Design perfect UX tasks: the Endowed Progress effect

An overview on the implications of integrating the Endowed Progress effect into the task design of any UX process.

What is the Endowed Progress effect?

It was described in 2006, in a research paper called “The Endowed Progress Effect: How Artificial Advancement Increases Effort”, composed of a few experiments.

The authors, american professors Joseph C. Nunes and Xavier Dreze, explained the endowed progress effect as: “a phenomenon whereby people provided with artificial advancement toward a goal exhibit greater persistence toward reaching the goal.”

In other words, users are more likely to complete a task if they are provided with an artificial progress towards the task.

The corollary is that people are more likely to abandon efforts if they feel they are making little or no progress towards the task.

10 steps already started are better than 8 steps not started yet

The first experiment in the study took place at a car wash, where 300 customers where given a loyalty card, offering a free car wash after 8 purchases. Every time they washed their car, they got a stamp for their card.

Half the customers (group A) received a loyalty card with 10 slots for stamps, but with 2 stamps already attached, so still 8 required (this meant a 20% progress). The other half (group B) got loyalty cards with only 8 slots but no stamps attached (this meant a 0% progress). So, identical number of steps but differently framed.

The results?

After 9 months, 34% of customers from group A completed their cards compared to only 19% from group B. Also, it took less time for customers from group A to complete their 8 purchases and the time between them decreased as they got near completion.

So…

Reframe tasks so that people think they have already started them and the tasks seem to only be incomplete rather than not yet initiated. As people sense progression is occurring, the time it takes them to complete the task will also decrease, positively influencing the speed of use of your design.

Use points to present the progress instead of actions or purchases

To demonstrate the influence of the medium (when the endowment is issued in points or purchases) and the influence of a reason for the endowment (when a reason is presented or not) a second experiment was conducted.

240 shoppers from a liquor store were asked to enter a frequent buyers program. To test the influence of the medium, the promotion was framed in 2 different ways, though.

  1. Some customers were told that after buying 10 bottles of wine worth 10$, they will get another one priced 20$.
  2. Some were told that each bottle is worth 10 points and after accumulating 100 points, they will get another one priced 20$.

To test the influence of a reason for the endowment, the experiment also split the offer into offers with: a) no reason, b) realistic reason, c) specious reason (plausible, but false)

The results?

Customers engaged more when the endowed progress was awarded in points rather than purchases and the Endowed Progress effect was exacerbated when customers were offered a reason, whether specious or realistic. BUT, when points became the currency, no reason was necessary for the artificial endowment to have an effect.

So…

Use abstract currency (like points, coins, credit, gems, elixir etc.) to guide the users through the process of completing a task instead of real actions (like check-ins, tutorials, messages, rides etc.).

Also, whenever possible, offer them a reason to why you gave them the endowment.

Benefits are always better than investments

The psychology behind the fact that customers preferred earning points instead of purchases is actually very simple and can be used effectively when designing products.

Earning points towards a task is perceived as a benefit so users feel like they get something in return for their effort, alongside the reward of completing the actual task.
Just making additional purchases for completing the task is only seen as an investment of time or money, which is a lot less comfortable for the users.

Also, the complexity of the actions required for completing a task, let those be check-ins, rides or something else, is far greater that framing each one of them as a currency. For example, “only 5 more check-ins” sounds a lot more complicated than “only 5 more coins”.


Motivation is key for enhancing the effect

Changing the perspective from giving to gaining is valuable to an overall positive UX because it motivates the users.

According to the Fogg Behaviour Model, described by american psychologist BJ Fogg, motivation is one of the 3 key elements for a behaviour to happen.

Three elements must converge at the same moment for a behaviour to occur: motivation, ability, and trigger. When a behaviour does not occur, at least one of those three elements is missing. (http://www.behaviormodel.org/)

While ability is the quality of the users to be able to do something and can’t be influenced directly — besides optimising the tasks so that they match the users’ skills — the trigger and the motivation can be. That is why they are essential to a frustration-free experience when setting goals.


The Endowed Progress effect doesn’t come alone

From a structural point of view, the act of completing a task with an endowed progress, is basically a process that the user goes through and can be split into 4 phases.

Interestingly enough, each is governed by a psychological effect that can influence the speed and efficiency of the overall progression towards completing the task.

  1. The start: the Zeigarnik effect
  2. The body: the result of the Endowed Progress effect
  3. The end: the Goal Gradient effect
  4. The very end: the Goal Visualisation effect

1. The start: the Zeigarnik effect

The start, or the trigger that makes the user take on the goal, is initiated by the user’s own desire to complete an incomplete process. It’s called the Zeigarnik effect, after Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, the first to observe the effect in the 1920s.

American researchers, Roy Baumeister and Brad Bushman, took a closer look at the concept in 2008 and defined it as:

The Zeigarnik effect is a tendency to experience automatic, intrusive thoughts about a goal that one has pursued but the pursuit of which has been interrupted. That is, if you start working toward a goal and fail to get there, thoughts about the goal will keep popping into your mind while you are doing other things, as if to remind you to get back on track to finish reaching that goal. (Social Psychology and Human Nature)

So, an interrupted or incomplete task leads to a strong motivation to complete the action, an extra argument for the success of an already started action.

2. The body: the result of the Endowed Progress effect

After the task has beed triggered, the body of the process is basically the result of the endowed progress effect, where the users continue to advance throughout the process, influenced by the artificial advancement.

