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Rejection, Disappointment and Badness. Oh My.

Research Insights: Designing for "bad news" in the user experience

Words by Kyli Herzberg, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

We all love a story with a happy ending. The one about the impoverished writer who publishes her first best-selling novel. Or the awkward nerd finding the love of his life and living happily ever after. The underdog winning the World Series (especially us here on Chicago’s northside)....

We invent these happy endings, because in real life the odds aren’t great.

Tinder users swipe 1.4 billion times a day, but just 26 million daily matches are made. On average, 250 people apply to just one job opening, leaving a 0.4% chance that you’ll get the job.

At dscout, more than 500 people apply to qualitative research studies for which we need just 50. And Fitbit knows every user won’t take that 10,000th step every single day.

Dscout and Fitbit teamed up to explore the climate of bad news in the digital user experience. We wondered how rejections and disappointments affect users for all kinds of products. And how those interactions affect the way people feel about the companies delivering the bad news. We asked our scouts, and oh, did they deliver the bad news!

Through a 3-part study delivering 900 participant entries, we uncovered the reality of less-than-ideal experiences and identified ways for companies to make them a little less painful, and a little more useful, for everyone.

Research shows most apps deliver bad news. Here's how it falls out by category:

Companies digitally communicate bad news in their UX all the time. For six days, participants laid bare their digital souls, sharing rejections, bad news, disappointments and flat out failures. Many of the bummers we expected: job and school applications sent without response, rejected matches and many a missed fitness goal over the course of a week.

As is the benefit in qualitative research, some bad news reports--large and small--were unforeseen: mega credit card bills due, coveted AirBNB selections denied, and Uber surge pricing for the ride home. While on vacation, people couldn’t get tickets to the places that mattered most, like the Museum of Ice Cream. And some days, Pokemon were simply nowhere to be found.

As we dug deeper, we discovered that bad news lives on a spectrum. Some lands on the “I suck” side of the spectrum, where the recipient is personally affected by soul-crushing news. On the other hand, SOME bad news is more of an “Aw, shucks” user experience moment: disappointing, but not meaningfully life altering.

I couldn't start my career how I wanted to, so I feel like a failure.

"Just a little disappointed because I haven’t matched with anyone today…"

Based on the context we received in participants' video and text responses, we learned that where the news lives on the spectrum is dependent less on the news itself, and more on the level of investment people have in achieving the goal, or getting that thing that they’re trying for.

Make bad news work in your favor. Here's the range and frequency of emotional reactions that users report having after getting bad news.

We coded our participants’ entries with the emotions they associated with each given moment. Most people were all doom and gloom, but we noticed a few glimmers of hope that companies can capitalize on: Offering optimism, encouragement and motivation to people goes a long way toward their decision to continue working toward their goal….and sticking with your product.

When product owners turn bad news into moments of learning and instances of clarity for the people receiving it, users see the bad news more as a progress report than an end of the road.

Improve bad news delivery, increase customer loyalty.

After recounting and evaluating the bad news they’d received, participants created a set of UX “rules” for all companies to follow when delivering bad news.

Of the 166 rules people shared, 39% were about improving the content of the bad news, and 30% were about style and tone of communication. So with nearly 70% of the suggestions being about both what you say and how you say it, most companies can probably identify some room for improvement in their own product or service user experience.

Participants reported that they would use that a product or service more 70% of the time if that company improved its bad news delivery technique. Making small improvements to the messages could make a big difference.

Opportunities to make bad news better.

Be cognizant about how much bad news you're creating.

When you can, prime people that there’s a chance that they’ll fail. FitBit does this by helping people set realistic step goals. Many airlines do this by adding a note when only a handful of tickets are left on a flight.

Message effectively with the five Es.

  • Empathy: Find it, offer it to the user.
  • Explanation: Tell them what's
  • Early: Deliver information quickly after the offending issue.
  • Effort: Put effort into what's being said, and avoid form letters.
  • Encouragement: Find a positive angle or edge.

Celebrate wins and create learning moments whenever possible. By making a big deal out of wins, we’re pumping up someone when they do well, and we’re also reminding them of how challenging it is to be successful in the first place.

Let users tell you when they’re especially invested in a goal. Let them give you an extra nudge to take a closer look at their job application, or ping you when they really need a restaurant reservation for an anniversary meal. Just this one time. Please?

When people have the opportunity to show us they are really invested in a moment, we can turn bad moments into really happy ones. You can flip people from this moment of sadness, to a moment of real joy. And they will remember.

Interested in learning more about these qualitative research studies, or about how we fielded this one? Check out what we learned!

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