UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 560 September 23, 2010

Playing Hard to Get

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Using scarcity to influence behavior

Microsoft recently announced an upcoming price increase for the XBox Live Gold membership fee. When this news broke, a few retailers such as NewEgg responded by pushing their existing stock of gift cards (selling the membership at the older, lower price). It was fascinating to watch people scramble to get their hands on the remaining gift cards. Even people who hadn’t yet tried XBox Live purchased some of the gift cards, explaining, "they won’t be around for long—now’s the last chance to buy a year membership at the current price."

But why?

The simple answer is that people infer special value in something that has limited availability. This is true in dating, commerce, gaming and other fields. Everything from gold and diamonds to "limited edition" candy bars to baseball cards prove this point.

But what about web applications? In most cases, we’re not dealing with physical goods, but rather with digital content that be copied or throttled as needed with little to no costs. Where everything is digital and scarcity should be a quaint notion, does this same idea hold true? And can we use this to influence behaviors? Or get people to do more than just purchase something?

Using Scarcity in Commerce

The most obvious application of scarcity is in retail and e-commerce. A retailer may only have few shirts left in your size. A car dealership may only have one car on the lot with the features you want. Collectible items fetch a lot more money in aftermarket auctions. These same sales tactics apply to online shopping as well: A travel site shows "only three tickets left at this price," or an artist only has "six copies of this print remaining."

Air travel site using scarcity (3 tickets left at this price)

Only 3 tickets left. Better buy them now!

This idea has also been used in domain name "land grabs." There is a very real scarcity of domain names on the Web. But custom URLs, such as stephen.somereallycoolnewsite.com can also leverage this scarcity to encourage signups.

Jango's subtle use of scarcity

Can you spot what is scarce in this homepage?

But scarcity can be used for more than simply encouraging purchasing behaviors; because people value things that are scarce (the reason we feel pressured to purchase something), this same principle can be applied in other creative ways.

Using Scarcity to Increase Quality

Foodspotting is a site where people share photos of their favorite dishes. Rather than review a restaurant, you can see and share favorite dishes at a restaurant. You like the Pad Woon Sen at that Thai place? Let people know by taking a photo of the dish next time you eat there. Foodspotters, as Foodspotting users are called, love sharing these photos. In fact, before there was Foodspotting, there have been photo groups on Flickr where people shared interesting photos of dishes.

So how is Foodspotting using scarcity?

If you’re making the effort to photograph your dinner, you probably at least enjoy that dish. But what about your favorite dishes—the ones you rave about to your friends? For these, all users get "noms"—special ribbons reserved for those dishes you've tried and loved best. But there’s a catch: Foodspotting states, "You only get 5 noms to start with and must earn the right to nom more foods after that!"

Foodspotting using restricted Noms

"Noms" are reserved for my favorite dishes.

By limiting noms, Foodspotting encourages people to be more selective about which foods deserve special recognition. The site claims "the blue ribbon (the 'nom') means more because it's hard to get." People won’t give every dish a nomination lest they have no remaining noms to give to a dish that really is exceptional.

This idea could be applied in other, more familiar contexts. Imagine YouTube limiting each person to a handful of five-star ratings per month. Or what if Facebook limited the number of "likes" a user can use per day? While this isn’t the behavior Facebook wants to encourage, introducing a limited supply would change how people use the "like" button.

What Facebook Like limits might look like

Here’s another way designers are using scarcity to encourage quality:

Remember "show and tell" from elementary school? Dribbble is a new site where designers, developers, and other creative pros can share sneak peeks (or "shots") of their current work. Just as Foodspotting encourages people to be selective about their noms, Dribbble encourages people to be selective about what they share by limiting how many shots users can share each month.

Dribbble’s founders don’t hide their use of scarcity to encourage high quality submissions:

In case it isn't obvious, the reason we throttle shots is to encourage players to post with care— we hope scarcity induces quality. (So far, so good.) We'll be introducing other ways to accrueDribbble shot limit gauge shots for meritorious behavior, but we want everyone to know that you'll always have a base of 24 shots to work with each month.

So far, the high quality of the submissions that have accumulated on Dribbble is impressive. This is partly attributable to the caliber of the designers who were among the first to contribute to the site, but also to conscious planning by the site founders. Through scarcity and other intentional design decisions, they hope that people will post with care and maintain the quality of images shared.

Using Scarcity to Encourage Participation

There's another twist on scarcity, one that may seem contrary everything stated so far. This twist is one of creating artificial limits—specifically, character limits. By enforcing a scarcity of characters, you can actually encourage participation (this is different from creating desire as with the examples above). Twitter is the perfect example of this.

The technical limits of mobile text messaging were the original constraint behind Twitter's 140-character limit. But it is precisely this character limit that has driven a new form of written expression. Prior to Twitter, there were blogging tools such as Blogger, Wordpress, and SixApart. Anyone could certainly have written short, 1–2 sentence blog posts. But we didn’t. I would have never written a blog post about eating my last piece of Leonidas chocolate, but I can certainly tweet about that. It’s this character limit that allows people to be more casual about what they write—after all, it's only 140 characters! It's okay to say less, speak informally, or make typos in such brief messages; this isn’t an essay paper, after all. The context lowers the bar on what can be "published" on the Web. It's liberating to have none of the expectations inherent in other forms of written communication.

