Baby duck syndrome in Design

Maxim Stepanov
Mar 6, 2020 · 7 min read

In human psychology, Baby Duck Syndrome is called the effect when a person, discovering a particular area, considers the first object encountered from this area to be the best, and the subsequent ones to be the worst.

Every usability specialist is a kind of researcher. Therefore, there are not only generally accepted standards and laws but also rules that are opened with each usability audit and usability testing.

It is no secret that, quite often, Users of digital products do not follow the optimal path to achieve their goals. They are not always interested in the most reasonable and simple solution to their problem. Sometimes they can be content with a long way if it satisfies their needs.

As practice shows, Users are ready to go through this difficult way of downloading a file over and over again and not register on the Web site. However, if they had registered once, they could have significantly shortened this path for the future.

James Veitch

Once upon a time, there was a great Austrain scientis, Konrad Lorenz, who loved geese- and they loved him (it should be actually called the “Baby Goose Syndrome” but “Baby Duck” resulted from an incorrect translation from German to English).

Based on this love, he wrote many books on aetiology and philosophy, but the well-known duckling’s syndrome originates from the book King Solomon’s Ring.

The bottom line is that a goose which just hatched takes the first moving object for his mother, follows it and unambiguously repeats the actions performed by the object, regardless of whether the object is a goose, a toy on wheels or the great Austrian scientist Lorenz.

So Lorentz discovered the Phenomenon of Imprinting, which is applicable to humans too.

In human psychology, Baby Duck Syndrome is called the effect when a person, studying a particular area, considers the first object encountered from this area to be the best, and the subsequent ones to be the worst, the “worse” — the less they resemble its first love.

For example, having tried a pizza with ham and mushrooms in a new restaurant, a person will continue to order only this one, instead of, let’s say, a pizza with pear and gorgonzola as an example of decadence in cooking, propaganda and merely inedible crap. In varying degrees, duckling syndrome is peculiar to all people.

Theoretically, a rational adult person is able, having found the best object in quality, to transfer his love/respect/bloody sacrifices to it, and leave the first object he has met as the path travelled.

Duckling syndrome results in a mass of “holywars”, for the “ducklings” deprived of their mind, having noticed a different point of view on the Internet and even oh, the horror! — fair accusations against the object of their love, immediately rush to defend it, coming up with arguments on the go.

Although all of its advantages often consist in the fact that the “ducklings” stumbled upon it purely by chance.

Holywar — a common name for disputes between people who are diametrically opposed opinions, which they do not want to change. Such a dispute is fundamentally meaningless. None of the participants in the discussion is going to listen and ponder the arguments of its opponent. The only purpose of the dispute is to look as beautiful as possible in the eyes of the audience.

The “duckling” can agree that the first thing it meets is no better and maybe many times worse than others. But it takes it for the source from which ideas were later stolen by more successful competitors. All that what was released later is considered as plagiarism from the first representative of the genre met. Most often, the subject of controversy are clichés, which were there long before the appearance of an imaginary “standard” and will surely outlast its glory.

In the presence of a huge varieties and opportunities, the syndrome of searching for deep meaning becomes more popular. This version of the Baby Duck Syndrome takes clinical turns — “I heard a song about war and love and recently played in one strategy game, there are hints of the main characters’ attitudes, which means the authors were inspired by this song”.

The Syndrome of Searching for Deep Meaning (the syndrome of school lessons in literature) is an irresistible desire to search for deep meaning in various works of art. A history of an individual’s willingness to position his hobby as a highly intellectual one often prevails. In more rare cases, such a desire is the result of real interest in paranoia.

Thus, if your product has similarities with others or a general sense, but was not first met by users, there is a chance that the Baby Duck Syndrome will play against you.

Applied to design, this rule describes the tendency of users to adhere to the first experience when using, for example, digital products — browsing the site, using mobile applications, and so on.

Users do not want to learn new programs and deal with a new interface, but instead, they willingly work with what is similar to others.

Consequently, there are many standards for the development of interfaces (guidelines) to which users are accustomed, and it is necessary to use them when creating a new product.

Ducklings do not really care: whomever they saw first in their lives will be their mother. And nothing, not even reasonable arguments and a demonstration of the real mother duck will convince them to stop loving their first encountered.

It should be understood that similar digital love is observed among customers to the prototypes. They can ignore all the millions of times when the project manager says that the purpose of the prototype is only to coordinate the navigation and the location of the blocks.

Anyway, when it’s time to first meet the layout of the designer, after all, the Client asks to make the font, as in the prototype he managed to get used to.

Because of this interesting phenomenon, the name Duckling effect is sometimes used to describe when humans unwittingly follow other humans’ behaviours. A well-known example of this “behaviour contagion” is from the studies where students taking a survey do not react to smoke billowing into the room from under the door. Because some of the participants were confederates of the experiment and had been instructed to continue completing the survey as if nothing was awry, the other students followed their behaviour and decided not to react to the smoke either. (See a video of this study here.)

This propensity of humans to follow along is an interesting trait, but even more interesting is how we can apply this same “following” tendency to the digital and design. For example, digital products can create new habits and implement them in real life using the Baby Duck Syndrome.

Usually, users are tied to a well-studied and familiar design, and the rest of the designs are judged by how similar they are to it. This means that users prefer old and familiar systems that are already known rather than new and unusual ones.

But this, of course, does not mean that it is not necessary to make changes. Of course, the users get used to the Design of what they constantly use, but if the developer or designer is confident that these changes are a step forward and a way to improve usability, they need to be done.

Duckling syndrome is not going anywhere, and negative feedback cannot be avoided, but after a while, the new Design will be familiar to the user.

By going in the wake of those who write negative reviews and leave the old structure and design, it is possible to lose a lot in ease of use and convenience. Besides, the design change may attract new customers who did not use the service because of the Design of the previous version.

Also, this effect is wary of being at the product development stage, since there is a great risk that the Client will like the prototype, layout or sketch more than the final design as a whole because it will follow the first seen proposal as a Baby Duck.

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Maxim Stepanov

Written by

UX/UI designer | Munich based. Experience in Branding and Digital Marketing. Writing about design, research, business and marketing.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

Maxim Stepanov

Written by

UX/UI designer | Munich based. Experience in Branding and Digital Marketing. Writing about design, research, business and marketing.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

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