Reciprocity

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What is Reciprocity?

The law of reciprocity or reciprocation is a norm that states people are obliged to give back to others in the form of a behavior, gift or service they have received first. Designers apply this if they offer users value or benefits and then ask for something in return. To offer value upfront can create a sense of goodwill and encourage users to engage further with the brand. 

Author and Human-Computer Interaction Expert, Professor Alan Dix explains aspects of the principle of reciprocity: 

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How Important is the Law of Reciprocity in UX Design? 

The role that the law of reciprocity—or principle of reciprocity or reciprocation—plays in user experience (UX) design is a crucial one. It can have a huge impact on how users perceive and interact with digital products and services. If designers apply reciprocity—and if they do it well—they can prompt and nurture higher levels of user engagement, satisfaction and loyalty. When users feel that they’ve received value or benefits from a product or service, they’ll be more likely to reciprocate—by taking desired actions. What they do could take the form of situations where they make a purchase, sign up for a newsletter or recommend the product to others as loyal customers. 

The principle of reciprocity has got a firm basis in psychology. When designers understand the importance of reciprocity in their design work—and leverage it—well, they can create experiences that don’t just meet users' functional needs but evoke positive emotions and foster connections that last for a long time, too. So, the principle of reciprocity—also called the principle or law of reciprocation—can have a powerful bearing on conversion rate and, indeed, long-term customer loyalty.  

An image from the Maze website.

Maze makes free guides with pertinent and helpful information for potential users.

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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 Influence book, renowned psychologist Robert Cialdini’s first principle is reciprocity. The premise is that if someone wants someone else to do or give something to them, the first person does or gives something first. Cialdini builds this point on well-established characteristics of reciprocity—namely: 

●  Reciprocity is a social norm in many societies, and individual psychological responses tend to be significant. 

●  The initiator of reciprocity is free to choose the initial offering and the favor they subsequently ask for (if it’s applicable). 

●  The reciprocal favor doesn’t have to be of equal size. It may be much larger. 

●  Participants in a reciprocal act frequently feel more positive about the outcome. This is especially the case where negotiated concessions come into play. 

●  Even little reciprocal exchanges can bring about loyalty. 

The point that reciprocity is a social norm is a critical one. Most people will feel compelled to reciprocate if they receive something for nothing. This compulsion may be open to abuse. Even so, it‘s arguably considerable as another tool of persuasion. The principle has roots that are firmly planted in human psychology. What’s more, it can serve as a fundamental aspect of both social relationships and interactions—and these include sales, marketing and design. So, it’s a valuable tool for brands to create meaningful connections with—and so nurture healthy engagement with users who feel more valued because of it.   

Examples of the Law of Reciprocity in UX Design 

Some real-world examples can illustrate how designers can apply the law of reciprocity in UX design.  

Freemium Models

One common example of reciprocity in action is how digital platforms use freemium models. Brands give users a free version of their product or service—they let them experience its core functionalities and enjoy that good free version with no strings attached. This act of generosity creates a sense of reciprocity—and instills likely responses as to how users interact with the brand. And it encourages users to reciprocate in that they can become paying customers or advocate for the product within their network. 

Screenshot from AVG's Antivirus landing page.

AVG Antivirus’s Free version delivers safety and assurance to users—they pay nothing in monetary terms, but are likely to talk about the benefits to people they know.

© AVG, Fair Use

Personalized Recommendations 

Digital platforms like e-commerce websites and streaming services frequently leverage personalized recommendations to appear to users that are based on these users’ preferences and past behavior. These platforms offer tailored suggestions, and so they make users feel understood and appreciated—a personalized experience that nurtures a sense of reciprocity. So, users can feel more driven to explore more—and remain engaged with—the product or service. 

Screenshot from Amazon.com showing recommended books and more.

Amazon.com show an understanding of their users through the recommendations they provide.

© Amazon, Fair Use

Social Media Engagement 

Social media platforms leverage reciprocity in that they encourage users to connect, share content and engage with the posts of others. If users like, comment or share content, they build reciprocal relationships. What’s more, they promote a sense of community and interaction—and, as a result, users feel encouraged to come back to the platform, and so their sense of loyalty strengthens. 

Social exchange theory (SET) is arguably a foundation of online social networks. For example, in a study of nearly 400 students on Facebook, Associate Professor of Information Systems, Warsaw School of Economics, Jerzy Surma confirmed the importance of reciprocal behavior. There was a near-perfect correlation between likes sent and received. 