To be clear, this is a very different kind of scarcity than if you were allowed say only one tweet per week. If this were the case, we might see much more thoughtful 140-character exclamations. But the character limit has made it much easier to post (and, in doing so, lowered expectations). Tweets are unlimited, more like words in a conversation. Why? Because a tweet can't exceed 140 characters. By making this number so low, Twitter is essentially saying, "It's easy, what's stopping you?" Scarcity encourages participation, by making it that much easier to join in.

Rypple uses this same insight to make feedback and coaching easy. With Rypple, users can request peer reviews to help them get better at their jobs. If you want candid feedback on that presentation you just gave or your management skills, Rypple creates a safe environment to solicit and give such critiques. Co-founder Daniel Debow observed that "the most senior people tend to send very brief emails." While people would like to give feedback to others, there isn’t always the time to do so. By limiting comments to 400 characters, the "cost [in terms of time] to the reviewer is much lower, especially in contrast to long surveys and other corporate tools.

Rypple's length-limited input field

A limit on characters lowers the expectations associated with offering feedback

This number, along with other variables, has been iteratively tested over the past year. Rypple wants to encourage people to respond, and to do this the team has tested limits as low as 120 characters. However, they also want to leave enough room for constructive feedback, so the team has tested much higher limits. 400 characters seems to strike the best balance between increasing the number of responses while still allowing for substantive feedback. Debow also adds that "when you encourage and design for brevity, you also encourage people focus their feedback."

This idea of using scarcity to increase participation isn't limited to characters. What if email inboxes could only receive 15 mail items at a time before they were literally full? Would that encourage us to clean out our inboxes? Or what if a signup form allowed users to list only three of their favorite movies in a signup form? Would that limit be less intimidating to complete than a big, empty textbox?

Why Does Scarcity Work?

One explanation of why scarcity works so well on us has to with decision-making. It's easier to "go along with the crowd" and buy the thing that is scarce. Why? According to persuasion expert Robert Cialdini, things "that are difficult to possess are typically better than those that are easy to possess." (Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, 1998). People use this defining attribute—limited availability—to aid in their decision-making processes. If a bakery is running low on one kind of pastry but has plenty of the alternatives, that might be a good indication of what is popular (and what’s to be avoided!). Scarcity is often a shortcut to the best choice.

This helps explain scarcity as a selling tactic, and possibly why character limits might help people choose a restrictive format over an open-ended one that offers no constraints. But what about the kind of scarcity (as with Foodspotting or Dribbble) that improves quality?

Another explanation of why scarcity works has to do with freedom—or rather loss of freedom. If something is scarce, it may be unavailable in the near future. And that idea doesn't sit too well with people—it violates our sense of control over a situation: "If I don't act today, I won't be able to…" Psychologist Jack Brehm writes about "psychological reactance," or the ways people fight against restrictions on their freedom. Brehm explains why teenagers who are only mildly interested in each other will continue dating as protest to their parents disapproval, or why people rush to protest government restrictions on their rights, even when the issue means very little to them personally. Scarcity of something is essentially a threat to freedom of choice. But this threat isn't necessarily a bad thing; it can be a useful means of encouraging desirable user behaviors.

Scarcity and UX

While the aim of this article has been to suggest creative ways to use scarcity, this idea shouldn’t be used to the detriment of your users. Scarcity is a powerful persuasive tactic, one that’s frequently used in sales. Whether people feel pressured or pleased depends on how scarcity is applied. Customers might feel regret after purchasing something they didn’t really want. But they might also feel relieved to have made the right choice or to have gained something exclusive. Scarcity has value beyond being a sales tactic; it can encourage participation and quality as well. Many games create a thrill by making something scarce. Imagine Monopoly with unlimited cash or any arcade game with unlimited lives. Yes, there’s certainly a pressure that’s coupled with scarcity. But it’s the kind of pressure that creates a appropriate level of anxiety, which can actually make things more fun, playful and exciting. Scarcity is a useful psychological tool that can be applied to software and web design in many creative, constructive ways. We can cause people to value something more by introducing simple economics into our designs.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Stephen recently published the Mental Notes card deck to help product teams apply psychology to interaction design. Between public speaking and consulting, he offers workshops to help businesses design fun, playful and effective online experiences. He's currently writing a book about "seductive interactions" that will be published in 2011.

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Comments

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I'd go one step farther and say people hunger for scarcity. It makes buying decisions so much easier and interesting. Don't we all need help making decisions?

I'm ashamed to say how many times I've bought something because I might not be able to get it later.

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Fantastic article! It really puts perspective on how we value everything. It's definitely opened my eyes to a new field of study. Thank you for sharing this with us!

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This tactic works EXTREMELY well for questionable businesses such as miracle teeth whiteners and fat burning websites. You'd be amazed at how many people are lured into signing up only to be burned by the fine print. "Act now! Only 10 free trials left!" brings 'em in in droves. Scarcity - especially when combined with the word "free" - is one of the most effective tools there is. It WORKS... for better or worse.

