Like many cars, my car makes an annoying beep when you start the car with your seatbelt unbuckled; plugging in the seatbelt immediately ends the noise. I used to find this annoying, but I eventually realized it's a great ploy of Operant Conditioning; with classical negative reinforcement a user is quickly trained to avoid the annoying sounds by plugging in their seatbelt.

This has the devious effect of harming the UX of the situation (stupid sound!) but training the user to do what is safe, or more generally is a desired behavior of the user.

What other examples of simple Operant Conditioning are there in popular interfaces, physical or digital? I'd like to exclude deliberate Gamification systems such as achievements/ect as they're fairly obvious and more of their own specialized category.

Modal dialogs and pop ups also have the unfortunate effect of training users to ignore them but I'm talking about deliberate shaping of user behavior especially where the user is goaded into desired behaviors which presumably were desired to give a better user experience.

  • Facebook games use a lot of Operant Conditioning to keep people playing. Reminders, unlocking events/items, positive reenforcement(rewards) to keep returning, social pressure, short countdowns, game-mification and much more. – Barfieldmv Nov 8 '11 at 8:31

I can't think of any in software. That's probably a good thing. "Training" users with negative reinforcement is a slippery slope that leads to getting away with bad UX (just because the designer decided so...). For every "electric shock" sort of feedback I imagine you could always find a positive reinforcement that would do the same trick but won't cause pain for the user. This is where gamification kicks in.


An example I saw after answering: Slashdot comments on articles for anonymous users receive the alias "Anonymous Coward". So a bit of nudging to shame people into responding with at least a registered account.

Another example is showing password strength with a red->green progress bar, red being a bit deterring.

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    I wasn't limiting myself to negative reinforcement, it's just the example that came to mind. Gamification is (mostly) positive reinforcement but it's not the only way to encourage users to do things. For a ham-fisted example children's software often blatantly congratulates the user for successfully completing a task. – Ben Brocka Oct 12 '11 at 20:26
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    Negative reinforcement ISN'T giving an electric shock. Negative reinforcement is the removal of something negative from the person's environment (as is described correctly in the question). This is also described on the Wiki link in the Question. – PhillipW Nov 8 '11 at 13:39

My car automatically turns off the handbrake when you start driving it. Except if you are not wearing your seat belt. It's a different approach towards a similar problem, only that instead of annoying the user it just does not allow the user to perform a certain action. The difference between a car and software is that in software there are no mechanical components involved. So it is relatively easy to disallow certain things in certain conditions. I believe that approach deserves priority.

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As Assaf said, There are no direct things because a UI is never going to purposely implement a bad feature.

Some things I can think of that are close:

Are you sure you want to delete ad90jdk.jpg?

[Application] has encountered a fatal error.

Or any feature that requires a password.

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  • Our application shows a disgusting yellow color when you start filtering. It reduced the number of support calls from sum's not being correct (they filtered out half) to zero. – Barfieldmv Nov 8 '11 at 7:06

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