Word: Tom Sawyer Effect
Definition: The Tom Sayer effect plays into two areas of user experience design. Firstly, it is the idea that scarcity breeds desire. If something is difficult to attain, people will covet it more strongly. Secondly, desire can often breed fun and delight, at which time, work no longer feels like work and transforms into enjoyment.
Reference: If it has been a while since you cracked Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, let’s refresh. At the beginning of the book Tom is tasked with white washing a huge fence, which quite obviously, is not how Tom wanted to spend his day. Instead of painting, he works his charm to convince neighborhood boys to do the job for him, and as an added bonus, even gets the boys to pay him for the privilege. So how did he do this?
When he offers the first boy the opportunity to paint the fence, Tom says, “Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?” Here, Tom sets up a scarce opportunity. He then makes that scarce opportunity difficult to attain by telling the boy that there is no way he will be able to do a good enough job. “I reckon there ain’t one boy in a thousand, maybe two thousand, that can do it in the way it’s got to be done.” So not only is the job scarce, but when presented the opportunity, it is still difficult to attain. Now Tom has the boy right where he wants him.
Tom finally allows the boy to white wash the fence, but in exchange for compensation! Here, Tom demonstrates the other principle of the effect, turning work into enjoyment. If Tom were to have paid the boy, the task would have turned right back into work.
Twain writes, “[Tom] discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it – namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.”
Thoughts: UX Designers can learn from young Tom Sawyer. Think about a website selling a product. Even if the product is not actually scarce, you can create that feeling of scarcity by limiting the time frame for purchase or even noting how many units of the item are sill in stock to evoke a fear of loss (more on loss aversion later).
We also see sites that rely heavily on user generated content. The user is typically not paid to post but excitement generated by the activity is enjoyable nonetheless. Especially, if you are specifically chosen to participate or receive a status that is difficult to attain (like ranking high up-votes on Reddit).