Navigating Negativity Bias with Positive UX Design

16 Aug 2023 By Nichole
Happy-faced emojis outweigh a single sad-faced emoji on an analog scale

A few months ago I discussed how “first thoughts stick,” and similar considerations you should take when thinking about anchoring bias in your UX strategy and design.

Table of Contents

Today’s post is about another scientifically-observed thought pattern that you positively shouldn’t overlook when thinking about your digital audience.

Yep, you probably just guessed it. We’re talking about negativity bias, also known as the negativity effect.

Topics covered in this blog post:

  • Definition & examples of negativity bias
  • What the research tells us
  • Effect on user perception and behavior
  • User-centered design approach
  • Some risks of mental shortcuts in creating a product
  • Balancing negative and positive information
  • Designing for positive emotions + examples

Definition of negativity bias

Negativity bias isa well-observed and studied thought pattern. Negative events, emotions, or occurrences have a more profound impact on an individual's psychological state and decisions than neutral or positive ones.

Basically, the bummers in our lives tend to be more salient, even more memorable than positive information and experiences we encounter. 

Examples of negativity bias

Imagine reading ten reviews of a product. Nine of them are positive, praising its efficiency and design. Only one is negative, pointing out a minor flaw.

Despite the overwhelming positive feedback, many of us would definitely fixate on that one negative review, perhaps opting for another option instead.

The examples permeate our daily lives. From relationship theory to leadership training, overcoming one’s negative bias is a topic about which many a writer’s keyboard has click-clacked away.

But self-help isn’t the only place for this. In our digital realm, users must have positive experiences as well. Even the smallest bad traits of our website can easily overpower endless hours of design and development efforts.

Take for instance:

‼️ You can have perfectly-written blog content, but that standard, poorly written error message that sometimes appears will be their takeaway.  

⏳ Your team can build a gorgeous site with all its bells and whistles, but if the load time is slow your visitors simply won’t stay. Watch out for that high bounce rate. All they will remember is that turtle-paced site speed.

Are you looking for help with your website’s load time, or overcoming negativity bias in other ways? Mythic has you covered. Book a meeting.

What the science says

Research has consistently shown that the human brain is more attuned to negative stimuli. This bias towards negativity can be seen in various aspects of life, from the way news is reported to the memories that stick with us the most.

The media landscape also offers a reflection of this bias. News outlets often lead with negative stories because they capture attention more effectively. This phenomenon, known colloquially as "if it bleeds, it leads," is not just a media strategy but a reflection of our innate human tendencies.

Negative news stories tend to garner higher viewership and engagement rates, suggesting that they resonate more with our natural inclinations.

We’ve all seen it in trolling and other damaging online behavior, too - where negative comments or attacks often receive disproportionate attention compared to positive feedback and stories of digital collaboration.

Evolutionary explanation

From an evolutionary perspective, this bias makes a lot of sense.

Those of us early humans who were more attuned to potential threats (like predators or dangerous environments) were more likely to survive and pass on their genes. Recognizing and remembering negative information could have been a matter of life and death.

Over time, this heightened sensitivity to negative stimuli became hardwired into our brains. These days, with far fewer predators to worry about, we can be concerned more with how our digitally delightful encounters are remembered and processed versus the negative ones.

UX considerations

In the realm of User Experience (UX) design, understanding cognitive thought patterns, including the negativity bias, is essential. These biases can have a real influence on user behavior and perceptions. Being aware of such thought patterns as UX designers can help us anticipate users’ concerns, and optimize our digital products and services.

Why should product and UX teams care about cognitive biases’ influence?

Cognitive biases can shape how users interact with a product, their satisfaction levels, and their overall experience. If a product's design inadvertently amplifies negative experiences or perceptions, it can lead to decreased user engagement, poor reviews, and ultimately, product failure.  

In other words, one usability flaw in your website can (and likelywill) weigh more on the audience’s mind than a dozens of cool features.

Audit your website with a fine tooth digital comb, and be sure to untangle every strand until you have a flawless user experience at hand.

Examples of negativity bias in UX design

I’m not sure about you, but my own tendency to focus on bad experiences seems heightened when online. These days I, like many, expect some delightful experiences when I interact with brands and institutions on my devices.

