Ovsiankina Effect: The Urge To Finish What We Started

12 min read
Woman with a lightbulb explaining Ovsiankina effect

Ever left a movie halfway? Or stopped reading a book with just a few pages left? It’s almost unthinkable.

This human urge to complete what we start is called the Ovsiankina Effect.

And if you’re in the UX design field, harnessing this natural psychological response can be game-changing.

Table of Contents:

  1. What is the Ovsiankina Effect?
  2. The Intriguing History of the Ovsiankina and Zeigarnik Effect
  3. How can UX designers use the Ovsiankina Effect?

What is the Ovsiankina Effect?

Simply put, the Ovsiankina Effect is our urge to finish tasks we’ve started.

Humans hate leaving things midway

In cognitive psychology, certain phenomena pique the interest of researchers more than others.

One such phenomenon revolves around the way our brain processes and remembers unfinished tasks.

Thanks to the pioneering work of two Russian psychologists: Bluma Zeigarnik and Maria Ovsiankina, we now understand this curious facet of human behavior more clearly.

The Zeigarnik Effect: An Unexpected Observation

The story begins in a Vienna café in the 1920s. The lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, an observant psychology student, noticed an intriguing pattern in the behavior of waiters.

They possessed an uncanny ability to remember complex orders with precise detail, but only as long as the order remained unpaid.

Once the transaction was complete, the order details seemed to evaporate from their memory.

What could explain this selective recall?

Zeigarnik’s ensuing experiments went deeper into this mystery. Participants were given a series of tasks, some of which were intentionally interrupted, while others were completed without hindrance.

When later asked to recall these tasks, participants demonstrated a sharper memory for those that were interrupted or left unfinished.

So, an interrupted action causes stronger short-term memory for incomplete tasks and better memory before completing a task.

It appeared that the tension of incompletion made these tasks more memorable, suggesting a compelling cognitive quirk: our minds resist the state of incompletion and will prompt us, almost naggingly, to bring closure.

The Ovsiankina Effect: The Urge to Complete

While Zeigarnik’s findings illuminated the tension of unfinished tasks, Maria Ovsiankina, a contemporary of Zeigarnik, was curious about the subsequent behavior this tension produced:

What did people do when faced with such mental discomfort?

Ovsiankina’s research showcased a strong desire for task completion.

When participants were interrupted in the middle of a task and given free time, they were strongly inclined to return to and complete the task.

It was as if an internal mechanism propelled them to find closure and resolve the cognitive imbalance.

This drive to resume and finish tasks is now recognized as the Ovsiankina effect.

Implications and Modern Perspectives

The Zeigarnik and Ovsiankina effects have profound implications for understanding human behavior, motivation, and productivity.

In educational and workplace settings, knowledge of these effects can be harnessed to enhance learning and task completion.

For instance, the strategic interruption of study sessions or work tasks might serve to strengthen recall and motivation to complete, capitalizing on the mental tension and subsequent drive for resolution these effects induce.

Moreover, with its mess of notifications, intrusive thoughts, infinite scrolling and distractions, the digital age presents a fertile ground for observing these effects in action.

The pull to check an unread message or complete a level in a game is a modern manifestation of the underlying psychological phenomena identified by Zeigarnik and Ovsiankina.

Applying Ovsiankina in UX: Real-World Examples

The Ovsiankina Effect is a powerful psychological tool for UX designers and product managers.

Understanding this concept can enhance productivity and create more compelling marketing strategies and user experiences.

Here are some real-world applications of the Ovsiankina Effect:

Free Trials

Offer short, limited-time trials. Make users want to buy before the trial ends. For example, a 7-day free trial for a fitness app can motivate users to subscribe to continue their workout routine.

  • Netflix's Free Trial: The streaming giant offers a 30-day free trial, which is just enough time to get hooked on a show.
Netflix's free trial

Progress Bars

Use completion bars for tasks like profile setups. Users will aim for 100% foe. This is likely the first step in their journey, so it's important to make it as easy as possible.

