‘The “Free” issue’ or ‘How 17th-century philosophy affects UX’

The other day I was reading something that happened to mention Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes was a 17th-century English philosopher. He saw humans as ego-driven, power-hungry machines whose seeming good intentions all mask entirely self-serving motives. The impact of this idea was so strong that even today, more than 300 years later, we still find it very hard to think that motives are ever genuinely altruistic.

Quite a long time ago I used to work as a sound engineer for a rock venue. They would regularly hold nights for unsigned acts to show what they could do in front of an audience. The whole idea was seen by the venue owner as a charitable act: giving otherwise unknown bands a place to play to anyone who would listen. The venue owner kept these nights as ‘free entry’ – anyone could walk in, sit down and watch. Attendance was never very good and was usually confined to the people that the bands had managed to persuade along.

After a brief discussion on one of these night when there were only 9 people in the bar (including myself, the owner and the 5-piece band) he agreed to let me run a few.

The first thing I did was ask how much the most expensive single drink was (a little less than £3 at the time). Then I asked the owner to get some small tickets printed and put a sign up saying that these nights would now be £3 to get in but would come with a free drink at the bar in exchange for the ticket stub. The first night we did this, the bar was about 0% full things only got better from then on.

When the night was free people were suspicious (Hobbes’ legacy) and thought that the bands probably sucked so didn’t bother. As soon as we put a price on the door people wanted to know what was worth £3 and were happy to pay so much, even if the bands did suck, because they knew that they would at least get a ‘free’ drink.

The moral of the story? Well if we apply all this not to ‘how much it costs’, but to ‘how difficult it is’ to achieve something then the same is true – if something is too easy to achieve then it can be seen as valueless, unimportant and, perhaps most importantly, untrustworthy – free entry = bands suck.

How useful is that? Probably not much, but the opposite is also true: if something is difficult to achieve then the outcome will be perceived as valuable and dependable. We need to be sure the the outcome IS valuable and dependable for the user or we risk creating massive disappointment with our product. BUT we can also create additional value by putting some of the easy things after a difficult process. This could take the form of free wallpapers or trailers after a tricky sign up process for something else – paid entry + free drink = perceived value + less awareness of actual value.

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