3. The end: the Goal Gradient effect

As the progression towards the completion of the goal approaches the end, the efforts of the users will start to increase. Responsible for this behaviour is the Goal Gradient effect. Proposed by behaviourist Clark Hull in 1932, the effect was first demonstrated on rats and states that:

The tendency to approach a goal increases with proximity to the goal

Later studies confirmed the effect, as humans also increase effort when approaching rewards or goals, demonstrated in 2006 using gift certificated by Kivetz, Urminsky and Zheng or loyalty cards by Nunes and Dreze in the first experiment presented above.

4. The very end: the Goal Visualisation effect

Right at the very last part of the process, when the end is basically “in sight”, goal gradient is enhanced by another powerful effect, Goal Visualisation, described by professors Amar Cheema and Rajesh Bagchi in 2011:

As people approach a goal, external representations, which increase the ease of visualising the goal, enhance goal pursuit. Specifically, consumers judge easy-to-visualize goals to be closer than difficult-to-visualize goals, which in turn increases effort and commitment.
… In these varied contexts, visual representations of goal progress (e.g., progress bars) enhance motivation as people approach their goal.

Therefore, making goals visually attainable provides motivation for reaching abstract goals just as with physical destinations.

Common task design processes you can improve

Together with the supporting effects described above (Zeigarnik, Goal Gradient and Goal Visualisation), the Endowed Progress effect can be integrated in most situations where a process is a prerequisite for the completion of a task.

There are several such common scenarios that meet this criteria, whenever you’re designing a digital product.

1. Pre-filled form fields

Forms are pretty boring. The more fields they have, the more unattractive they get and the bigger the user’s motivation needs to be to reach the end.

Therefore, whenever you have the information available, use existing data as an artificial advancement for the overall task of submitting the form and pre-fill as many fields as you can. It will give users a nudge as they perceive the process of filling the information is already started and a lot easier to continue.

2. E-commerce checkout flows

The Holy Grail of usability and conversion optimisation, checkout flows are basically a collection of required steps.

You can increase or decrease their number and stretch or compress the information within each step, but overall, the information remains pretty much constant. So, use this to your advantage and add a sense of progression to the flow.

It can be an extra first step, completed by default, that tells the users they picked the products so as to be perceived as an effort has already been made.

Combine this with the above pre-filled form fields, use the progression bar for goal visualisation and your conversion rate will undoubtedly improve.

3. User onboarding

The objective of onboarding is to provide users with essential knowledge and experiences about your product, in order to increase the likelihood of them adopting it.

In a user retention study, 25% of apps are used only once by users, an increase of 5% globally compared to 2014, which illustrates the challenge faced but also the opportunity UX and product designers have to influence the adoption by developing better onboarding processes.

Sure, there are other reasons involved but let’s stick to what we can improve as designers. So, apply the endowed progress effect to onboarding mechanisms and make use of its impact in motivating users to embrace your product.

4. Facebook, Google or Twitter logins

Putting aside the technical concept of them, login buttons using personal information already submitted on Facebook, Google, Twitter or LinkedIn are another form of progress endowment.

Whenever faced with the task of creating a new account that also provides these register options, we know that this is a quick way of “cheating” the task, giving us an instant advancement towards the end goal of creating the account.

This wasn’t a valid option before, but now that these social networks combined cover billions of people, providing the option of using information already stored there becomes essential for a more friendly process, that creates minimal friction.

5. Gamification

It consist of applying game elements and mechanics to other types of products, with the purpose of increasing user engagement.

Whenever possible, the concept itself works better when its progress is artificially endowed, though.

Gamification with an artificial advancement component is used by big companies like LinkedIn, Facebook or PayPal for pursuing users to complete their personal information on their profiles.

Nice visual percentages or progress bars are employed for goal visualisation, transforming the boring task of filling your data into a game-like reward system.

6. Games

As one of the most competitive product categories on the market, games, especially mobile games, fight for a place in the increasingly limited timespan of users’ attention.

Therefore, this is also probably the category in which psychological techniques are most valued, as such details can have a huge influence on the overall success of a game.

The endowed progress effect is used extensively in games and it works. Its role is to keep users hooked to the initial adoption stage until the game mechanics take over and other psychological effects, like the compulsion loop, are employed.

What is really interesting about games is that their structure allows them use of a particular form of artificial endowment, where game designers make the first steps of a level easier on purpose, so that players feel a progress has been made, pushing them to continue the level.


Conclusion

Probably needless to say, but using the endowed progress effect is a powerful tool in the arsenal of any UX or product designer, so use it whenever your project allows it.

Still, don’t forget to take into consideration the context and the direction in which you do, so, take note of the following derived implications, explained in this article:

  • users are more likely to complete a task if provided with an artificial progress towards it
  • reframe tasks so that they seem to only be incomplete rather than not yet initiated
  • when sensing progression, the time it takes people to complete the task will decrease
  • use abstract currency to guide users through the process, instead of real actions or purchases
  • earning points is perceived as a benefit, making additional purchases is seen as an investment
  • motivation is essential for a frustration free experience
  • the endowed progress effect is enhanced by the Zeigarnik effect, Goal Gradient effect and Goal Visualisation effect
  • use the effect in your future task designs for an improved UX (see the scenarios above)

Thanks for reading. If you found it interesting and want to keep in touch, you can also find me on Twitter and LinkedIn.