User-Generated Content 

When brands feature user-generated content (UGC) in their digital products, they show another effective way to work with reciprocity. Users have chances to contribute their ideas, feedback or creations, like photos. What these users get, then, is a sense of ownership and acknowledgment. Users feel a sense of value—what’s more, what they contribute enhances the overall product experience, and that encourages them to continue engaging with the platform. 

An example is Amazon—the world's largest online marketplace, who cleverly incorporate the law of reciprocity into their customer review system. Because they let customers leave reviews for products they’ve purchased, Amazon creates a good platform for reciprocity to flourish—and flourish well. Customers who benefit from reading reviews that others leave may feel compelled to add their own reviews—and this builds a cycle of reciprocity where everyone benefits from the shared knowledge and experiences. 

Gamification

Gamification elements—like progress bars, achievements and badges—tap into users' yearning for recognition and reward. If designers work these features into a design, they can instill a sense of reciprocity. Users strive to finish tasks, earn points or unlock new levels and—from that, they can stay engaged and keep their commitment to the product high. 

Screenshot from Duolingo

Gamification features are a fun aspect of the law of reciprocity.

© Duolingo, Fair Use

Best Practices and Tips to Apply the Law of Reciprocity in UX Design 

Designers should consider some best practices and tips to use this law well; here are main ones: 

1. Know the Target Audience 

Designers should do their UX research—and thoroughly—before they determine a good strategy for the brand they serve. So, they should use solid research methods and analytics tools to get insights about what users would want—and how best these users might return the favor once they receive it.  

2. Provide Value Upfront 

Offer users something they’ll value before asking them to take any desired actions. This offer could take the shape of free resources, exclusive content or personalized recommendations. When designers show users the value the latter can expect from the product or service, they set down a solid foundation for reciprocity. 

Screenshot from the Duolingo site.

Duolingo offers free language lessons and adopts a gamified approach—which makes it fun as well.

© Duolingo, Fair Use

3. Be Clear and Transparent 

Clearly communicate what benefits users can expect to get when they engage with the product or service. Be transparent about any requirements or expectations of them—and make sure that users do understand the value they’ll receive in return for their actions. Use good visual design techniques to help get this information across to them. 

Screenshot from the Duolingo site's onboarding process.

After a few simple, ultra-quick-to-answer questions—about how the user heard about Duolingo, etc.—the user sees what’s available and what they can do with it.

© Duolingo, Fair Use

4. Personalize the Experience 

Tailor the user experience to individual preferences and needs. When designers personalize recommendations, content and interactions, they create a more meaningful and relevant experience. This can really resonate with users—who feel the brand speaking directly to them and feel more valued for it. That can greatly increase the likelihood of reciprocity towards a brand that users feel truly cares about them. 

Tailored suggestions are what digital platforms like online stores and streaming services use—and these draw from user preferences and actions for personalized recommendations.

5. Encourage User Contributions 

Provide chances for users to contribute their ideas or feedback—or content. When designers acknowledge and incorporate user contributions, they foster a sense of ownership and encourage reciprocity. These don’t have to be long. Short and sweet reviews can often be enough to help other users, boost the brand and give the contributing user or customer a sense of empowerment that their voice matters. As a byproduct for brands, it’s a good way to collect user feedback as well. 

6. Show Appreciation 

Acknowledge—and appreciate—users' actions and contributions. So, it’s important to express gratitude, be it in the form of personalized messages, rewards or exclusive benefits. When brands show their appreciation, they reinforce the reciprocal relationship, plus they further encourage user engagement. 

Image of an email from Uber, featuring free ice cream offer.

This email from Uber finds them giving away free ice cream—a surefire way to treat users and make them feel appreciated.

© Zion & Zion, Fair Use

7. Continuously Improve 

Regularly assess and optimize the user experience using user feedback and behavior as a basis. When designers constantly improve the product or service, they show a commitment to provide ongoing value—and reinforce the reciprocal relationship. 

Examples of Reciprocity as a Technique 

Designers generally have two types of technique to subscribe to. The following are examples that embody these approaches: 

1. Directly Beneficial

This could be in the form of a “Your download is coming!” message, with the added text that assures users they will have it soon, and that in the meantime they might like the brand to send them a download link or to subscribe to their newsletter. All users need to do is provide their email address. The brand further makes users feel assured that they’ll never share the users’ details—as well as the point that users can unsubscribe at any time. 

