• anna singer

Familiarity breeds... Comfort

Everybody knows shortcuts, right? Of course not. My folks have no idea what they are, but it doesn’t stop them getting things done. They often follow what we might call, the scenic route. It takes a bit longer, but they get there in  the end. This is their learned behaviour. Even though the icons in their software highlight what the shortcuts are, they still don’t use them. This could be in part because the labelling is not clear enough, but it might also be that they have no inclination to learn them.


Even if learned behaviour is more complicated, a user will normally tend towards it due to familiarity and even loyalty. This is a hard pattern to break.


When asking a user to change their behavioural patterns we need to ask ourselves a couple of questions:

  • Will the new pattern really benefit the user, or are we implementing it to appear ‘cool’ (insert whatever adjective here)?

  • If the new pattern is going to be useful, how do we get the users to adopt it?


Often the user will need to be invested in the product in order to invest their time in learning. Why, after all, learn a new process that you’re only going to utilise once or twice. Consider if your website/application is for one-off use, or returning users.

Accept that not every user will change their behaviour. You may have a mix of novice users and advanced users. In which case, it might be enough that your advanced users adopt.


Carefully consider how you present the new pattern/feature. The interface should make it clear via style, placement and/or labelling.


So, now you’ve got the user to notice the new behavioural pattern required of them, they’ll use it, right? If only it were that simple! Now you’re up against ‘momentum behaviour’. Jakob Nielsen describes momentum behaviour as follows:


Sticking to a chosen approach, even after looking at a better option.

So, even though you’ve made your new process really clear and appealing, it still might not be adopted. This is because as users, if we’ve done something in the past we repeat rather than create a new pattern of behaviour. Even if our learned behaviour is more complicated we may tend towards it due to familiarity, and comfort.


Ultimately it comes down to cost and gain. Does the the gain of using the new process outweighs the cost of learning it? And this will depend on how often the user interacts with your software, and for what purposes.


The moral of the tale? Be careful asking your users to break their learned patterns unless there is something very real for them to gain. If they invest time in learning something that has little gain, they will not be happy users.


There’s more information about Behavioural Momentum on Wikipedia. It gets a bit (OK, a lot) sciency, but it’s really fascinating stuff.

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My folks are the ultimate UX practitioners. They made parenting look so darned simple (which, for the record, it's really not).

Behind my carefree upbringing was a complex structure that I couldn't see; a constantly evolving architecture of morality, ethics, education and boundaries. My folks had some pretty stern error messages too, but, I'll not lie, they were necessary. Their project is ongoing, but requires fewer updates these days.

I'm a London based practitioner bringing UX into real life, and real life into UX.