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What sign-up flows could learn from online dating

Kristen Berman is the co-founder of Irrational Labs with Dan Ariely. Edited by Rohini Venkatraman. Want to learn more about how small details have a big difference? Applications now open for StartupOnomics.com.

Assume that you’re a female and dating online.  Two men message you.

Jack messages and asks you straight away to go and get a drink with him.

Rob messages and asks you what you enjoy doing on the weekend. You message Rob back. You tell Rob about your healthy obsession with Indie music and he tells you about his welding hobby.   After another back and forth, Rob asks you on a date.

We could think about the difference between Jack’s approach and Rob’s approach in terms of friction. The process to go on a date with Jack is as simple as possible – there is no friction.  Curious Rob’s inquiries create an additional layer of friction and require effort and investment on your part to get to the ‘date request’.

Which guy would you choose to go on a date with?

Most females will quickly chirp that Rob is the optimal choice.  This is not friction motivating females to choose Rob, but there is something else that goes hand in hand with friction that would cause him to win the round.

To understand this better, let’s think about conversion in general.

Companies devote entire teams and significant time and effort to improving the conversion of skeptical, potential would-be customers to happy, paying, new customers.  Their online sign-up flow is the main gateway for this conversion.  A successful sign-up flow will increase the number of customers a company has, while an unsuccessful sign up flow will deter otherwise valuable customers from becoming active users.

Recently Lumosity published a summary of experiments that attempt to optimize their sign up flow.   Their takeaway was that adding friction (or steps) to their sign up flow actually increased the number of people who signed up for their product.

What we found is that sometimes friction (a five page survey) can help you acquire customers that really believe in your product, who want to build a long-term relationship with your company

Their result seems very counter intuitive to everything we know about online sign-up flows. Did Lumosity just prove the entire field of behavioral economics wrong? Do their users like to expand effort more than average people?

Or, did Lumosity just pull a Rob? Could it be that in order to start a relationship with Lumosity we need more than a picture and a wink?

Perhaps what Lumosity offered their users was the chance to decrease uncertainty about their product while also increasing commitment to the experience. With every question, the user uncovered more information about Lumosity.  With each question, it was harder to just walk away.   By adding this additional understanding and commitment, they may have outweighed the negative tailwind that friction and complexity can bring.

This fits with our online dating example.  While it would be much more efficient to accept a date with Jack, it feels like we don’t really know him.  It’s easy to say No or just ignore the message.  In this case, Rob’s questions, while adding friction, also increased our commitment to Rob and made it harder to walk away.

Could Rob have asked us anything? Likely not. If Rob messaged and instead asked: “What is the best way to get to San Francisco?”  this would not have increased our understanding of who he is or our  commitment to the goal of going on a date with him. Instead, this question would have just added friction (likely annoyance) and deterred our response.

Friction was NOT why Lumosity’s conversion flow improved. Friction for friction’s sake is usually a bad idea.  

However,  there are times when we can get away with adding  friction if it is accompanied by more powerful forces (like commitment) that can increase conversion.   

In the product world, there are little things we can do to increase commitment without increasing friction.

 In a very creative seminal 1970’s experiment, researcher Ellen Langer distributed lottery tickets to people…and then asked people how much they would sell this lottery ticket for. The twist? One group got to physically pick their lottery ticket.  One group was given a pre-chosen lottery ticket.

What happened?

The group that got to choose their lottery ticket had a much higher resell price.  While people in this group had the additional step of choosing their ticket, by giving the user an illusion of control, the person then placed a higher value on their ticket.  In reality, the chance to win the lottery was unaffected by who chose the ticket. Still, the person’s commitment to the outcome increased given their role in the random chance.

So what is the product lesson here?

For online sign up flows, the goal is to uncover small ways (like Ellen’s choosing the lottery ticket) that increase general commitment, without adding additional complexity.

But contrary to the analysis in the Lumosity article, friction is never a good thing.  People time and again opt for the path of least resistance.  We should add friction when it serves an additional purpose that can outweigh its negative effect.

The real lesson?

Online dating is all about escalating commitment as fast as possible, without scaring the girl/guy off.  Unfortunately, just like online sign-up flows, there is no hard and fast rule on how to do this.  We just need to experiment.


Want to learn more about how small details have a big (revenue) difference? Applications now open for StartupOnomics.com

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