100 Things You Should Know About People: #38 — Even The Illusion Of Progress Is Motivating

Picture of graph showing the goal gradient effectYou are given a frequent buyer card for your local coffeeshop. Each time you buy a cup of coffee you get a stamp on your card. When the card is filled you get a free cup of coffee. Here are two different scenarios:

Card A: The card has 10 boxes for the stamps, and when you get the card all the boxes are blank.

Card B: The card has 12 boxes for the stamps, and when you get the card the first two boxes are already stamped.

Question: How long will it take you to get the card filled up? Will it take longer or shorter for scenario A vs. scenario B? After all, you have to buy 10 cups of coffee in both scenarios in order to get the free coffee. So does it make a difference which card you use?

The answer apparently is yes. You will fill up the card faster with Card B than with Card A. And the reason is called the “goal-gradient” effect.

The goal-gradient effect was first studied in 1934 by Hull with rats. He found that rats that were running a maze to get food at the end would run faster as they got to the end of the maze.

The goal-gradient effect says that you will accelerate your behavior as you progress closer to your goal. The scenarios I describe above were part of a research study by Ran Kivetz, Oleg Urminsky, and Yuhuang Zheng (full reference is below).  They decided to see if humans would behave like the rats. And the answer is, yes they do.

Here are some important things to keep in mind about the goal-gradient effect:

  • The shorter the distance to the goal the more motivated people will be to reach it.
  • You can get this extra motivation even with the illusion of progress, as in Scenario B above. There really isn’t any progress (you still have to buy 10 coffees), but it seems like there is some progress so it has the same effect
  • People enjoy being part of the reward program. When compared to customers who were not part of the program, the customers with the reward cards smiled more, chatted longer with café employees, said “thank you” more often and left a tip more often (all statistically significant for you research buffs out there).
  • In a related experiment the same researchers showed that people would visit a web site more frequently and rate more songs during each visit as they got closer to a reward goal at the site. So this goal-gradient effect appears to be generalizable across many situations.
  • Motivation and purchases plummet right after the goal is reached. This is called a “post-reward resetting phenomenon”.  If you have a 2nd reward level people will initially not be very motivated to reach that 2nd reward. Right after a reward is reached is when you are most at risk of losing your customer.

And for those of you who want to read the original research:

Ran Kivetz, Oleg Urminsky, and Yuhuang Zheng, The Goal-Gradient Hypothesis Resurrected:Purchase Acceleration, Illusionary Goal Progress, and Customer Retention, Journal of Marketing Research, 39 Vol. XLIII (February 2006), 39–58.

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10 Best Posts of 2009

It’s that time of year — so here is my list of the 10 best posts from my blog in 2009. I chose the 10 that I believe have had the greatest impact/most thought provoking/most interest from my readers.

#1: Dopamine Makes You Addicted to Seeking Information — I thought this was an interesting post when I wrote it, but it surprised me how quickly it took off virally; more than any other post I’ve written!

#2: Eyetracking — 7 Traps to Avoid — Another surprise to me how popular this post was.

#3: 7 Steps to Successful Web Site Redesign — I think Jacek Utko has an important view of the world.

#4: Your Attention is Riveted By Pictures of People — If people knew how important this is I think they’d change the pictures they put at their web site.

#5: Web Site User Experience Anatomy — Not one of my posts, but a guest post by Craig Tomlin, and an interesting way to think about web sites. Continue reading “10 Best Posts of 2009”

100 Things You Should Know About People: #20 — Your Attention Is Riveted By Pictures Of People

Picture of a baby looking right at the camera Second only to movement (animation, video), pictures of a human face capture attention in any medium, including websites. Pictures of a human face not only capture attention, but keep the attention on that part of the screen even when the picture goes away.

We start young — With some creative experiments it has been proven that babies as young as 4 months old will look at pictures of other people more than pictures of other objects or of animals. And this preference for faces continues throughout the life span. It seems to be part of our brain wiring.

The eyes have it — Research using eye tracking shows that when you show people a picture of the face of a person, their attention goes mostly to the eyes. If you want to capture someone’s attention at a website, showing a picture of a person who is looking right into the camera captures the most attention. Continue reading “100 Things You Should Know About People: #20 — Your Attention Is Riveted By Pictures Of People”

100 Things You Should Know About People: #19 — It’s a Myth That All Capital Letters Are Inherently Harder to Read

WHAT YOU ARE ABOUT TO READ IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IS COMMONLY BELIEVED, BUT NOT TRUE — You read by recognizing the shapes of words and groups of words. Words that are in all capital letters all have the same shape: a rectangle of a certain size. This makes words displayed in all uppercase harder to read than upper and lower case (known as “mixed case”).  Mixed case words are easier to read because they make unique shapes, as demonstrated by the picture below.

The shapes of words

OK, NOW THE TRUE STUFF STARTS — When I started this article the topic was supposed to be why all capital letters are harder to read. Like most people with a usability background or a cognitive psychology background, I can describe the research — just what I wrote in the first paragraph above. I decided to look up and cite the actual research rather than just passing on the general knowledge and belief.

