What drives people to upvote or downvote content? I'm looking for the je-ne-sais-quoi quality on successful voting systems and I just can't put my finger on. Let's look at three examples:

http://cooking.stackexchange.com (good)

I think the voting works very well on any Stack Exchange site. Useful questions and answers always get more votes.

cooking stackexchange

http://www.reddit.com (good)

There is a tremendous amount of voting traffic here. It's easy to find the funniest or most clever comment by looking at the vote count.


http://forum.simplyshredded.com (bad)

Hardly anyone votes here. And if you're lucky enough to find a post with some upvotes, you'll be hard-pressed to find it of any use. I don't have a definite answer on why the voting sucks so much on SimplyShredded. Maybe it's because the UI is not that good. They split the upvote number with the downvote number. This forces users to do some math to calculate the total worth of a post. Could this be enough of a UI flaw to make people abandon voting?

SimplyShredded forum

Big size

I thought Stack Exchange had a successful voting system because the size of their voting buttons and the vote count are much bigger compared to other sites. It would be hard for users to ignore such a big feature. But Reddit contradicts this. Their voting buttons are very small and their vote count is faint shade of gray.


Stack Exchange uses reputation as a form of currency. You're given rep points when you do good work. You get stripped of rep points when you misbehave. Your reputation points are placed next to your name wherever you post. Since everyone's rep points are so public, you're careful on how you act and how you dole out points to others. This may be a reason why voting on Stack Exchange works. Again, Reddit contradicts this. Reddit does not display a user's rep points next to their name. It only displays the points of individual comments. There's much less incentive to create good content to garner votes or help other people by voting on there content. So why is Reddit's voting system still functional?

  • It's the position that matters.
    – Knu
    Oct 27 '11 at 19:04
  • @Knu I beg to differ. The position only expresses the importance that these votes seem to have. But this subjective importance is not only influenced by visual cues.
    – giraff
    Oct 27 '11 at 19:40
  • 1
    It's an interesting question. The interface design is a component of the answer - but the psychology element isn't obvious.
    – PhillipW
    Oct 28 '11 at 10:35

The probability that someone will vote is mostly determined by three factors (in no particular order).

  1. How easy or obvious is it?
    To use UX terms, the more discoverable voting is and the simpler voting is, the more likely it is to be used. If the voting on this site were giving a score of 1-5 instead of a simple up or down, there would be a lot less voting.

  2. Does it matter?
    If voting changed something that matters, such as post position, then the effort of voting is really a way of changing the system into a system that I feel is better. Stack Exchange does this well. On most forum software, voting is pretty meaningless as a poor comment posted first is always first regardless of the quality, so my vote doesn't really matter.

  3. Do I care?
    If the post is about something I don't care about or have an opinion about I am not going to take time voting. The key here is to make sure that all the people using the product care about similar topics. This is why Stack Exchange has different sites for different topics. If you're on UX.StackExchange chances are that you are interested in UX.

StackExchange does a good job of dealing with all three of these factors, which explains in part the success of their voting system.

Edit: This answer is based on observations of various sites that I've seen and used, and what the common characteristics are of the sites that work. Call it a qualitative regression analysis.

  • Sounds plausible, but do you have any evidence to support these assertions, or is it just how you personally decide whether to vote? Oct 28 '11 at 12:18
  • @PatrickMcElhaney: Good question. I'll add it to the answer to clarify that.
    – JohnGB
    Oct 28 '11 at 12:37
  • There's no scientific backing, but I believe your points. On SimplyShredded, the voting does not change the position of your post (point 2). It's also complicated because they separated upvote count and downvote count (point 1).
    – JoJo
    Oct 28 '11 at 16:11
  • 2
    Point 2 is really Operant Conditioning: Postive Reinforcement ie if I do something and something happens then I'm more likely to do it it again (and visa versa) : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operant_conditioning
    – PhillipW
    Oct 29 '11 at 9:54

In both cases, voting "means" something. How many of the new stackexchange users are reluctant to vote, until they realize that the reason they find so many high-quality answers on the first place is, because others rated them. Voting here gets an character of commending it to others, helping them evaluate by sharing his own judgement.

In an forum context, these votes hardly mean something. They do not influence the position of the answer, everybody still needs to scan the whole thread in order to find the "correct" or appropriate answer. (Maybe a posting within a thread can't be perfect in itself, abstracted from the discussion it originated from.)

Facebook's "Like" means even more explicitly "recommend to my friends".

An interesting case, here, is YouTube: voting influences the search algorithm, but in a less obvious way. Still the voting mechanism is more used as in the forum example above. Why?


I think there are probably different reasons for the success of posting here and on Reddit.

I think the reputation thing, the fact that you get credit for voting, and for being voted, means that people will do it. And because people vote, other people vote. So getting some credit for voting in one reason, which explains the success here.

But another reason that it works here and on reddit is that users want good material to rise to the top. Users of Reddit want to get good material high, and users of this site want good material to be noted. In both cases, there is always the hope that your own material will be included in what is "good".

  • 1
    On sites where voting fails, why do the users not want good material to rise to the top?
    – JoJo
    Oct 28 '11 at 6:19
  • I don't know - the user base may not be appropriately motivated. It may be the types of user it attracts are different, or the type of material people post there is not stuff that they are proud of. Oct 28 '11 at 18:47

Run your eye over those three screenshots quickly. What's the first thing that jumps out at you?

On the first two, the voting mechanism is at the top left, adjacent to the beginning of the text. In order to start reading the post, your eye has to pass over the arrow.

On the third, the buttons on the left hand side are a letter icon and quotation marks. So you notice those and then you start reading the text. Once you've started reading the post, you aren't necessarily looking at the other icons immediately... they look like part of a header. It wasn't initially clear to me that they were a thumbs up and thumbs down until closer inspection. They're spaced far enough away from the number that it isn't immediately apparent that the two are connected.

When you're voting, do you more regularly vote answers up or down? The current third design places the thumbs down icon first.

What do you expect to happen when you click an up button next to a number? It seems likely that something will move upward... the post, the number, or both. With a thumbs icon, I'd hesitate for a moment, wondering whether this was anonymous or public... somehow a human thumb feels more "personal" than an arrow.

I clicked on the thumb and discovered that the votes are indeed public. However, there are many situations in which I would not want my down votes to be public, and some people may not want their up votes to be public either. If I didn't have the ability to be anonymous, I'd be much less likely to vote.

Others have already covered the "What motivation do they have to vote?" topic and I agree with those comments as well.


IMO, the main reason for people to vote is that they believe their voice matters. If voting doesn't change anything, people stop voting. If my input is wasted, I turn to more important things.

On top of that, you'll need a large number of voters. Most people don't vote. There are a lot of votes on SE sites but the numbers are low per individual entry. There are only a few questions/answers which get thousands of votes despite the fact that there so many people here.

One reasons is, to repeat my first argument, that people stop voting when they see that "enough" people have already cast their vote. So if one question has three answers with +10, +1 and +0, why give the +10 another upvote? If that were a +9, upvoting would give the user a "nice answer badge" but +11 won't change much.


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