Overcoming Cognitive Biases That Reduce Feature Adoption "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs January 01 2020 True Cognitive Bias, default effect, loss aversion, momentum behaviour, Product management, User Behaviour, User Experience, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 1361 Product Management 5.444

Overcoming Cognitive Biases That Reduce Feature Adoption


In this blog post, I’ll explore how momentum behavior, loss aversion, and the default effect can influence the adoption rates of product features and give examples of how you can address these hurdles.

We humans are resistant to change, which can be an obstacle when introducing new product features to the marketplace. App developers, marketers, and designers often have to overcome psychological barriers that prevent users from changing their habits and adopting new behaviors.

Momentum Behavior

Momentum behavior occurs when people fail to choose an optimal path within an interface because they’ve decided to stick with the path that they’re familiar with. Users tend to replicate the first route found, even if it’s not the fastest way to complete their journey. It can be a challenge to get consumers to change their behavior once they’ve formed habits while completing tasks on your app.

Product teams need to be aware of how customers intuitively interact with their interface when they consider a new feature. Learning different routines can require an additional investment in time and users tend to stick with their preferred methods as a result. Visitors do not want to learn a new way of accomplishing tasks since the perceived cost of learning seems higher than the benefit of performing the same task in a more efficient manner. The perceived cost of learning something new can be extreme, even when the actual task or activity could be very easy to do.

Information overload also causes momentum behavior, especially in a digital environment where the amount of information and possible decisions can be overwhelming. To cope with an abundance of choices and prevent decision fatigue, users typically repeat successful patterns based on previous interactions. While this behavior minimizes the risk associated with change, it also causes your audience to miss out on potential economic and social benefits to break from their habits.

Facebook News Feed

The introduction of the Facebook News Feed is a pinnacle example of disrupting momentum behavior. The new layout of Facebook’s “home page” was completely different from its prior iteration. When it launched in 2006, it was met with immediate uproar, with thousands of Facebook users calling for a removal of the feature, prompting CEO Mark Zuckerberg to respond, “Calm down. Breathe. We hear you”. That this number of people spoke up, took action, and raised this amount of rabble should speak to the power of momentum behavior: disrupting it can cause a lot of emotional turmoil!

Facebook’s News Feed has now gained momentum behavior of its own (Image: Jakraphong Photography/Shutterstock)

This example should be the exception that proves the rule: only do companies with enormous, and more importantly, relatively “captive” users have the power to intervene with such massive UX changes. (In this case, Facebook was betting on the power of its network effect to retain users through this disruption.)

Ironically enough, the News Feed has now gained momentum behavior of its own, generating habit loops of infinite scrolling that themselves are hard to disrupt. Other companies have piggybacked off this momentum behavior and have leveraged a similar interface, like LinkedIn’s and Google’s own news feeds.

Loss Aversion

The automatic and subconscious bias to maintain the status quo is supported by loss aversion, which suggests that losses and disadvantages have a greater impact on decision-making than gains and advantages. According to psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, users generally fear a loss twice as much as they are likely to welcome an equivalent gain. This bias consequently leads to greater regret for action than for inaction. In an app environment, loss aversion makes people more likely to stick with what they have unless there is a compelling reason to change. Even the perceived loss of time spent to do something new is enough to prevent changes from status quo behavior.

One way to fight fire with fire, if you will, is to inspire a sense of loss aversion strong enough to incentivize action and avoid inaction. In other words, frame the potential loss from doing nothing as greater than the costs of doing the same thing.

There are many tactics to trigger loss aversion. There’s the tried and true method of giving information on a product’s popularity or scarcity, which is a bias that causes people to assign value to things they perceive as being less available. But also consider the qualitative aspect, framing copy and messaging, combined with social proof, to demonstrate how inaction would lead to a loss. For example, “Lyft Riders who joined this loyalty program saved $50 in 2 months!”.

Though there’s evidence that loss aversion as an approach is losing its effectiveness as the tactic has become ubiquitous, there are counterexamples that demonstrate loss aversion continues to be effective.

Target’s Loyalty Program

Last year US retailer Target launched a data-driven loyalty program called Target Circle, designed to lure customers who have not signed up for the retailer’s credit card, REDcard. The program offers 1% savings on purchases, birthday rewards and personalized recommendations to those who enroll. The company uses these financial benefits to convince consumers to provide additional demographic data.

Image: Jonathan Weiss/Shutterstock

Default Effect

Leveraging people’s innate preference to do nothing, or take no action, over action can be beneficial in change design. The default effect is the phenomenon where making an option the default among a set of choices increases the likelihood of it being chosen. For instance, people are more likely to stay in a group when they are automatically included in it rather than take action to be a part of a different group. In another example, simply pre-filling out forms with default options is often enough to make users select them. Alternative options that require too much cognitive effort to process will make visitors stick with the status quo.

According to Cass Sunstein, the co-author of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, there are two types of effort. The first is the effort it takes to understand a problem and its options. The second is the effort it takes to form a preference. This is where the default becomes critical because consumers can use the default option as a signal/proxy to the right choice when they lack either the time or expertise to make an informed decision. This can be attributed to loss aversion, where people tend to avoid a potential loss from making a switch instead of sticking with the predetermined choice.

When it comes to feature adoption, product teams should, at the very least, consider how to make new features and programs the default. It could be considered “dangerous” to involuntarily disturb a user’s existing momentum behavior and force a product change on the user, so product teams should weigh the relative pros and cons of default changes accordingly. If the team knows that a feature will deliver product value to a user and the change isn’t major, the net gain in utility for a user could outweigh any initial status quo bias. Of course, this fundamentally depends on the nature of the feature.

Organ Donation in Europe

One of the greatest examples of the power of default is included in the book Nudge. The authors showed that opt-out, default organ donations would boost registration rates exponentially higher and since the book’s publication, numerous studies have repeatedly demonstrated these findings. Below is a recent chart showing the difference in organ donation rates in countries with and without the “default” setting:


When developing new features, product leaders can overcome human tendencies to stick with familiar paths and maintain the status quo. By reducing the amount of mental and physical steps a customer needs to take when using your app, you can guide them through the best journey to complete their tasks. Setting and personalizing defaults can influence decision-making, as well as framing offers in terms of losses over gains to inspire immediate action. Over time, these nudges can subtly change consumer behavior and ensure that users are getting the most out of your product.