Imagine you have just downloaded a new app you really wanted to try out. It’s on your phone so you test drive it - activate, register or maybe simply sink into whatever the app has to offer. A minute or two later, you already know if you love it or hate it.

You may love this app if:

  • It was perfectly designed
  • You’re super smart tech user and the app accepted it,

Or you hate it when:

  • “This app is a mistake, what were they even thinking?!”
  • You’re not so good with technology so you failed, but the app itself may be okay.

Let’s face it—most UX designers hope that options A and B will happen most often. But what happens in users’ heads when they go for option C or D? To answer that, we need to dwell a little bit on software-self model and its psychological underpinning.

The Software-self Model

In 1966, Julian Rotter, a psychologist and a University of Connecticut professor, devised an absolutely elegant way of characterizing people’s justifications. By creating his Locus of Control theory, he basically explained why some people believe they are in complete control of their lives (their locus, meaning “place,” of control is internal – they “rule” the world - A and C explanation from above). And we all know people who believe that everything that happens to them, happened because of karma or circumstance (they have an external locus of control, they see themselves being “ruled” by the world - B and D explanation). Both approaches, with their advantages and drawbacks, can be integrated into a four-level software-self model that actually accounts for all of our A to D options above.

If the experience is good and everything goes right, the user, depending on his locus of control, will see the satisfaction as software-based (A - external) or self-based (B - internal). If, on the other hand, the user’s journey goes wrong, we are looking at software-blame (C - external) or self-blame (D - internal). Of course, there are also some external factors that can account for the final result like presence of other people or the context but for now, let us focus purely on the model itself.

Why do actually users feel pleasure when they complete tasks correctly? A note on three little helpers.

When a user goes through the whole process reaching goals, he or she receives “happiness” hormones (the little things we all like called endorphins), mainly because they have achieved what they set out to do. People tend to pick the environment consistent (1) with their heuristics and schemas in accordance with their cognitive information overload fuse - cognitive miserliness. Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor (1991) stated that people usually involve only a part of their available cognitive resources. Inconsistent environment would unnecessarily require from the user to learn not intuitive interaction. But when they face a consistent system, they can receive even more “happiness” and as a result they can feel comfortable and satisfied by the system’s capabilities. Consistency helps to achieve goals faster, so it is another positive boost. These feelings are followed by user’s expectations on how the process should look, feel and interact. The expectations are based on the experience from similar environments that the user interacted with in the past. This experience influences the feeling of consistency. Users can also internalize (2) the reason why the process went well, especially when the user has a tendency for internal locus of control. Finally, there is another factor which has a major influence on how user assesses the system, namely, if the system is easy to learn (3). When the user is facing a new environment it might not be easy to use. If it is easy to learn, then there is bigger chance that the user will succeed.


This model is connected with external locus and attribution. So if the user reaches the intended goal, he or she explains it as system’s “proficiency” caused the positive goal achievement. In this model the consistency (1). and ease of learning (3) are considered by the user as the system factors. So the user is convinced that the system had the major impact on the positive result. Also, positive emotions are less intense than in self-based model. So here is how we arrive at our option A from the introduction.


In this case, the user considers himself as responsible of his own actions, which is connected with internal locus and attribution. The positive emotions are based on the same factors (1 and 3) as in software-based model, but the explanation is internalized (2). So it means that the user has a belief that he or she had the major influence on the result. The internal locus indicates that users feel more influential on their actions, going for option (B).

But what if the journey went wrong?

When the system fails or the user makes a mistake in the pursuit of his goal, there is a great chance that the user will be irritated or unsatisfied, which neither the designer nor user wants. If some major errors occur during the journey, user can bail on the system or, if there is no other alternative, he will power through to reach the goal. People with internal attribution can engage their ego defence mechanisms. The mechanisms that I would like to focus on here are:

  • Self-enhancement is a type of motivation that works to make people feel good about themselves when something goes wrong. It helps to maintain their self-esteem, and it works on non-declarative level.
  • Also, it is important to mention Fritz Heider’s (1958) balance theory which states that “consistency motive is the urge to maintain one's values and beliefs over time.” This is the same mechanism that appears when we experience cognitive dissonance. And during user’s journey it can be clearly observed.

Users tend to use these two explanations when they can’t accomplish their goals or they fail:

Software-blaming: It’s quite well-known that designers should create software environment focused on users and their needs (Norman, 1988). Users demand more from the software so if it reveals inconsistency with the user’s heuristics, scripts, schemas or it is hard to learn, it can make them feel unsatisfied or irritated. This leads them to blame the system for the failure, in accordance with the external locus. Even if the reason of failure is on the user’s side, according to balance theory, and the self-enhancement he or she would be driven to the software-blaming conclusion.

Self-blaming: As a result of “going the wrong way” – a person with an internal locus can internalize the cause of the failure and most likely will attach negative emotions to the system. Why? Because the user sees himself as the main actor of his own actions. So he or she has a tendency to take the responsibility for his actions, in this case - failure.

Is it worth to connect users to our system with positive emotions?

When everything goes well, users tend to be driven by self-based model, but if the experience is bad, they will opt for the software-blame. It’s important for designers to understand the users’ needs, emotions and motivations. As the user interacts with our product, he or she receives feedback on many steps of the journey. This feedback can correspond with user tendency to internal or external locus of control. This is one of the opportunities where you can apply software-self model. So the system has to be designed in such a way as to take the responsibility for the failure and give an alternative, no matter who is to blame, be it the user or the system. So how can we help to reduce negative emotion in case going the wrong way? It can be emphasized by reducing Self-blame model. But how? Eg. check closely if your system in every touchpoint, takes responsibility for the failure and offers fast solution. But what if they succeed? The system should suggest that the success is based on the efficiency of the user. Simple affirmation will do the work. Positive emotions can be also strengthen by the Software-blame (eg. by working on user-system communication). Let the user feel that he or she has done a spectacular job. Software-self model helps us recognize when the negative and positive emotions can arrive. But also when to reduce the negative ones and increase the positive ones. So that we could create an environment suited for our users, creating the place where they will want to come back in future.


  • Rotter, J.B., (1966) Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement. Psychological Monograms, 89, 609.
  • Asimakopoulos S. (2012) Foresight: The International Journal of Applied Forecasting. Summer 2012, Issue 26, p32-37. 6p. 1 Diagram. International Institute of Forecasters, Medford.
  • Fiske S., Taylor S. (1991) Social Cognition. McGraw-Hill.
  • Norman, D. (1988) The design of everyday things. New York: Doubleday.
  • Łukaszewski W. (2000) Psychologiczne koncepcje człowieka. W: J. Strelau (red.) Psychologia. Podręcznik akademicki. Tom I. Gdańsk: GWP.
  • Heider, Fritz (1958) The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Sedikides C.; Strube, M. J. (1995) The Multiply Motivated Self, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 21 (12): 1330–1335,doi:10.1177/01461672952112010, ISSN 0146-1672, The self-enhancement motive refers to people's desire to enhance the positivity or decrease the negativity of the self-concept.
  • Nęcka E., Orzechowski J., Szymura B. (2008) Psychologia Poznawcza. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN