I am currently designing a product in which failure is the norm rather than the exception. At a high level many different people will be submitting multiple applications to us. We only have the ability to approve a small group of applications (which will be the ones that score best against our internal measures).

Luckily our users are highly motivated to take part in this process, but we are struggling with negativity of the process as it is highly emotional - which doesn't lead to happy users.

An overview of the process:

  1. User registers online
  2. User books a phone call
  3. We provide initial advice on how to apply
  4. User starts submitting applications
  5. We give automated feedback
  6. If passes automated feedback, we get user to gather more information
  7. We use additional information to rank applications
  8. The best applications are accepted
  9. The rest are held in waiting (but as new applications come in unlikely to be accepted)

A metaphor for this process can be thought of as an insurance quote, there are lots of internal factors which are complex which drive the approval process and automated feedback.

An average user will have ~20 failures for one success (and that success is not guaranteed).

Approaches Taken:

There are three key touchpoints with the user which we have been experimenting with:

  • Initial Advice
    • Setting expectations that this is a long process
    • Setting expectations it is not just you but your application
    • Created a checklist of things we take into account
  • Automated Feedback
    • Traffic lights to show how their application sits accross 3 areas
    • Objective statements this application is not affordable
    • Personal numbers this application is X% of your budget
    • Clear CTA for each traffic light state
      • Red - Submit another application
      • Amber - Contact Stakeholder
      • Green - Book Meeting
  • Application Decision
    • Global ranking showing how their applications sit in comparison to every other application (this application is ranked 100th, we are approving 10 a week)
    • Score of 100 showing how their applications perform against every other application (this application scored 50, we are approving applications at 80)


The closest bit of UX advice has been around form error states, failure mode and effects analysis or gamification.


How can I achieve these two design goals:

  1. Keep users motivated to submit many applications with valid data?
  2. Avoid making them feel personally rejected or annoyed with us for turning them down repeatedly?
  • 1
    What is your exact question? or are you looking for general advice about the topic and the way you are approaching it?
    – Alvaro
    Commented Nov 22, 2016 at 9:53
  • 5
    reading your question and already I hate this business. Unless the applications are for something like winning a city of gold I would be well out of here
    – colmcq
    Commented Nov 22, 2016 at 10:08
  • 2
    edit: sounds like a grant application website. I'm working on exactly this but no where do we emphasize failure or struggle.
    – colmcq
    Commented Nov 22, 2016 at 10:23
  • 1
    @colmcq we don't emphasise failure, but the odds are stacked in that direction, grant is a good way of thinking about it.
    – J__
    Commented Nov 22, 2016 at 11:09
  • 1
    Since their applications represent their best selves, you in effect ARE rejecting them, so their negative feelings are entirely appropriate. You're not going to be able to escape that by pouring dissembled oil on troubled wounds.
    – MMacD
    Commented Nov 22, 2016 at 15:41

4 Answers 4


This sounds like multiple epics or at least one epic not a single answer problem. A good first step might be breaking this down another level like you did with "Automated feedback -> Clear CTA for each traffic light state -> red, amber, green." Or something like: "Initial Advice -> Setting expectations that this is a long process -> onboard first times users about the application process -> 3 page through slides for each newly visited section explaining the application process." keep in mind this is an example, 3 page through slides for each new section could get burdensome for a user.

  • In the current structure / flow I would agree. But the flow is not fixed at this point.
    – J__
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 10:03

You're saying you want users to keep submitting applications even though they get turned down. In that case progress is the most important thing in keeping them going. If they get a higher score with each new application, the chance they will continue is higher than if the score would decrease. It's just like games, if you keep getting worse you'll quit.

Make a funnel of multi-application users and their scores. That might give you a hint as to whats going on.


tl;dr : Provide the tools to help your users succeed

There has to be some way to encourage the user by helping them improve. Not knowing your specific scenario makes it hard to provide details, but the idea is to position yourself as a friend or mentor rather than an adversary.

Find what they need

The critical first step is to interview the applicants and find out what they need. It might not even be a real need so much as a psychological factor.

Is it the sort of scenario where they can only answer honestly and it might not be good enough?
Focus on helping them get things in order, be their "life coach".

Do they need knowledge of some specific topic to provide the right answer?
Give them learning resources.

Is it a skill assessment of some kind?
Provide them with the opportunity to practice and learn from successful examples.

Maybe it's a combination of those things. In any case, build a set of features to provide that assistance as a part of the process. Possibly mid-application. Don't constrain your solution -- just find the best way to make better applicants. Be helpful, not critical. A friend, not an adversary.

Reward them along the way

This is purely psychological, an incentive to get them over the hurdle. If there is any way to track their gain, use that metric to award badges or points or anything that gives them incremental "wins".

Provide a sense of progress and achievement, even though they haven't reached their ultimate goal (acceptance). That will at least increase the number of users with enough motivation to persevere through the failures. If you're really good, they may even see the process as a growth opportunity rather than a series of failures.


This probably not the right answer, but I wanted to throw another idea in the mix to generate some more responses. I am thinking about other types of activities in which the chance of failure is high, but people keep coming back to try and the classic example is a lottery. The classic mechanism behind lottery is to de-emphasize the probability of failure (which usually set somewhere around the one in x million) and emphasize the feeling or experience of winning (the dream).

The actual process itself is also gamified in many ways, with the process of picking the numbers in both long (manual entry) and fast (machine picked) to suit people of both needs. The announcement of the winner itself is also glorified and drama or tension is created around the draw.

Then there's also additional information published around which numbers come up more often than not, which in a way is meant to mislead the players so I would strongly discourage that. However, in the games of probability people like to have some arbitrary way to guide their decisions.

I hope that gives you some ideas about different flows and behaviours that can be put together to turn something that is normally a negative experience into something that people keep coming back for.

  • Exploiting the dark patterns of addiction psychology. Sinister, but potentially effective if you can transform filling out a form into a vice like gambling. Commented May 5, 2017 at 23:36
  • @plainclothes As an advocate of design ethics it is not something that I want to recommend, except to say that these are similar to the way organisations have tried to engineer behaviour for similar problems.
    – Michael Lai
    Commented May 6, 2017 at 0:46
  • And I'm not disagreeing with you. It's a perfectly valid point. Commented May 6, 2017 at 1:15

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