Psychology in Design: Happy Path

A wooden pathway through the woods on a fall day.
Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

If there was ever an instance where a Happy Path was needed, the year 2020 is that instance though there’s a real case to be made that all the data and information was there to at least make the path happier, shorter and without shutting down an economy, but the decision maker decided that there were other things to Tweet about..and this analogy is starting to go off the rails a bit.

Suffice it to say, building a Happy Path is all about preparation, testing, and understanding the goals and behavior of the user.

Ok so what IS the Happy Path and how do we get one?

Happy Path is the series of decisions and steps a user would take to complete a task without encountering any errors.

Now, there are a few different ways to apply this concept to design. Most of the time, the focus is on both simplifying the steps needed to complete a task as much as possible to decrease the likelihood for error or distraction and increase the conversion rate and then on the flip side focusing on what those errors or distractions could be and working to preemptively solve them.

This involves a deep dive into task flows, user flows, user behavior and use case scenarios. This is its own absorbing realm of study into the product users and the product itself and the fine line between too much information and not enough.

Three screens showing a user from from welcome screen to set up
Three screens showing a user from from welcome screen to set up
User Flow example from InVision’s article on the topic

But Happy Paths can also come into play when considering user retention, engagement and user resurrection, and that’s the psychological insight I’m going to focus on here.

When it comes to products that require ongoing engagement, motivation is the golden key. One of my projects was creating a fitness app for users who need a lot of flexibility in time and exercise options and would also keep them accountable in their exercise goals. Accountability has strong ties to motivation and it led me down a really fascinating path of research into the subject, namely, how do people meet their long-term goals? For that project, the concept of Self-Awareness was something that came up during my research which supports the theory that a strong sense of self can tie directly into greater and longer-term motivation because intrinsic motivation tends to be more sustainable than extrinsic motivation.

Most importantly, focusing on building strong, positive self-awareness increases the likelihood that users will successfully implement incremental behavior changes in their lives.

But another factor in that increased likelihood of success is creating an artificial Happy Path. It’s what you’ll see and experience in any continuing education product or any long-form video game and the premise is simple: by lowering the initial threshold of difficulty, the user is given an artificial boost of confidence that then increases their motivation and willingness to continue with the task or game.

This works especially well for new users engaging with your product for the first time and for resurrected users who have taken a long break from engaging with the product (this kind of strategy also helps those resurrected users overcome any shame they might feel about having taken that long break and reconnects them to their original goal).

A Duolingo lesson asking the user to identify the word for “cat” from four cards with images paired with the word.
A Duolingo lesson asking the user to identify the word for “cat” from four cards with images paired with the word.
A great example of Duolingo ensuring some early success.

There are a lot of industries and products that this strategy can be employed, but specific products that easily come to mind are language learning products like DuoLingo, Babbel, Rosetta Stone or Drops, brain training products like Luminosity, Elevate, Peak, or Impulse, and of course, role-playing video games like Zelda, Fallout, The Witcher and Elder Scrolls.

Anecdotally, every time I feel so overwhelmed with tasks that I need to actually write them down, I’ll always include freebies like “brush teeth” or “make bed” because the physical act of checking them off gives me an instant feeling of success and sets me up to view the rest of the list more optimistically. We humans like to think that we’re complex beings and that no one can understand us, but really we are all the same lovable lumps of easily manipulated brain cells and that’s ok! It allows us to learn how to set ourselves up for success.

I’m a Product Designer, interested in the “why” behind behavior and the stuff that makes you go 🤩 | laurendukes.com