The research doesn’t exist, or “It’s complicated” — Something happened when I went to find the research on the shape of words and how that is related to all capital letters being harder to read. There isn’t research showing that exactly. It’s more complicated, and ultimately, more controversial. In July of 2004 Kevin Larson wrote an article that is posted at the Microsoft website that explains in depth all the research on this topic. I’ve picked out several ideas from that article and am presenting them here. A link to Kevin’s article, plus some of his research citations are at the end of this blog for those of you who want more detail. Continue reading “100 Things You Should Know About People: #19 — It’s a Myth That All Capital Letters Are Inherently Harder to Read”

Eyetracking Studies — 7 Traps to Avoid

In my last post I talked about eyetracking. I don’t actually do a lot of eyetracking work, but this past week I was asked to give a talk on a panel about eyetracking at the SES (Search Engine Strategy) conference in Chicago, so it is kind of on my mind. So one more post about eyetracking, and then I’ll move on to different topics!

At the conference I talked about the 7 traps to avoid if you are contemplating conducting an eyetracking study. In my last post I briefly explain what eyetracking is:

“Eye tracking is a technology that allows you to see and record what a person is looking at, and for how long. One way it is used is to study web sites to see where people are looking on a web page, where they look first, second, etc. It’s a pretty interesting technology, one of the benefits being that you don’t have to rely on what people SAY they are looking at, but can collect the data directly.”

Here’s a brief summary of my talk at the conference:

Trap #1: Underestimating the effect of what you ask people to do on where they look — When you are doing an eyetracking study you are interested in where people are looking on the screen. But the research shows that where they look depends on what you have asked them. See my last post for details and examples on this.

Trap #2: Assuming that where people are looking is what they are paying attention to — At the SES conference I believe Shari Thurow (who spoke on the panel with me) called this the ketchup effect (or maybe it was the milk effect or the refrigerator effect). Have you ever opened the refrigerator to get the ketchup out and you can’t find it? Even though it is right in front of you? People often look at something without paying attention to it. And we have peripheral vision too, so it is also possible for people to be looking at one thing and actually paying attention to something nearby. Continue reading “Eyetracking Studies — 7 Traps to Avoid”

A Quick Summary of Some Interesting Research


Now that March is here, I thought I’d summarize and link to some great research I found during the last month….

There are gender differences in brain activity when people view something the describe as beautiful. For men it is the right hemisphere that is active, but for women both right and left hemispheres light up. For more information, see:
http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2009/02/24/men-women-beauty.html

Humans and mice make the same assessments of risk says Deric Bownds. I believe this gives more proof that decision-making is unconscious. For more information see:
http://mindblog.dericbownds.net/2009/02/similar-risk-assessment-in-man-and.html


If your product name is long and hard to pronounce the product may be viewed unfamiliar. Things that are seen as unfamiliar are also viewed as risky…maybe too risky. For more information:
http://mindblog.dericbownds.net/2009/02/if-it-is-difficult-to-pronounce-it-must.html

I hate those smiley face icons, but a utility company is successfully using them to encourage people to conserve power! For more information:
http://www.neurosciencemarketing.com/blog/articles/smiley-power.htm


Smell unconsciously affects your judgments of other people. Even if you don’t notice that there is a scent. for more information:
http://scienceblogs.com/cognitivedaily/2009/02/smells_–_even_smells_we_dont.php

Have your own favorites of recent research? Let us know….

New Research Shows Herd Behavior When Shopping Online

In my book, Neuro Web Design: What makes them click, I have a chapter on Social Validation: When we are uncertain we look to others to see what our behavior should be.

Now some new research tests this idea online. In a series of research studies by Chen (see end for full reference), visitors to a simulated website were given two holiday traveling books to choose from. Both had similar sounding titles, were hardcover, showed similar number of pages, list price and availability.

In the first study Chen showed different consumer ratings. In some cases people saw that one book had 5 stars and the other had 1, or one had 4 and the other had 2, or both had 3 stars. The books with more stars were chosen signficantly more often. Ok, it’s not a big surprise, but it’s good to have some actual data. But read on, the rest of the studies got curiouser and curiouser…

In the second study Chen compared book sales volumes instead of star ratings. People chose the book that was selling the best.

In the third study Chen tested consumer recommendations vs. expert recommendations. One group got this info: “Name of Book Here” is the leading book in the tourism area as voted for online by readers” vs. “Our advisors, experts in the tourism area, strongly recommend “Name of Book Here”. People chose the book picked by consumers more than the book picked by experts.

And in the fourth study, Chen tested a recommender system, (“Customers who bought this book also bought”) vs. the recommendation of the website owner, (“Our Internet bookstore staff strongly recommends that you buy…”) People followed the recommendation of the website owner 75% of the time, but they followed the recommender system 88.4% of the time.

Consumer recommendations are powerful. Social validation at work. Welcome to the herd!

Reference: Chen, Yi-Fen, Herd behavior in purchasing books online, Computers in Human Behavior, 24, (2008), 1977-1992.

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