Engaging Users with Variable Rewards

Georgia Pandria
Georgia Pandria
UX Expert
·1 min read
Engaging Users with Variable Rewards

Variable rewards are a powerful psychological technique used in design to increase user engagement and influence behavior. This concept, extensively discussed in behavioral psychology and design literature, is critical in creating engaging products.

Understanding Variable Rewards

Variable rewards are unpredictable rewards that are given at irregular intervals. Unlike fixed rewards, where users know exactly when they will receive a reward, variable rewards keep users guessing. This unpredictability taps into the brain’s reward system, making the experience more thrilling and addictive.

Psychological Basis

The effectiveness of variable rewards is rooted in B.F. Skinner's research on operant conditioning. Skinner's experiments with rats in the 1930s highlighted this phenomenon. He found that rats pressed a lever more frequently when they received food at random intervals (variable rewards) compared to when they received food at fixed intervals. This demonstrated the compelling nature of unpredictable rewards.

The anticipation of a reward activates dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and motivation, reinforcing the desired behavior.

Application in Design

  • Gaming Industry: Games often use variable rewards to keep players engaged. Loot boxes, random drops, and surprise bonuses are common examples.

  • Social Media: Platforms like Instagram and Facebook use likes and comments as variable rewards, keeping users hooked to their feeds.

  • E-commerce: Websites use techniques like flash sales and surprise discounts to increase user engagement and sales.

Benefits of Variable Rewards

  • Increased Engagement: Users are more likely to stay engaged with a product if they expect a reward at unpredictable times.

  • Enhanced User Retention: The unpredictability of rewards keeps users returning to the platform, hoping to receive more rewards.

  • Behavior Reinforcement: Variable rewards effectively reinforce desired behaviors, such as making purchases, sharing content, or completing tasks.


Variable rewards are an essential tool in designing engaging products. By understanding and applying these principles, designers can create experiences that not only capture user attention but also foster long-term engagement and loyalty.

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