We’ve all bought items from Amazon when casually browsing and clicking on the ‘Buy now’ button. And sometimes, we have items sitting in our cart that we never get around to buying 😩.

To truly understand why humans behave a certain way with digital products, UX designers need more than just the ability to push pixels — they need an understanding of how the human mind works.

In this article, I will discuss how operant conditioning can help designers create products that nudge users to take action.

Note: Use the Figma prototype below for a fun way to consume this content.

Behaviorism — The Study of Observable Behavior

Behaviorism is a theory suggesting that the environment shapes human behavior. Behaviorism defines learning as a relatively permanent change in behavior due to experience.

  • Change in behavior: Involves a behavioral change that can be better or worse.
  • Due to experience: Behavioral change should happen because of practice and experience.
  • Relatively permanent: Behavioral change must be relatively permanent and last long.

There are two main principles of behaviorism:

Classical Conditioning (Ivan Pavlov):
Learning by Association

This type of learning occurs when a neutral stimulus brings about a response after it is paired with an unconditioned stimulus.
Learn more about Classical Conditioning

Operant Conditioning (B. F. Skinner):
Learning by Consequences.

This method employs rewards and punishments for behavior.
Learn more about Operant Conditioning

Urmm but what does Operant Conditioning have to do with UX?

As designers, we all want users to engage more with our products and help them reach their goals, whether it’s finding the right item and buying it or making it easy for them to keep learning from your platform. Understanding what motivates them to keep using your product and what can increase their rate of behavior helps your users and your business.

Real-life Applications of Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning, developed by B.F. Skinner, is based on the idea that behaviors followed by rewards are more likely to be repeated, while those followed by negative outcomes are less likely to recur.

In UX design, we can use this principle to guide users through digital interfaces seamlessly.

Positive Reinforcement

In Positive reinforcement, one gets rewarded for a certain kind of behavior; with this, the probability of continuing good behavior increases.

Example: Only those who actively review places understand the joy of getting an improved ranking on Google Maps. I’ve flexed about my newly gained badge among my friends.

This gamified experience of “getting something” when I make reviews is a prime example of positive reinforcement. It nudges me to keep rating different places I visit and write about & upload photos of the cafes I go to.

Negative reinforcement:

Negative reinforcement tends to take away something unpleasant, which is acceptable and helps in strengthening the behavior.

Example: Amazon’s “Buy Now” button is an example of negative reinforcement. If you have a saved credit card and your location, you often see a “Buy Now” button on the product listing. Amazon wants you to keep clicking that button, and as a reward, they have removed the lengthy checkout process. By removing this obstacle, you are nudged to buy more items from Amazon.

Positive punishment:

Presenting something unpleasant after the behavior. It tends to decrease that behavior of the individual.

Example: I have learned a lot from Coursera. As a student, I always looked for free courses online. Finding the financial aid available on Coursera was a big win because I could access a lot of knowledge without paying. The catch was that I had to write a few essays and wait 14 days for approval. Even I, a broke student, was constantly annoyed. If I had the money, I would have rather subscribed to their plans.

This is a prime example of positive punishment — adding steps and time to discourage users from applying for financial aid.

Negative punishment:

Taking away something pleasant after the behavior. It tends to decrease that behavior of the individual.

Sometimes, deploying a punishment can help decrease the rate of certain behaviors.

We’ve successfully used this approach in our in-house transcription product. Whenever we receive consistently poor accuracy from a transcriber, we take away their ability to use machine transcription. This decreases their behavior of transcribing audio with low accuracy.

Use it with caution ⚠

Imagine you’re browsing a new app. It’s sleek, but every time you click the wrong button, a loud error noise blares. That is bound to break some phones. Instead, think of ways to softly guide users towards the correct action. This is a glimpse into how operant conditioning can enhance user experience (UX) design.

Have you ever designed a product with a conscious application of operant conditioning? Share some in the comments.

Practical applications of Operant Conditioning in UX was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.