2. “Door-in-the-Face” Technique 

This unpleasant-sounding strategy is well-known in psychology and has nothing to do with physical violence. In interaction design, designers could propose an expensive offering or request a considerable investment of time from visitors—below is a kind of outline of this: 

“Our fully-personalized service, only $800 per month! 

(Not what you were after? Why not consider these alternatives…)” 

Cialdini reported surprisingly improved results from this strategy in face-to-face situations. He also called it “rejection then retreat.” Nevertheless, he stated that the first party has to act in good faith. An outlandishly extravagant initial offer will probably violate this faith. Another issue that comes up in the general area of cooperation is “ease of exit.” In face-to-face situations, social norms of politeness may have a bearing on the outcome. The participant may feel they have to respond. However, online users will not have this sense. In that light—and as UX designers work in a digital environment—the strategy may not be as effective as simple reciprocation. 

Risks and Considerations to Apply the Law of Reciprocity in UX Design 

The law of reciprocity can be a powerful tool in design. Still, it's important to consider the potential risks and challenges that come with it—and here are some: 

 1. Authenticity 

Designers should make sure that the acts of reciprocity are both genuine and in line with the brand's values. Users can sense attempts to manipulate them—something that can critically damage trust and loyalty. If that happens, it’s likely to be extremely difficult for brands to recover any sense of goodwill from users who’ll be more cynical about them. 

 2. Balance 

To provide value and ask for reciprocation is a balance that designers need to maintain. Don’t overwhelm users with excessive requests or expectations—and end up provoking a sense of obligation or annoyance from them. 

 3. Privacy and Data Ethics 

Designers need to be mindful of privacy concerns—and ethical considerations—when they collect and make use of user data. Respect user boundaries and make sure that reciprocity doesn’t infringe on user privacy or exploit personal information. 

 4. Cultural Sensitivity 

Designers also need to think about cultural differences and norms whenever they include the law of reciprocity in their work. What one culture may perceive as reciprocal may well not be the same in another. Designers and brands need to adapt their approach to be in line with their target audience’s cultural context. 

Author and Human-Computer Interaction Expert, Professor Alan Dix explains the need to consider culture in design: 

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Overall, the principle of reciprocity can serve as a good gauge to create content and for designers to ultimately create products that resonate with users who become—and remain—loyal customers. However, it’s more a principle than a law in the sense of “enforcement.” Like other marketing strategies, it’s open to abuse and can have drawbacks if designers and product teams don’t leverage it well. If brands do leverage it well, however, they can tap the power of an age-old principle and speak more directly to their users, and both sides of the transaction can enjoy rewards that they can feel, others can see and that can translate to strong customer faith in the brand. 

Learn More about the Law of Reciprocity 

Take our Design for Thought and Emotion course. 

Read our piece Serial Position Effect: How to Create Better User Interfaces for in-depth details. 

See The Reciprocity Principle: Give Before You Take in Web Design by Raluka Budiu for important insights and additional considerations. 

Read Using the reciprocity principle for a persuasive UX by Yogesh Awasthi for more fascinating insights. 

Consult Reciprocation Design Pattern by UI Patterns / Learning Loops ApS for additional dimensions and ideas. 

Read Reciprocity A Game-Changer in UX Design by Craig Barber for more insights and examples. 

Questions related to Reciprocity

How does the law of reciprocity enhance website conversion rates? 

The law of reciprocity gives a great boost to website conversion rates—that’s because it capitalizes on a fundamental human inclination to return favors. For instance, think of a website that provides a free e-book or an exclusive webinar without any demand on users to make immediate payment or subscribe. It taps into this law effectively. Users look on these free resources as gifts—and they’re more likely to reciprocate by engaging with the site in a meaningful way. It's not just about the value of what's given; the power lies in the creation of an initial experience that both is positive and encourages future interactions. 

What’s more, this approach helps to build trust and establish a good relationship with users. As brands offer something of value first, they show both their expertise and their willingness to help. It’s something that can make them stand out in a crowded market. This initial trust can be a decisive factor when users pick and choose who they want to do business with. 

For designers to apply the law of reciprocity also means that they can personalize the user experience. And when they tailor the content or gifts to match the users' interests, it shows that a brand pays attention to their needs—and so raises the likelihood of a positive response. 

Watch CEO of Experience Dynamics, Frank Spillers explain significant points about mobile UI design patterns: 

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How can designers use the law of reciprocity ethically without manipulating users? 

