The Zeigarnik Effect and its Design Implications
Whether someone’s daily responsibilities are interrupted by an urgent task at work, or a college student takes a study break to decompress before a big exam, the human psyche has an innate desire for closure. The Zeigarnik Effect theorizes that people tend to have intrusive thoughts should a task be left uncompleted or interrupted. Though the theory may be new to some, its effects have been experienced by many. Television series utilize the Zeigarnik Effect by leaving viewers with a cliffhanger before revealing more of the next episode’s story. This tactic is used similarly in novels when the author splits the information into chapters. The interruption initiates tension in the short-term memory, which can only be relieved by finishing the book or binge-watching the TV series. By utilizing the Zeigarnik Effect, product designers can gamify otherwise tedious user experiences, retain users, and provide constructive feedback (Chakraborty).
The Zeigarnik Effect was first hypothesized in the 1920s by Soviet psychologist and psychiatrist Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik. Zeigarnik’s professor and the creator of Field Theory, Kurt Lewin, first noticed the phenomenon when waiters had limited memory of orders paid for but remembered details of orders still in-progress. The Zeigarnik Effect builds upon Lewin’s Field Theory, which states once an individual starts a task, tension builds and increases cognitive recall to relevant information, which can only be relieved once it is complete (Zeigarnik, A). In her infamous study “On Finished and Unfinished Tasks,” conducted in 1927, Bluma Zeigarnik asked 32 adult participants to perform a series of tasks and puzzles. Throughout the study, participants were randomly interrupted by administrators. The interruptions evoked strong objections and irritations from participants, as many claimed to be interrupted just as they had become engrossed in their tasks. Zeigarnik most notably realized that very few participants could identify completed tasks when asked to recall the assignments. In contrast, 90% of participants could remember the interrupted tasks’ details and would willingly go back to finish them if given the opportunity. Regarding the order in which participants were able to recall duties, participants were three times more likely to identify the uncompleted tasks first than completed tasks. This same study was repeated by Zeigarnik, with almost identical results. Interestingly, Ziegarnik performed a similar experiment on children and found children to be more susceptible to the Zeigarnik Effect than adults. Participants under the age of 14 were able to recall interrupted tasks at a rate of 110%. Ziegarnik theorized that when participants were interrupted, tension increased, causing participants to rehearse relevant information in short-term memory to keep the information from disappearing (Zeigarnik, B). While the Zeigarnik Effect has obvious psychological and cultural implications, it extends significantly to user experience design and marketing practices widely used today.
Designers can similarly leverage the Zeigarnik Effect to that of video games with levels and game progression. By incorporating progress bars, percentages, sections, and other progression indicators into products, designers can create a richer, more gamified experience for users (Teodorescu). Gamification is a UX concept that brings elements from games into non-gaming focused products. Gamification centers around goals, feedback, rewards, rules, and motivation. The Zeigarnik Effect has strong ties to the goals, feedback, and motivation components of gamification. Not only do visuals like progress bars and percentages create a sense of orientation in an application’s narrative, but these visuals also imply there’s more inherent value in completing tasks and provide continuous feedback loops for users. In a physical game like volleyball, feedback loops take the shape of points awarded to the best performing team. The referee awards a point to the better performing team, signifying they’ve done something correctly, while the losing team knows they need to improve. The feedback loop continues until a winner is declared and the game ends. In a digital product, feedback loops are instantaneous and can be used to push new goals or provide a grade or ranking of their tasks completed (Christians, 40–42). Most notable for utilizing this design element is Linkedin, the employment-oriented platform known for connecting professional networks. Upon users signing up for an account, Linkedin collects information from users in sections to build a virtual resume. By making an otherwise trivial process more digestible in components, users are less likely to navigate away from LinkedIn and finish their profiles properly. Upon completing their profiles, LinkedIn provides rankings based on how the user answered the questions from the previous steps. If a user is ranked poorly, they’re more likely to revise their weaker responses, similar to that of a gamer going back to improve their score on an already completed level (Indraksh).
Apple utilizes the Zegiarnik Effect with Apple Watch’s Activity Rings used to track users’ progress towards their fitness goals. By gamifying goals with interactive rings, Apple Watches challenges users to exercise and “close their rings” daily (Apple).
Perhaps one of the best places to use the Zeigarnik Effect is in educational products, where designers can use course progression indicators and feedback loops. If Children are as positively affected by the Zeigarnik Effect as Zeigarnik believed, they are more likely to experience tension due to artificial progression indicators. By creating course task lists and breaking information into sections, users gain the satisfaction of checking off a task. Once a student completes a module or a quiz, they’re able to get feedback on their progress in the form of a letter grade, indicating what they need to improve upon in the course (The Zeigarnik Effect and Online Learning).
Of course, every task has an end. Research suggests people feel the most satisfaction ending tasks when there is a physical act signifying completion, such as closing a menu when deciding what to order at a restaurant (Coglode). While physicality may be challenging to achieve in digital applications, gamified experiences allow users to celebrate their goals better. Designers can capitalize on users’ peace of mind after completing their goals by introducing new, beneficial tasks. For example, after completing email scheduling in MailChimp, users are asked to download the mobile app to track campaigns easily (Babich).
The Zeigarnik Effect suggests users are more likely to remember unfinished tasks than completed ones. By connecting the Zeigarnik Effect with gamification, designers can motivate users, break information into sections, provide instant feedback, and create a sense of urgency in their products.
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