What is Reciprocity?
Reciprocity is a cornerstone of society and social networking, but what is it, and how do we employ it effectively in design?
Much of what we do in interaction and user-experience design is to get people to buy our products and services, read our content, subscribe to our newsletter and so on. We typically use simple persuasion to accomplish this by saying that our content, products or services are better, faster or cheaper than elsewhere. But there are more powerful and subtle ways of encouraging engagement. One of the most effective of these is reciprocity. It is powerful because it is a social norm in virtually all societies.
Reciprocity in Social Networks
Social exchange theory (SET) is considered by many to be the foundation of online social networks. One of the most cited papers on SET (Cropanzano and Mitchell) lists reciprocity as its main driving force. This should come as no surprise for anyone actively engaged in social networking. Acknowledging and responding to your network’s activities are seen as essential elements, as described by HCI Professor Alan Dix in this clip:
In a study of nearly 400 students on Facebook, Jerzy Surma confirmed the importance of reciprocal behavior, with a near-perfect correlation between likes sent and received. (See his paper below.)
Cialdini’s Reciprocation Principle
“The rule of reciprocation says…we should try to repay what another person has provided us”.
– Robert Cialdini, Influence, New and Expanded
In his book Influence, Robert Cialdini’s first principle is reciprocity. The simple premise is that if you want someone to do or give something to you, you do or give something first. He bases this argument on well-established characteristics of reciprocity:
It is a social norm. Without exception, human societies value reciprocity, and individual psychological responses are significant.
The initiator of reciprocity is free to choose the initial offering and the favor subsequently asked (if applicable).
The reciprocal favor does not have to be equal and may be substantially larger.
Participants of reciprocity often feel more positive about the outcome, especially where negotiated concessions are involved.
Even small reciprocal exchanges can promote loyalty.
The first point is crucial. Most people will feel compelled to reciprocate. While this compulsion is open to abuse, it can also be considered another tool of persuasion.
Reciprocity in Use
It is very common for websites or apps to offer something to first-time visitors. But often, this is done without invoking the reciprocity reflex, as in this example:
Get our free report!
(Just enter your name, email address, location, job title, company name, location and birth sign before we send it.)
We’ve not done anything for the user yet; we’ve just asked for a lot of unnecessary information with the promise of a reward. Visitors have no reason to feel benevolent towards the site or to “return the favor”. Also, in many countries, asking for more personal information than is needed for a specific purpose violates data privacy laws.
Here is how to make a more persuasive interaction.
Your download is on its way!
(It shouldn’t be too long. In the meantime, if you’d like us to send you a download link or to subscribe to our newsletter, just supply your email address. We will never share your details, and you can unsubscribe anytime.)
In this second example, we’ve given away a report or similar download, and the visitor is free to move on. But because we’ve done this without any demands, visitors will likely feel an inclination to interact further.
This unpleasant-sounding strategy is well-known in psychology but need not involve physical violence. It relies on making a sizeable initial request that the instigator expects the participant to reject. A subsequent, less-substantial request is much more likely to succeed when compared with situations where the initial request was not made. (See Chapter 2 of Influence.)
In interaction design, we could propose an expensive offering or request a considerable investment of time from our visitors as outlined below:
Our fully-personalized service, only $900 per month!
(Not what you were looking for? Consider these alternatives…)
In face-to-face interactions, Cialdini reports surprisingly improved outcomes from this strategy, which he also calls “rejection then retreat”. However, he points out that the first party has to act in good faith. An outlandishly extravagant initial offer is likely to violate this faith. Another issue that arises in the general area of cooperation is “ease of exit”. In face-to-face encounters, social norms of politeness may influence the outcome. The participant may feel they have to respond. But these norms will not apply to online users, so that the strategy may be less effective than simple reciprocation.
References and Further Reading
Literature on Reciprocity
Here’s the entire UX literature on Reciprocity by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:
Learn more about Reciprocity
Take a deep dive into Reciprocity with our course Design for Thought and Emotion .
Throughout the course, the well-respected author and professor of Human-Computer Interaction, Alan Dix, will give valuable insights into the basics of thought and emotion. He will also touch on how these factors influence us as designers of interactive systems.
In the “Build Your Portfolio: Thought and Emotion Project”, you’ll find a series of practical exercises that will give you first-hand experience in applying what we’ll cover. If you want to complete these optional exercises, you’ll create a series of case studies for your portfolio which you can show your future employer or freelance customers.
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