Zeigarnik Effect

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Image created with Midjourney. Image prompt: 2d illustration minimal style A cluttered desk with several started but unfinished projects, each represented by different symbols: a half-painted canvas, an open book with a pen, an unfinished puzzle, and a laptop with an open document

People remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.

In the realm of cognitive psychology, the Zeigarnik Effect proposes a fascinating phenomenon: "People remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks"1. This effect has significant implications in numerous areas, including the field of digital software design. By integrating the principles of the Zeigarnik Effect, software developers can create products that effectively engage and motivate users. Let's explore this concept through three examples.


Gamification in Mobile Apps

Gamification, the application of game-playing elements to non-gaming environments, is a popular way to leverage the Zeigarnik Effect in software design. Consider a language-learning app like Duolingo. It uses progress bars, streak counts, and experience points to indicate the user's incomplete journey towards language proficiency. This constant reminder of the unfinished task can motivate users to return to the app, thus enhancing user engagement and retention.

Task Management Tools

Task management software like Trello or Asana often use visual cues to indicate progress and unfinished work. Tasks are grouped into different categories such as "To Do," "In Progress," and "Done." By visually separating unfinished tasks, these tools leverage the Zeigarnik Effect to keep users aware of their pending work, thereby enhancing productivity.

E-commerce Platforms

E-commerce platforms often employ the Zeigarnik Effect to encourage purchases. For example, when customers add items to their shopping cart but do not complete the purchase, many platforms send reminder emails about the unfinished transaction. By doing so, they hope to harness the Zeigarnik Effect's power to bring customers back to complete their purchase.

In digital software design, understanding cognitive phenomena like the Zeigarnik Effect can be incredibly beneficial. By creating systems that highlight unfinished tasks or progress, software designers can increase user engagement and motivate task completion. However, it's also important to use such techniques judiciously to avoid overwhelming users with constant reminders of incomplete tasks. Balance is key, and the best software design often comes from understanding human behavior and thoughtfully applying these insights.


1. Invite content discovery by providing clear signifiers of additional content. 2. Providing artificial progress towards a goal will help to ensure users are more likely to have the motivation to complete that task. 3. Provide a clear indication of progress in order to motivate users to complete tasks.


Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik (1900 – 1988) was a Soviet psychologist and psychiatrist, a member of the Berlin School of experimental psychology and Vygotsky Circle. She discovered the Zeigarnik effect and contributed to the establishment of experimental psychopathology as a separate discipline in the Soviet Union in the post-World War II period. In the 1920s she conducted a study on memory, in which she compared memory in relation to incomplete and complete tasks. She had found that incomplete tasks are easier to remember than successful ones. This is now known as the Zeigarnik effect. She later began working at the Institute of Higher Nervous Activity which is where she would meet her next big influence Vygowski, and become a part of his circle of scientists. It was also there that Zeigarnik founded the Department of Psychology. During that time, Zeigarnik received the Lewin Memorial Award in 1983 for her psychological research.