The Negativity Bias in a User’s Experience

Why is it that we tend to brush off compliments by hearing one negative comment sticks with us and can absolutely ruin our day? It’s not that we’re all masochists. This is the negativity bias at work. The negativity bias is a tendency for people to pay more attention or give more weight and importance to negative experiences over neutral or positive ones. Why do we do this? It stems back from when paying attention to the bad things.

Dangerous things were vital to keeping us alive. Humans are wired for self-preservation in terms of use and our designs. This bias explains why a single usability flaw weighs more to people when they look back on their overall experience than the numerous positive features you’ve painstakingly designs. We often see this behavior and usability studies where participants don’t comment or even seem to care when everything is going right and they’re able to complete their task and find whatever information they want it easily. But the instant an interaction doesn’t match their expectations, that negative experience stands out to them and they become highly critical. And remember that for a long time.

So how do we fight against this negativity bias and avoid negative experiences from overshadowing the positive ones? A simple way is to follow design standards. Standard design patterns and workflows are the most familiar to users, so they’re easier to use and less likely to cause a usability problem. Conduct user research and be sure you really understand your users so you can design according to their existing mental models and expectations. Pay attention to where in a workflow people have questions so you can then design to anticipate those concerns and address them before it potentially turns into a negative experience. If a user does encounter an error, don’t make a bad situation worse. Be sure to make error messages clear and helpful, to get people back on track as quickly and painlessly as possible. The main thing is to test, test, test, because people remember any low point where they felt confused or frustrated. It’s critical to test your designs with users in multiple iterations to find all those lurking usability issues. The negativity bias is why you matters so much.

Make sure you don’t focus on crafting cool features, but dedicate your time instead to uncovering potential problems, because those are the moments that will stand out to your users.

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