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Nicholas - Yes-- thank you for clarifying that. Scarcity assumes some level of interest in the thing being presented a scarce. If you could care less about the XBox, scarcity isn't going to make you care. But, if you had even a mild interest in getting that membership…, scarcity may nudge you to take action. For this article, I tried to keep it simple by focusing on a single idea you can try out to influence behavior (most of my articles are intended to inspire new ideas we can test out!). That said, these principles are rarely seen in isolation. You rightly point out that in the Foodspotting we're combining scarcity with something like Self Expression or Identity. Value Attribution also comes into play-- buying a limited edition candy bar is one thing, buying a limited edition sports car is another request entirely! And so on…Speider - Sounds more like arrogance on the part of the illustrator! As Nicholas points out, if his fictional Scarcity had been combined with other things, like a believable Story ("I'm booked up with lots of client work") reinforced by Social Proof (lots of people talking about him, new things being published), things might have been different. It's not just about "playing hard to get," though this can work were there is already some interest or strong desire. It sounds ilke in your case, he was easily replaceable to the client (and not really a scarce "resource" then). That, or he was such an Ego to work with that the work wasn't worth it! (I've dealt with those folks before. Ugh.) I would add that scarcity works with things people  desire (not just need).Alexa - Ooh, that's a tough question. I'd be curious to see the ratio of Foodspots to Noms per user– maybe some numbers around what percentage of Noms have most people used (relative to their total number earned) might be insightful. If most people are using all of them, then maybe they're not valued. If very few people use them, maybe people don't care (at which point I'd want to try and nudge people to use them; maybe make them expire if unused–don't you dare!). That might be interesting to confirm if the feature is of value. Otherwise, you might introduce qualitative surveys to assess attitudes… I'm hoping to hear more about these kinds of design decisions at your Web 2.0 NY workshop next week. :-)

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Thanks for the shoutout, and I love this topic in general, as well as the insightful comments.

The limited noms rating system is one of the ideas I secretly hoped would get its fair deconstruction in the UX world one day. But oddly, users don't say much about that, or points.

Curious if you have any suggestions for how to test (via metrics, or qualitative methods) whether it's actually a motivating factor, or, more importantly, contributing to better quality in ratings.

Alexa

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"Supply and demand," as economists have labelled it, is one thing when the consumer has an endless need/want for a product. The demand for Tickle-Me-Elmo drove people to murder each other in the aisles of Toys 'R' Us. If the latest hot movie is sold out, people come back another time. If one store doesn't have the salad spinner you need, you go to a different store and don't hang out in the parking lot awaiting a shopper with a salad spinner you can clunk over the head for that valuable piece of plastic.

Scarcity does not always translate to increased desire. As an illustrator's representative, many years ago, I had one artists who kept turning down work from a very good client of the studio. I asked him how he could be so busy when I hadn't been able to book him anything and he replied that his turning down work would only make the client want him even more. They didn't, nor did they call anymore because they were tired of hearing "no."

He was dropped from representation and ended up leaving the field. His scarcity plan only made the clients and work scarce. Artificial shortages only works with video games and oil. Things people really need!

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"The simple answer is that people infer special value in something that has limited availability."

If the Xbox Live Gold membership fee were dropped, the existing stock of gift cards would not become saught after. If anything, retailers would have tried to clear the stock by dropping the price to match or beat the new membership fee.

If the artist only has "six copies of this print remaining" but he/she is an terrible artist, there isn't going to be a great rush to snap up his last prints.

Limiting 'noms' makes them valuable, but not just because they are limited. Imagine you were limited to turning 5 pages a slightly darker shade of grey. You'd place no significant value in that outcome. But 'noms' are actually limiting your ability to express your appreciation of a dish. Since most people would consider it valuable to be able to do this, the 'nom' (as a symbol) becomes valuable and you ration yourself in its use.

@Michael's anecdote is another example. The scarcity of poker chips doesn't really matter unless the chips represent something of value in the first place - in this case, money.

Claiming that "people value things that are scarce" appears to overlook all the other factors involved in decision making and value assessment. People don't value things *just* because they are scarce. The scarcity provides impetus to take definitive action, to assess (or reassess) the value of the object/subject in relation to others, or to ration and cherish things that you already have.

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Kudos, Stephen. I love learning about cognitive biases, but I'll admit that I often take them for face value (scarcity = scarcity of products on the market). Your article pushes it much further and provides real-world examples. A blog well written. Thanks!

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I'm reminded of trying to teach my sister-in-law poker. She didn't want to play for money. I said that poker relies on the concept that you might lose something of value, and if you take that out of the equation, there's no strategy to the game. After ten minutes of playing her way, she said the game seemed pointless. I convinced her to play for a few bucks, and suddenly she understood the game's allure. The game was more exciting when there was something at stake, you could lose it all, and your funds were limited (or scarce).

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Amazing insightful article. This particularly goes against the notion of software and web developers to provide unlimited options / choices / features as a way of attracting more audience. Truth is, as you said, thoughtful scarcity can do that and much more!

Thanks :)