Deloitte Digital visual designer Alex Vega talks about how positive reinforcement can be applied not only to animal training, but as a tool for behavior modification through design and technology.
Smiling women sitting on a bench at Lesbians Who Tech Summit.

This past February, 2,500 queer women in tech (and their allies) gathered in the Castro Theater in San Francisco for the Lesbians Who Tech Summit. The event brought three days of workshops, lectures, panels, happy hours, hackathons, a self-driving car demo – and keynotes from the likes of former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, #BlackLivesMatter founder Patrisse Cullors, and the founder and CEO of Lesbians Who Tech Leanne Pittsford.

The Summit was a great event and I was proud and honored to speak during a breakout session on engineering and leadership. I presented on positive reinforcement and behavior modification as it applies to technology, design, and even our personal relationships with our partners and family.

As someone who has spent most of their professional life in front of a computer designing websites, I didn’t know much about psychology and behavior before my fiancée Mary and I started a dog training company four years ago (way before I started at Deloitte Digital). Mary had worked in zoos and aquariums training exotic animals for many years, and she applied her experience and techniques to her dog training company –  and to our relationship, too.

Mary gives me positive feedback when I do something right, which is the opposite of what I do. I think we can all admit it’s much easier to correct someone when they do something wrong than it is to praise them when they do something right. But an emphasis on punishment and correction isn’t generally very effective, and probably won’t get anyone to change anything anytime soon.

So what exactly is positive reinforcement? To put it plainly, it’s recognizing and rewarding a desired behavior in an effort to encourage its continuance. And it’s effective: you can successfully train an animal (or person!) using only positive reinforcement, but you won’t see the same change using only punishment. (Pro tip: the recommended ratio for reinforcement to punishment is 5 to 1.)

Interestingly, developers and engineers are using this very concept to teach robots to play games: just as neurons release dopamine when you do something positive, reinforcement learning algorithms operate on a similar reward system. Dopamine is a signal that indicates if something is good and helps you move from one action to another based on what works. On the other hand, when punishment occurs, your neurons release stress hormones that cause a negative reaction and hinder the ability to learn.

Apply that physiology to UX. Without positive feedback in our daily interactions with devices and digital products, we wouldn’t be able to use them. Keyboard clicks, confirmation screens, hover states, and loading screens are all positive reinforcement letting us know that what we’re doing is correct and that we should keep doing it. Asking a customer to use or adopt a new product (application, website, process, etc.) is asking them to change their behavior. Being a successful designer involves creating products with positive feedback built into the experience, increasing the likelihood that the user's changed behavior will become permanent.

It’s certainly fun to think about how you can modify someone else’s behavior by utilizing some simple techniques consistently and realistically. I believe we can apply positive reinforcement to many aspects of our lives in order to see better change – even faster change— and most importantly, lasting change – be that with UX, design, or relationships.

Alex Vega is a visual designer at Deloitte Digital in Seattle and proud co-founder of, the web’s most popular lesbian online community and publication. Alex has worked the last decade as a visual designer with small businesses, studios, for her own companies as an entrepreneur, and now happily with Deloitte.