Big finish everyone
June 13, 2001
If you were gambling would you prefer to lose $10 first and then win $5, or win $5 and then lose $10? Logically the options are the same, but people prefer the former, according to an excellent article in the June issue of the Havard Business Review about how we can learn from behavioral sciences—one of the most important lessons being the need to finish on a upbeat note.

Although the article focuses on customer service in the physical world, its points are equally applicable other types of user experience design. In fact many of ideas have long been incorporated into the theaterical production, where the notion of the "big finish" is common.

According to the authors three factors strongly influence how people perceive an experience:

Sequence—People rarely remember every single moment of an experience, instead they remember a significant moments and infer the rest. Consequently, an experience that quickly improves over time and ends pleasantly is remembered more fondly.

Duration—People's sense of time is highly subjective and unless something takes much longer or shorter than expected, people pay little attention to the actual time involved. But time sense is highly affected by the number of segments involved. For example, something with four segments will feel longer than something with two segements even if the actual amount of time is exactly the same. Although the authors don't address it, it seems like the number of screens users need to go through may also have a similiar effect, so that a sequence (such as a shopping card checkout) where screens update themselves rather than loading new screens will feel shorter.

Rationalization—When things go wrong, people tend to look for a single explanation for what happened, and if there isn't one handy, they'll invent one. Often they'll blame some deviation from their "normal" routines. And fair or not, they'll tend to blame individual people, not systems—unless people feel they had some control over the process, in which case they are less likely to get angry when something goes wrong.

So how do we use these ideas in practice? The authors recommend five strategies:

Finish strong—While first impressions are not to be ignored, last impressions are the lasting ones. Musicians understand this, which is why they'll save their signature number for the encore. Unfortunately, lots of online retailers have nicely done sites, but horrible checkouts. Guess what gets remembered?

Get bad experiences out of the way early—Sometimes you can't avoid some pain, but if you wait until the end, it'll dominate people memories. And if they know it's coming, the waiting for the shoe to drop will poison their experience along the way.

Segment the pleasure, combine the pain—Doctors typically make the wait feel even longer by making you wait a several places, rather than letting you stay in the waiting room until the doctor is actually available to see you. Conversely, cruise ships pack many events into a short vacation to make it feel richer.

Build commitment through choice—Even if the choice is largely symbolic, people are more comfortable when they feel they have some control, especially when it's an uncomfortable experience. For example, one fascinating study found that blood donors experienced less discomfort when they could choose which arm blood was drawn from.

Give people rituals and stick to them—People find comfort in repetitive, familiar actions, especially during long-term relationships. This is probably easier to do in face-to-face encounters, such as professional consulting, where there's more "bandwidth" behavioral meta-messages (the ritual staff introductions, the kick-off dinner, the "I hear you" noncommital "uh-huh," etc.). But it's something to think about think about when redesigning a site. Sometimes it's better to be gradual. For example, when eBay changed the background color of its site from yellow to white, it did so by slowly lightening the yellow over a number of weeks, so that the change wouldn't jar the regulars who visited the site daily.

So, following my own advice, do I have a big finish? Unfortunately not, other than to say it's worth checking out the full article. (Note: the article is only available in the magazine or as a paid download.) ::

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Copyright © 2001 All Rights Reserved.
Any problems with the site?

Note: This site will look much better in a browser that supports web standards, but it is accessible to any browser or Internet device.