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  • Writer's pictureIvaylo Yorgov

CX Science: minor product malfunctions can impact CX more than severe ones

Key takeaways:

  1. Minor malfunctions have a more detrimental effect on overall experience compared to major ones.

  2. This effect occurs because consumers are locked in an inaction trap – they fail to act when the small malfunction appears which unlocks an inaction dynamics that leads them to not acting later either. Thus, minor malfunctions persist and impact our experiences negatively.

  3. The reason we don’t act in time is that minor malfunctions don’t surpass our pain threshold, hence we tend to simply ignore them.


  1. Companies will do well to try and detect minor malfunctions early on and to nudge consumers to fix them.

  2. Inaction traps lock us a state of inertia which can potentially lead to much more serious consequences in the future. Based on this research, it’s best to address the minor malfunction as it appears, especially if there is no chance it will to away.


Which hurts more, asks Jonah Berger in his latest book (The Catalyst), “[a] severe injury, like breaking a finger or shattering a kneecap, or a milder one, like spraining a finger or a trick knee?”

Which results in a less pleasurable overall experience, ask the authors of this study recently published in the Journal of Marketing Research, video interruptions happening less often and with lower severity or more frequently and with higher severity? A game with minor malfunctions in the gameplay or with more severe ones?

Intuitively, it makes sense that it is the major malfunctions that lead to a more negative experience. Who would prefer to break their finger to spraining it, right? As it often happens though, that is not the case. In reality, minor malfunctions actually taint the overall experience in a more negative light compared to major ones. Read on to learn why.


What goes unnoticed?

We, humans, have the tremendous capacity to shift our attention in split second, as anyone who have tried focusing on something for two hours straight knows. Although it may seem that a good metaphor for our thinking process is the one of the river, the reality is, thoughts are actually jumps. We constantly switch our attention from one thing to another.

The problem with attention is that it’s a limited resource – we can’t really pay attention to more than one thing at a time, as this famous gorilla video demonstrates perfectly. So by necessity, some things slip our attention. And which are the things most likely to go unnoticed? As every fan of crime fiction knows, the obvious and regular ones. Our brains are always in search for efficiency, hence shortcuts, and if nothing changes in the world, nothing will be flagged as deserving our attention.

Pain – the ultimate attention-grabber

But what does get our attention? Surprise for example is a very powerful mechanism for our brain to tell us that we need to focus on something. That’s the reason why we instinctively turn our heads when we hear an ambulance or a police car. Bright colours and loud music also work. Perhaps the strongest of them all though is the signal that our survival might be at risk – pain. The essence of pain is to forcefully and insistently let us know that there’s something wrong to push us to act.

“Horrible performance generates action, but average performance generates complacency.” Jonah Berger

The major problem with with minor product malfunctions then is this – they don’t reach our pain threshold level and we don’t act on them. We bear with them because they cause no significant harm. The small dent on the cup; the tiny whole on your scarf; the little scratch on your phone display – we may get annoyed by them from time to time but do they make us act? Probably not.

And as this study shows, once you’ve missed the opportunity to act in the first place, you are also likely to forgo the subsequent opportunities as well. Consequently, minor malfunctions tend to endure longer. Specifically, in one of the experiments (watching a malfunctioning video), only 10% of the major malfunction condition participants didn’t take any action to remedy it; in contrast, about 35% of the participants who faced minor malfuction didn’t do anything to get rid of it.

Another of the studies provides an even more interesting example of this effect – when the malfunction was a slowly escalating one (as opposed to a major one), 41% of the participants didn’t take any actions until the end of the experiment.

Interestingly enough, and with significant consequences for all product manufacturers, this inaction dynamics leads to a less enjoyable overall experience. Consistently across six different experiments the authors report that participants enjoyment with the product usage was significantly higher in the major malfunction condition as opposed to the minor one. In essence, the minor glitches to unnoticed and/or unaddressed which at the end of the day turns out to be more detrimental for the overall experience than having a significant issue and solving it in time.


The implications are myriad. Companies might want to considering nudging consumers towards fixing minor issues just as they appear – or even better, with all the smart technology available now, they might detect these and inform consumers about the steps to take to resolve them. Beyond the domain of consumption, as the authors point out, “… people may face similar challenges in deciding whether to seek medical attention for a relatively minor health issue, potentially leading to greater suffering or the escalation of the problem into something much more serious. Other domains where a failure to act in response to problematic, but not catastrophic, developments could result in inaction traps are human resource management (e.g., retaining an employee who is marginal, but not awful) and financial investing (e.g., holding onto a stock that has been performing somewhat poorly, but not terribly).” Inaction traps are real and lead to less enjoyable experiences – both consumers and brands will do well to address them in time.


My best wishes for a great day ahead!

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