Simple But Useful Ideas: Intermittent Reinforcement

I first encountered the idea of intermittent reinforcement in my Organizational Behavior (OB) classes at business school, but it’s become a touchstone in my conversations about user experience design and application “stickiness” as well. Pioneered by renowned (and sometimes reviled) behaviorist B.F. Skinner, the core insight is that a behavior that is reinforced intermittently is much more persistent (or difficult to stop) than ones that are reinforced consistently. This is especially true for behaviors that are reinforced according to an unpredictably variable schedule.

The practical implication for managers is that employees often respond better to “surprise” incentives like spot bonuses or in-the-moment recognition for excellent performance than they do to predictable performance and compensation review mechanisms. Because the recognition can come at any time, team members are more attuned in the moment (as opposed to just once a year) to the possibility of rewards for excellent performance.

For application designers, the implications are even more interesting. Applications that deliver feedback at unpredictable intervals are much more user-engaging (and addictive) than those which perform their function more regularly. Email is probably the most powerful example of this, with inbound messages appearing at unknown intervals and from a wide range of possible senders, making inbox monitoring a seductive distraction from more mundane tasks. Facebook’s newsfeed accomplishes much the same effect, and my Google Reader account is always an open tab in my browser for exactly the same reason. Contrast these with applications that perform their function at a scheduled interval (e.g., daily stats reports), or ones that require actual user input to generate a response, and you can see why so many applications go unused after their first install or user trial.

Next time you’re thinking about how to drive positive behavior (whether at the office, at home or in your product), consider how you can put the power of intermittent reinforcement to work for you.