  • Progress Bars in Dropbox: The 'get more space' feature uses a progress bar, urging users to complete tasks to get extra storage.
Dropbox 'Get Started' screen showing a progress bar

Step-by-Step Signups

Design signups hinting at the next exciting step. This creates anticipation, gives them new information each time and makes them happy about completing the previous task. Break it down into smaller tasks.

  • Airbnb's Step-by-Step Signup: The platform's signup process is broken down into small steps, making it easy and engaging.
Airbnb's step-by-step signup

Feature Teasers

Preview special locked features, making users curious to unlock them. A game app could tease locked levels or characters.

  • Coming soon features: WrittenLabs, an AI writing platform, uses this strategy to tease upcoming features. This creates anticipation and encourages users to engage with the platform and sign up to use the app.
Written Labs feature tease
  • Locked Characters: For games with playable characters, silhouettes or blurred images of new characters could be shown on a locked selection screen. Their abilities could be teased in the descriptions to build hype.
Locked characters in a game

Onboarding Tours

It's important to guide users through the platform. They will learn how to use your tool. Finish the tour with a call to action and a reward. Users will hate interrupted action and there is a good chance they will complete the task in a given time.

  • Slack: The platform's onboarding tour is a great example of this. It guides users through the app's features, making them feel more comfortable and confident.
Slack's hints to invite team members

Exclusive Content Series

Release content in parts. Reserve the final piece for premium members. This is great for newsletters or online courses.

Monthly Challenges

Set a fun 30-day challenge. For all consecutive weeks, users will be motivated to complete the challenge and wait for the next week.

Gamification Points

Award badges and points. Show users they're close to earning a reward and list items and they'll feel a sense of accomplishment and feel psychological closure and be happy with each end result.

  • Duolingo's Learning Path: The app's module system almost always leaves learners on the edge, ensuring they return to complete lessons.
Duolingo's learning path

Email Series

Start a lesson and wrap it up in the last email. This keeps them waiting. This is a common strategy in marketing automation.

Unlockable Discounts

Give discounts, but only after specific actions that take some effort. This makes users more likely to use the discount as they've already invested time and energy.

Celebrate Milestones

Cheer on user achievements, hinting at bigger wins ahead for a positive feedback loop. Fitness apps often celebrate workout streaks or personal records.

To-Do List

Provide a to-do list. Reveal new tasks as users progress. It's the best way to keep them engaged and on track on a large task. Each completion of a task enforces positive changes in their mind and incomplete tasks will cause intrusive thoughts to finish it at the earliest opportunity.

  • Twitter's Ads Revenue Sharing: The requirements are easy to reach for step 1 and step 3, leaving the hardest step 2 in the middle. This really encourages users to want complete the task and engage with the platform.
Twitter's Ads Revenue Sharing

Prefilled User Profiles

Based on linked accounts (like LinkedIn or Google) or business data (like Clearbit or scraping), pre-fill parts of a user's profile.

Start with Real Data

If your platform deals with analytics, reports, or dashboards, you can offer templates that are pre-filled with sample or open data.

Lead Forms & Sign-ups

In platforms geared towards businesses, pre-filling lead capture or sign-up forms with company data can increase conversion rates.

In-App Tutorials

Introduce a series of short tutorials for new features. Begin the tutorial and prompt users to finish it to master the feature.

Figma
Use Figma to create beautiful designs

5

Figma, a cloud-based design tool, allows designers to start and complete projects collaboratively in real-time. Its features can help you leverage the Ovsiankina Effect in your design process.

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Collaboration Teasers

For platforms that have a collaboration feature, allow users to start a collaborative task but prompt them to invite colleagues or team members to unlock full collaboration.

Partial Data Previews

For platforms handling data analytics or reports, show a preview of some insights, and then prompt users to upgrade or engage more deeply to see the full analysis.

Sample Templates

For design or content creation SaaS, offer templates that users can start customizing. Once they've made some progress, prompt them to save or upgrade to access advanced customization options.

Free audits

For example, for SEO, provide potential clients with a brief, initial SEO audit of their site, highlighting a few key areas of improvement. Indicate that a comprehensive report is available upon engagement.

