior.

Let’s say you don’t have to mow the lawn during the weekend when you study all week. This is an example of negative reinforcement as you remove an undesirable consequence. Who likes mowing the grass anyway?

Note that in both examples, the goal of getting good grades is strengthened by adding a stimulus or removing a negative consequence.

Positive Reinforcement in UX Design

Now that we have a clear understanding of positive reinforcement, let’s apply this information to UX design.

Positive reinforcement is essential for frequently used applications as it helps to strengthen a behavior. Often, a user isn’t motivated to take action. However, motivation is crucial for creating a specific behavior.

Therefore, positive reinforcement can generate the right motivation for the user to take action. By rewarding the user for taking action, we strengthen their behavior. However, note that consistent and predictable rewards will weaken the reinforcement. The article “Use Unpredictable Rewards to Keep Behavior Going”, by Psychology Today, teaches us that we should use unpredictable behavior to keep this behavior going.

Obachan implements a great, yet small, example of positive reinforcement on its website. Each time a customer adds a product to their shopping basket, the website shows some animation paired with celebratory emojis. Even a short response like this can encourage users to add items to their basket, which is the most important webshop action.

A GIF showing happy emojis bouncing in place of the Add to Cart button after an item is added to the cart

Source: getobachan.com webshop

Let’s take a look at AdEspresso’s contact form. Once you submit their contact form, the button text will update to “Sending…” to display the current status. In other words, the website lets you know they’ve received your submission and are processing your request.

A submitted form that reads “Sending…” in place of “Submit”

Once the request finishes, we’ll see a toast message that confirms our submission. This example shows how positive reinforcement can remove the user’s feeling of being left hanging in the air.

A green thankyou message indicates success

We should not only warn the user when they’ve made a mistake, such as not meeting the requirements for the password field. It is as important to tell the user that they are doing things right.

We understand this might seem like a small UX addition. However, who doesn’t like to receive a pat on the back? Communicating the form submission’s success to the user is like patting the user on the back, creating a pleasurable user experience.

Let’s take a look at other real-life examples.

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