Top 11 UX design principles #4: Minimize anxiety

21 Jun By Molly Hammar | June 21, 2015

In May, I received the following notice from the Federal District Court:

The United States District Court for the District of Colorado summons you for jury service on the date and place shown below:

May 29 through July 5, 2015: Call the jury recording after 3:30 each Friday. If your name is listed, you must report the following Monday morning at 7:30. The average length of trial is 3-5 days.

For five weeks, the District Court requires me to clear my schedule, cancel business trips, tell clients that deadlines and meetings might need to slip, arrange extended hours of childcare for my son on a moment’s notice, and anticipate an unknown impact on my income.

The threat of jury duty over an extended period makes me anxious—far more anxious than I would be if the courts had simply assigned me a specific date and time to show up, and told me to expect to miss a week of work. This anxiety caused by uncertainty and lack of control over my time affects other areas of my life: I’m forgetting things, making mistakes, and feeling generally irritable.

I wish I could say I wasn’t surprised by these consequences, or that I’d seen them coming. The fact is, after two decades analyzing the human side of technology, I’ve seen over and over how anxiety compromises performance.

Which brings me to my fourth design principle in the Top 11 UX Design Principles series:

Minimize anxiety.

Uncertainty and lack of control lead to anxiety. Anxiety taxes users’ working memories, thereby reducing their task performance with your user interface. When users feel out of control, they become anxious and irritable, they fumble, and user experience goes out the window.

Users are happier with certainty, even if it takes longer.

Years ago, designers thought that everything in a user interface should be accessible within three clicks (the over-used 3-click rule). However, more recent research has shown that feelings of control and progress toward achieving tasks contribute more to users’ perceptions of ease than the number of clicks. Users prefer to feel in control over a longer process than to feel unsure about fewer clicks.

Give your application an anxiety test.

Walk through your website or application from a user’s perspective.

  • Are you making users guess or proceed with uncertainty?
  • Do users wonder about the overall process and their progress toward task completion?
  • Do you cast doubt about confidentiality of users’ personal or financial information?
  • Do poor alignment and typos erode credibility?
  • Are the results of users’ actions unpredictable?
  • Are elements crowded together, creating a cluttered, anxiety-inducing workspace?

Once you’ve ironed out anxiety, consider adding benign risk.

OK, so feelings of risk (and resulting anxiety) are bad for learning and task performance. Yet, benign risk is shown to increase attention and learning. Gambling in safe surroundings, for example, has been shown to cause a dopamine surge in expectation of reward. Many popular game-based applications rely on this reward expectation.

One of our clients, Charles Smith, is Chief Research Officer at Knowledge Factor. Together, we’re designing award-winning learning applications.  Recently, Charles sent me a cool little chart, the Circumplex Map of Complex Human Emotion.

UX, begin risk versus stress.  Jury duty
The two scales are activation (a measure of arousal) and valence (does an experience feel good or bad). Charles explained that the sweet spot for learning is at the one o’clock position on the chart. It’s the state of being alert and slightly positive experience (valence): in-control, empowered, but engaged and in a curious state.

Not surprisingly, my jury duty emotions, like “stressed” and “tense,” show negative valence. Will I have to re-arrange my week after 3:30 pm on a Friday, or not? How much is this volunteering going to cost me? These particular emotions don’t induce reward anticipation. We don’t want application users to be tense, or stressed because they aren’t certain of an outcome.

Anxiety that arises from not having control over important tasks is distinct from the satisfaction and fun of a carefully drafted experience sprinkled with a benign risk.

So what do jury duty and video games have to do with a great user experience?

We need to design an experience to gives people clear expectations, control, and confirmation of their progress toward their goals.

But not all anxiety is bad. Like an adventure game where you begin knowing your safety is assured, a little anxiety in safe surroundings can lead to a fun, rewarding experience.

If you’re concerned your site or app fails the anxiety test, drop me a line. I’ll get back to you quickly, assuming I am not sequestered.

This is the fourth in my series of top 11 user experience principles. If you start at the beginning of the series you’ll learn why I turned it up to eleven principles instead of ten.