Designers can use the law of reciprocity ethically if they offer genuine value to users and do not expect immediate returns. This approach means that designers provide useful content, tools or services for free, and so foster a positive user experience. Ethical application means to ensure transparency about the nature of the exchange and avoid deceptive practices. Designers should always aim to build trust and long-term relationships—and they shouldn’t exploit this principle for quick gains. When designers focus sharply on their users’ needs and preferences, they can make meaningful interactions happen. These will be ones that naturally encourage users to engage further with the product or service. 

Product Design Lead at Netflix, Nival Sheikh explains the dimension of ethics as it applies to artificial intelligence (AI). 

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What psychological boundaries exist for the law of reciprocity?

The law of reciprocity faces psychological limits—ones that mainly revolve around the point that designers especially need to recognize when a gesture of kindness is genuine versus when it might serve a hidden agenda. This principle relies on a basic human tendency to repay favors or gifts—and so aim for mutual benefits. Even so, the ethical line does blur whenever someone uses this instinct for their own personal gain. That’s what creates a dilemma between selflessness and manipulation. 

Kindness—true kindness, that is—expects nothing back. When people feel a favor comes with expectations, they might look on the gesture with suspicion—which will work against the positive effect it could have. This can harm trust—especially if the recipient thinks the favor was a tactic for the brand to get some advantage. 

The success of reciprocity also depends on how both parties view the value and relevance of what they exchange. An imbalance in this perceived value can lead to feelings of unease—or even resentment—and these are things that can harm rather than help relationships. For instance, what if the second person responds to a small favor with a gift that’s too large? It could make the first person—the new receiver—feel overly indebted, and so uncomfortable. 

Cultural differences set another boundary for reciprocity. What one culture sees as generous mightn’t translate the same way in another—something that can lead to confusion. It’s important to be aware of—and sensitive to—these cultural differences if you’re going to navigate the principles of reciprocity well. 

To apply the law of reciprocity with integrity, focus on transparency and true intent—and give and expect nothing in return. This approach doesn’t just maintain psychological boundaries, but it builds trust and strengthens relationships as well​​​. 

Take our course, Design for Thought and Emotion with Author and Human-Computer Interaction Expert, Professor Alan Dix to help get behind how human users think and feel. 

What strategies employ the law of reciprocity to improve user experience?

To use the law of reciprocity to really improve user experience, designers can adopt a few strategic approaches. For one thing, they can simplify the design. That makes the interface clean and easy to navigate—something that contributes directly to a good user experience. Fast-loading websites also play a crucial role—because users are likely to stay longer and engage more on sites that load quickly. If designers make websites responsive, they help make sure that users get to enjoy a seamless experience across different devices. That’s an essential factor in a mobile-centric world​​. 

It’s a critical thing for designers to understand user expectations as another key strategy. Users have specific expectations—such as to find the navigation menu at the top of the page or links that are blue and underlined. When designers meet these expectations—and do it well—they make a comfortable and familiar environment for the user. The psychology of colors does have a strong effect on how users perceive and interact with a website. Different colors can evoke different emotions and reactions—and that’s a fact that can influence user behavior and decisions. 

Last—but not least—designers should focus on the presentation and layout of the site to spot and solve UX problems. Tools like Crazy Egg help understand user behavior—such as where they click and how they navigate a page. This insight allows for targeted improvements. For example, when designers separate calls to action (CTAs) to lessen the chances of confusion and put them strategically based on user engagement data, they can give the user experience a great boost​​. 

Take our Master Class How to Design with the Mind in Mind with Jeff Johnson, Assistant Professor, Computer Science Department, University of San Francisco, to understand more about people and user experience design. 

What daily life examples illustrate the law of reciprocity?

The law of reciprocity does play a role in daily life—a vital one. It guides interactions in both subtle and overt ways. A simple example is when someone smiles at you—and you feel a compulsion to smile back at them. This automatic response shows how small gestures can trigger a reciprocal action—something that nurtures positive social exchanges. 

Another common example happens in the context of gifts and favors. Imagine a friend helps you move to a new house; you might feel the urge to help them in return. Or you might want to show your appreciation through another gesture, like inviting them for dinner. This scenario shows how the law encourages a cycle of kindness—and support—within personal relationships. 

In professional settings, the law of reciprocity can influence networking and business relationships. For instance, to provide a free sample or a helpful service and not ask for payment upfront is something that can lead customers to feel indebted—and more likely to engage in business with you later. This strategy isn’t just about immediate benefits—it’s about the building of long-term trust and rapport, too. 

