How you charge affects user experience

Companies like Facebook make money off ads. Their real customers are the advertisers. Their users are not their customers, so their motivation with user experience is not to improve it for users, but rather try to get them to see more ads. So the motivations of the developers and the needs of the user are not aligned. The developers are motivated to manipulate the user into viewing more pages and more ads, whether it serves the users or not.

Contrast this to a site like Consumer Reports. You pay for content, so the users are the customer. They don’t take any advertising, which is the core benefit for customers: objective reviews. Their motivation is to provide quality content so you value the service enough to keep paying for it. There is no motivation to manipulate, as the number of pageviews doesn’t matter.

Here is another example: Farmville. This game makes money by charging for certain premium items and extras. They are very careful to not make core gameplay require money. They only charge for things that are shortcuts or luxuries. But still, their business model depends on getting you to keep playing, and to want those luxuries. So, over time, their game gets more and more bloated as they try to add new ways to entice people into paying for items. They build in annoyances and repetitive ways of doing things so that you’ll want to buy the shortcut. While their user is their customer, the way they make money still encourages manipulation of the user.

Contrast this with another game, Runescape. In Runescape, free members get access to a subset of the game features–certain features are members-only. But once you pay the members fee, you have access to everything, and it’s similar to Consumer Reports: they are motivated to create good game content so members keep paying. There is no motivation to manipulate the user.

I think all users want two things: great content and a great user experience. So the question is, does your business model align you with what your users want?

Does it make your customer want to pay (to get more great content and features)? Or does it manipulate them into buying, or give them something they don’t want (ads).

It may sound like I’m advocating that you do one or the other. I’m not, exactly. I know some things wouldn’t lend themselves to a paid content model. Would I pay for Facebook? Would it have achieved the widespread use it has if it had cost money to join? Probably not. Facebook is like TV: they got people addicted so they could show them ads.

I watch TV. And I use Facebook. And I’ve played Farmville. But I don’t necessarily think any of these are good for me, and they all have an addictive quality. I feel ambivalent about them. The thing that I don’t like is they benefit when I’m addicted. So they are motivated to make their user experience addictive.

Whereas the services I pay for like Consumer Reports, I generally feel good about. I don’t feel like they are trying to get me to come back and addictively use their site. I pay for it so that its there when I need it.

Here are other cases where you get for free, where the company is actually serving someone else, and as the user, your interests are not really their priority: credit cards and banks. Most accounts are free to open, and these industries are heavily regulated to keep them from completely exploiting their “free” users.

Free definitely gets you a lot of consumer adoption quickly. It’s a business model that works. But for who?

For my own sense of purpose and joy, I would rather be building something for my users, rather than for advertisers. It feels better. It feels cleaner.

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