Designing with Fear

At this time of year people like to indulge in haunted houses and horror movies to make themselves afraid. So that they can experience fear in a safe setting, rather than having to confront situations in real life that might be genuinely dangerous rather than just startling.

Fear is one of the fundamental building blocks of the human psyche, but in modern society we find that fear rears its ugly head at completely inappropriate times too. Experience design involves managing the emotions of the users, and fear is just one factor that needs to be considered.

Fear of the Unknown

Unfamiliarity is one of the first hurdles that any new experience has to clear before it is certain that it will retain a new user but it is also one of the factors that helps to ensure retention when competitors arise. Managing users’ unfamiliarity is often achieved through tutorials or providing clear signposting of what to expect, but there is also something to be said for transitional UX – where a new technology or design does not go as far in its innovation to prevent alienating unfamiliar users. Nudging users out of their comfort zone without pushing them too far into confusion or panic can be a difficult balance to strike, particularly because not everyone’s learning speed is the same.

Nudging users out of their comfort zone without pushing them too far into confusion or panic can be a difficult balance to strike, particularly because not everyone’s learning speed is the same.

Fear of Missing Out

Often abbreviated to “FOMO”– This mindset drives users to seek out new experiences constantly, and to say yes to every opportunity to ensure that they are never missing out. It has been exacerbated by the sheer variety of products and services that are now available to users – just compare the four television channels of the 80s with the near infinite streaming options available now.  This fear can impact user retention, so it needs to be managed in an equal but opposite way to the fear of the unknown. Updates, innovations and surprises can be used to keep long-standing users engaged.

Of course, FOMO is also a driving force for the continuous cycle of need that designers and manufacturers use to their advantage when selling new products and services to an existing user-base. The more exciting and innovative something looks, the more FOMO it inspires.

Updates, innovations and surprises can be used to keep long-standing users engaged.

Fear of Loss

The fear of loss is one of the things that keeps a user trapped in a bad experience for longer than is necessary. This particular psychological trap is often referred to as the “sunk cost fallacy.” When a person has invested a significant amount of time and effort into something, they feel obliged to continue on with it so that they do not feel like that investment was a waste. This can be manipulated by designers to keep people using a product or service that is uncomfortable or unsuitable.

All three of these fears are just tools in the hands of an experience designer, meant to be called up and waved away as their usefulness fades. But it is always important to remember that fear is a double-edged sword with as many potential drawbacks as rewards. If any one of these fears is pushed too far, users might be put off entirely.

Senior UX Designer

Sutherland Labs
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