Even in digital interactions—such as social media—this law is at work. When someone likes or comments on your post, you might feel inclined to return the favor and engage with their content. This mutual exchange strengthens connectivity and boosts a community feeling online. 

Take our Master Class Top Ten Things Designers Need to Know About People  with Susan Weinschenk, Chief Behavioral Scientist and CEO, The Team W Inc. for insights into users as people. 

What case study shows the Law of Reciprocity's impact on user engagement?

For a case study that illustrates the law of reciprocity's impact on user engagement, look at Spotify's strategy of offering a free premium trial. In this approach, users experienced the full value of Spotify's service—encouraging them to convert to paying customers after the trial period. As Spotify provided significant upfront value without immediate demands for payment, Spotify effectively engaged users and increased its customer base​​. For more detailed insights, read the full case study at Userpilot's blog on reciprocity marketing: Reciprocity Marketing: How it Can Work Wonders for SaaS

In what ways can UX designers use the reciprocity principle to enhance user onboarding experiences?

UX designers can use the reciprocity principle in user onboarding if they provide immediate value—like personalized tips or rewards—to encourage new users to engage more deeply with the app. If designers offer step-by-step guides or interactive tutorials as free help, that can make users more likely to reciprocate with loyalty and engagement. What’s more, if designers include surprise bonuses or exclusive content early in the onboarding process, it creates a positive initial experience. And it makes users feel valued and more inclined to continue using the product. 

Watch as Torey Podmajersky discusses how effective communication and copywriting in design can significantly impact user engagement. 

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What role does the reciprocity principle play in designing effective calls to action (CTAs) in UX?

The reciprocity principle has a great impact on UX design—especially so when designers craft effective calls to action (CTAs). As designers provide users with something valuable upfront—such as free content, trial periods or exclusive access—they can encourage users to respond in kind. This value-first approach makes users more likely to take the desired action—like to sign up or make a purchase—because they feel a sense of obligation or gratitude. Effectively, CTAs that designers create with the reciprocity principle in mind don’t merely ask for something from users but also offer them something valuable in return—boosting engagement and conversion rates. 

Watch as Michal Malewicz, Creative Director and CEO of Hype4, explains how to design buttons well: 

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What are some highly cited scientific articles on the subject of reciprocity?
  1. Trivers, R. (1971). The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46(1), 35-57. Retrieved from  

Robert Trivers' seminal work, "The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism"—published in 1971 in The Quarterly Review of Biology—has been highly influential in evolutionary theory and psychology. This publication introduced the concept of reciprocal altruism—explaining how cooperation can evolve outside of kinship through mutually beneficial exchanges. Trivers' theory has had a profound impact on understanding social behavior—shedding light on the evolution of cooperation and altruism in animal populations and human societies. The idea of reciprocal altruism proposed by Trivers has become a cornerstone in evolutionary psychology—and has influenced research on human behavior, social interactions and cooperation. This work laid the foundation for further studies on altruistic behavior and its evolutionary origins—which makes it a landmark contribution to the evolutionary biology and psychology field. 

 

  1. Pelaprat, E., & Brown, B. (2012). Reciprocity: Understanding online social relations. First Monday, Volume 17, Number 10-1.  

The publication "Reciprocity: Understanding online social relations"—by Pelaprat and Brown—delves into the concept of reciprocity as a fundamental element in comprehending social behavior—particularly in online environments. The paper explores how reciprocal exchanges play a symbolic role in shaping various forms of social interactions and relationships by nurturing recognition among individuals. From contrasting their interpretation of reciprocity with traditional theories that emphasize self-interest or altruism, the authors highlight the significance of actions seeking reciprocity as a means to engage others in social life rather than for personal gain. Through an analysis of online activities such as web forums, social networking sites and online games, the authors provide insights into how reciprocal interactions have an influence on digital social dynamics—offering implications for designers who aim to enhance digitally-mediated social experiences. 

What are some highly regarded books about the subject of reciprocity?

Cialdini, R. B. (2021). Influence, New and Expanded: The Psychology of Persuasion. HarperCollins.  

The updated version of The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini builds upon his widely recognized expertise in the fields of influence and persuasion. The newly expanded edition features fresh research findings, insights, examples and practical applications tailored for contemporary audiences. Cialdini guides readers through the intricate psychology behind why people agree to certain requests—and demonstrates how to effectively employ these principles ethically in both professional and daily situations. His engaging writing style and relevant case studies make learning about this essential subject both accessible and enjoyable.  

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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.

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