Researchers of the HSE Laboratory for Cognitive Psychology of Digital Interfaces Nadezhda Glebko and Elena Gorbunova have examined the so-called ‘Baby Duck Syndrome’—the tendency among digital product users to prefer the the old version of an interface over a new one. The authors compare this phenomenon to similar cognitive biases such as the mere-exposure effect, the endowment effect, and the status quo bias. Their findings are published in Psikhologicheskie Issledovaniya [Psychological Studies].
Users are spending at least four to five hours per day interacting with mobile and computer interfaces. Any such interface gets updated from time to time, including changes to interface design aimed at adding new features and/or improving usability. How easily users can adapt to such changes is critical for their subsequent interaction with the interface.
According to the researchers, interaction with digital environments shapes how our mind works and causes us to develop new psychological mechanisms. One of them is Baby Duck Syndrome, a term that refers to users' tendency to prefer the earlier version of an interface to subsequent ones. Once users get accustomed to a new interface after an update, they do not want any more changes, especially if they need to interact with the application or the website regularly. The case of VK social network users massively urging its founder 'Durov, bring back the wall!' provides a vivid example of Baby Duck Syndrome.
The term comes from the study of animal behaviour and refers to imprinting. In many bird species, the first moving object that chicks see after hatching is usually their mother, and they must instantly remember—imprint in their memory—and follow her everywhere to survive. If the first object that chicks see is something (or someone) other than the bird, they will just as readily imprint it in their memory and treat it as their mother. Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian zoologist and ethologist, investigated this phenomenon by having newly hatched goslings imprint on him and follow him everywhere. Due to an error in translation from German into English, this phenomenon is now known as Baby Duck Syndrome rather than 'Baby Goose Syndrome'.
Researchers of the HSE Laboratory for Cognitive Psychology of Digital Interface Users have examined Baby Duck Syndrome as a phenomenon that occurs in the human mind as a result of interaction with the digital environment. Their study compares this effect to other cognitive biases, such as the mere-exposure effect, the endowment effect, and the status quo bias.
While Baby Duck Syndrome is similar to the mere-exposure effect (defined as a preference for familiar objects over unfamiliar ones), the difference is that Baby Duck Syndrome is not about an interface per se but about the user experience of interacting with it. In other words, users form an opinion about its usability, or the convenience of performing tasks using this application or website. They would not hate the new design as much if they did not have to interact with it.
Baby Duck Syndrome also appears to be similar to the endowment effect, where people tend to place more value on objects they already own than those they can potentially acquire. This effect, however, does not explain user preference for the older interface, because an interface is not an object and cannot be owned. Baby Duck Syndrome is about the importance of one's first interaction with an interface, rather than ownership.
The status quo bias, which is a preference for keeping things as they are and opposing change, is another type of similar cognitive bias. While the status quo bias bears even more similarity to Baby Duck Syndrome than the other two effects, it does not match all of its aspects, especially those specific to the digital environment.
According to the researchers, the key difference between Baby Duck Syndrome and the other known cognitive biases is that the former always involves the process of user interaction with a digital interface. Thus, Baby Duck Syndrome cannot be explained by either user psychology or interface characteristics alone.
Our findings can help developers to design smooth and painless updates to their digital products. In particular, rather than change everything at once about an interface, including its colors, buttons and fonts, they may want to go step by step to help users adapt to the changes gradually and keep using the product.
The study was carried out as part of the HSE Basic Research Programme in 2022.
Research Assistant, Laboratory for Cognitive Psychology of Digital Interface Users