I find myself asking, “did the website’s designers think about social psychology, impression formation, or a user's potentially negative nature?” When someone experiences any of the below examples of where websites go wrong, our takeaway is that these questions were largely overlooked.

Here are just a few examples of what you don’t want to encounter:

🧭 Difficult navigation: If a website's menu is confusing or lacks a clear hierarchy, users might become frustrated trying to find the information they need, leading them to view the entire site negatively.

📵 Lack of mobile optimization: A website might look and function perfectly on a desktop. Still, if you don’t optimize for mobile devices, a person accessing it on their phones or tablets might see cut-off text or elements that don’t load right, overshadowing any neutral or positive experiences they just had with you online.

▶️ Unwanted autoplay: Websites or apps that automatically play videos or music can annoy users, especially if they're in a quiet environment or didn't expect the media to play. We’ve all been in this situation. Not fun, right?

Effect on user perception and behavior

Users are more likely to remember and share negative experiences with a product than positive ones. This can lead to a skewed public perception, where the narrative around a product is disproportionately negative.

Productivity tools like Slack, for example, take a lot of criticism when their services are down, even for a very short time. When we’re used to something always being available to us, its absence is strongly felt and we complain.

Can’t anyone cut them some…? 😆

Avoiding user frustration

To mitigate the effects of negativity bias, designers should prioritize eliminating or minimizing potential pain points in the user journey. This includes ensuring fast load times, intuitive navigation, and clear communication.  

What’s frustrating your website users these days? Are you thinking ahead of issues they might face, and potentially complain about?

The folks over at Salesforce (owners of Slack) work to get ahead of the “downtime blues” by providing not only a status site, but a history showing how consistently close to 100% smooth service they’ve achieved.

This way, the tendency of complainers can be easily refuted. Slack designs to engage them and manage their expectations with a simple calendar feature.

User-centered design approach

Our goal here is to overcome negativity bias, while driving audiences to put more weight on their positive experiences with our site, but how?

A user-centered design approach is what we want. It puts the needs and preferences of the end-user as our guiding light. By understanding and empathizing with potential customers, designers can create products that resonate more deeply and avoid pitfalls associated with cognitive biases.

When you know your product and client personas well these will fall into place, but there are some more things to watch out for.

Risks of mental shortcuts in creating a product

We all cut corners to save time, but you shouldn’t do so in your UX design. Mental shortcuts, or heuristics, can lead designers to make decisions based on assumptions rather than actual user needs.

This can result in products that are misaligned with user expectations, amplify negative experiences, and/or generally lead to those negative outcomes that none of us want.

How to overcome negativity bias in UX research and usability testing

Regular feedback and usability testing can help designers identify and address areas where negativity bias might influence perceptions. By actively seeking out and addressing negative feedback, we can create a more balanced and positive user experience.

Balancing negative and positive information

See if you can strike that balance. While it's essential to address negative aspects, it's equally important to highlight and amplify positive features and experiences as well. This can help counteract the negativity bias and instill a more balanced perception of a product.

Designing for positive emotions

Creating moments of fun, surprise, and affirmation fosters positive emotions in almost all of us. This not only counteracts negativity bias but also promotes brand loyalty and user satisfaction.

Examples of overcoming negative bias: Etsy & Fireflies

Etsy has mastered this craft for sure. They sprinkle delightful encounters throughout their community’s experience. For example, the platform does a nice job of encouraging and motivating its sellers with positive reinforcement. Us humans tend to respond well to that 😀., a tool for recording, transcribing, and analyzing online meetings does a nice job of anticipating a potential concern of mine when I open their chat window, namely, whether or not their agents will have access to my files on their platform while assisting me.

They indeed do, and if I don’t want that to be the case I have a chance to end the chat before it even starts.

Positive Aspects in UX Design

On our website, we focus on a balance of professionalism and whimsy. All projects are taken very seriously at Mythic, but at the same time our team has fun and we always try to make work feel as much like play as possible.

We’ll build, fix, or maintain your website like no other. We want you to love partnering with us, too - like riding a magical 🦄.

Nichole Addeo
Created magically by Nichole on Wednesday, August 16th