How focusing on the negative produces the best design

Published: December 16, 2018

Avoid the Negative

Humans are wired to notice the negative more than the positive. Negativity bias is the notion that when equally emotional negative and positive triggers occur in our lives, our behavior and cognition is impacted more by the negative than the positive. Long ago, survival depended on our ability to avoid the negative (in the form of dangers). Today, there is still a need to avoid the negative. There are dangers all around us in both the physical and virtual realms that can harm us physically, emotionally, and financially if we don't avoid the negative.

How many times have you had numerous positive things happen in your day, and yet your mind is obsessed with the negative? How often have you finished a fantastic day but one negative experience is all you talk about?

Net Promoter Score

Based on history, we are more likely to share a negative experience than a positive one. We've even developed the Net Promoter Score to measure brand experiences weighted for negativity bias. The Net Promoter Score measures loyalty between a provider (business, employer, or other entity) and a consumer, and weighs detractors more heavily than passives or promoters. So, for a good NPS, promoters must heavily outnumber detractors for the score to be a good one.
When we design something, we want it to look good, work well, support business goals, and provide delight. Without identifying the negative in our design, we can't provide the best experience. More importantly, negative experiences erode trust and trust is essential to the success of any brand.

That First Impression

You don't get a second chance to make a first impression. This is true in life and with your product. The first step toward building trust begins with the first impression. If you start with a negative first impression, it takes seven more encounters to potentially change that negative sentiment, according to a Harvard Study of Communications. When designing experiences, consider the first thing a person will encounter as the first impression.

I recently worked on a project for a large, global brand to improve their number of mobile orders. We invested hours of research into the redesign of the mobile ordering experience. We thought we understood the user journey and identified sources and stages for possible abandonment. (And we felt pretty good about it!) During design sprints, we conducted usability testing of our designs and prototypes with customers and compared them directly to industry competitors. User feedback was positive and our confidence was going up. Mid-way through the project, we decided to expand the scope of the usability tests to evaluate the first page of the user-journey for mobile ordering (to begin the mobile ordering process users began at a landing page that happened to be live and had not been part of the mobile redesign project).

Little did we know that this first impression landing page was THE mobile ordering flow killer. We learned from the client that their marketing team and technology team reached a compromise for the landing page that preceded the mobile ordering flow. Marketing wanted to capture new users and technology wanted to produce more orders. The compromise involved placing "Start Order" near the header and a login window in the middle of the page.

mobile usability testing

During our usability testing we witnessed nearly every user try to log in, assuming that they needed to login to order. After about five minutes, nearly every user abandoned the site. They never made it to the redesigned mobile ordering flow. The first impression was so negative that our new mobile ordering flow never had a chance.

The key to success for this product started with the first impression. How do you avoid wasted design time on a project? Do your research and conduct a comprehensive benchmark usability study so you identify both the negative and the positive before you spend any time on design.

User Testing Designs

Anyone in your project has a project-based bias. Stakeholders are usually so close to the business that they don't think like a customer. The project team is driven by time, budget, scope, and feasibility. The designer is biased by their own expertise and background. The opinions and preferences that exist between designers and project team members can be so severe that disagreements dominate discussions. If designs are not tested with customers early and often, it is likely that negative experiences will exist in the product when it launches.

User testing and adjusting the product to remove the negative experiences discovered in user testing gives everyone involved confidence that the product is more likely to succeed and be something customers will use and enjoy. By removing things that produce a negative experience you are flipping the odds of success in your favor. The greater the ratio of positive to negative in your product, the better. In fact, Roy F. Baumeister found that "many good events can overcome the psychological effects of a bad one".

Weave User Testing for the Negative into Your Project Planning

Rapid user testing can complement any project timeline. One of the most important considerations is how to schedule design and user testing. For agile projects to be effective, they require a backlog for the team to work on. I've found that starting requirements and designing a few sprints in advance of development provides time to build the backlog and reduces future bottlenecks and finger pointing. When developers are constantly waiting for designs, quality suffers and there is not time or appetite for user testing. User testing should be woven into your project plans.

Many companies are adopting design thinking and design sprints. These serve as a fantastic way to get ahead of development. Whether your design thinking activities happen in one week, or stretched out over many weeks, make sure user testing is a planned part of ideation and prototyping. User testing also helps to identify the best MVP candidates coming out of the design thinking activities.

Once your team is sprinting, plan for a couple of days of usability testing in each sprint including early design concepts, functional prototypes, and development environments to identify and remove as many negative experiences as possible before launch. If you don't have time to synthesize results and create a formal presentation, have the project team observe he user testing remotely.

Post-Launch Nimbleness to Avoid the Negative

The launch is not the measure of success. Success for a product is determined by how your customers receive your product and the changes you make over time to keep those customers. You should be actively monitoring analytics, feedback, ratings, and more to understand how well your product is performing according to KPIs established before launch.

Much of your products success will be determined by how you respond to the negative that is encountered in the form of ratings, feedback, and even abandonment. Be proactive in planning for and addressing the negative that arises post launch.

Going forward, I challenge you to seek feedback from your users as often as possible. Avoid the temptation to rely solely on the opinions of the project team and the stakeholders. Your customers will reveal the negative that you didn't consider. The success of your product and the experience of your customers is dependent on removing the negative.

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