Design Mockups "Roasts"

If your agency handles web design, offer a free "roast" of a client's website. This can be a short video or a blog post that highlights the site's strengths and weaknesses. Indicate that a full redesign is available upon engagement.

For a backlink gap tool, show clients a couple of high-quality backlink opportunities you've identified for them. Indicate there are more opportunities to explore in a comprehensive backlink strategy.


The Ovsiankina Effect in Other Fields

The Ovsiankina effect isn't just a powerful tool for UX designers. It can be applied to other fields as well, such as:

Education

Understanding that students are more likely to remember unfinished tasks can help teachers plan lessons better.

They might introduce a challenging problem at the start of a lesson, and only return to resolve it at the end, thus maintaining student engagement throughout.

Advertising and Marketing

Ever seen an advertisement that leaves you with a cliffhanger or an unsolved mystery? This tactic is meant to make the product or message more memorable by tapping into the Ovsiankina effect.

Similarly, the 'limited time offer' strategy is effective not just because of the perceived scarcity but because the idea of missing out feels like an incomplete task to our brains.

Entertainment

TV shows, especially serials, masterfully utilize the Zeigarnik effect. By ending episodes with cliffhangers, they ensure viewers come back for more. Book series, films, and even video games use this method to keep audiences hooked.

Productivity and Work

On a personal level, understanding the Zeigarnik effect can be a boon for productivity. One might harness this phenomenon by breaking tasks down into smaller parts. Even if one doesn't complete the entire task in one go, the drive to finish the smaller segments can still be powerful.

Mental Well-being

On the flip side, being constantly haunted by uncompleted tasks can be a source of stress and a negative effect causing psychological tension. This is evident in the modern phenomenon of "burnout".

Here, knowledge of the Ovsiankina effect is crucial. By ensuring tasks are perceived as 'completed' or by providing oneself with the understanding that a break is a conscious and necessary part of the process, one can mitigate feelings of being overwhelmed.

Future of UX: Ovsiankina and Beyond

Understanding these effects is vital in an age of increasing distractions. With technology ever-present and pulling our attention in various directions, it becomes easy to start tasks and leave them midway.

By recognizing the psychological impact of such behavior, we can devise strategies to not just enhance productivity, but also protect mental well-being.

Additionally, as digital platforms compete for user attention, it is likely they will continue to integrate elements that leverage the Zeigarnik and Ovsiankina effects.

This can be seen with platforms like TikTok, which uses short video clips to engage users and often leaves them wanting more.

In conclusion, while the observations of Zeigarnik and Ovsiankina were made in the 1920s, their implications are perhaps even more relevant today.

As our world continues to change and evolve, so too will our understanding and application of these fascinating psychological effects.

What did we learn?

The Zeigarnik and Ovsiankina effects shed light on the intriguing ways our brains handle unfinished tasks.

By understanding these concepts, we can enhance our productivity and craft more compelling marketing strategies and user experiences.

The Ovsiankina Effect is a powerful psychological tool for UX designers. Real-world applications have shown significant increases in user engagement and conversion rates.

Continuously measuring the impact of these changes ensures that designers can iterate and improve.

UX is more than just pretty designs and smooth animations.

It’s about understanding and leveraging human behavior to create intuitive, engaging, and user-centric experiences.

The Ovsiankina Effect is a testament to the power of psychology in design, and when applied correctly, it can lead to more engaged users and higher conversion rates.

Remember, a great UX design understands the user, caters to their needs, and sometimes, leverages their innate behaviors, like the need to finish what they started.

Harness this, and you’re on your way to creating truly captivating digital experiences.

  • Cliffhanger: Used mainly in entertainment and literature, it’s a story or event that leaves the audience eager to know what happens next.
  • Curiosity Gap: This is when a gap exists between what we know and what we want to know, prompting us to take action to close that gap.
  • The Endowed Progress Effect: The endowed progress effect is a phenomenon in which people who are given artificial advancement toward a goal exhibit higher motivation to achieve the goal.

Ilias is a SEO entrepreneur and marketing agency owner at MagicSpace SEO, helping small businesses grow with SEO. With a decade of experience as a CTO and marketer, he offers SEO consulting and SEO services to clients worldwide.

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