Design, Behavior, and Ben Franklin

Could you do us a favor and read this?

Designers of every kind strive to make a connection with a human who engages with their work. Whether it is an ad at a bus shelter or the latest app on Product Hunt, we are always trying to push the limits to see how design can achieve a specific behavior. One of the most effective ways to connect with another person is pretty counterintuitive–ask them for a simple favor first, and they will be more likely to do favors for you in the future. This is called the Ben Franklin Effect.  

History of the Ben Franklin Effect

Franklin wrote about this in his autobiography when dealing with a rival legislator:

Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return’d it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.” [1]

This observation by Franklin was studied again in 1969 when researchers held a fake intellectual contest but asked the “winners” to return the prize money. The participants who returned the prize money to the researcher rated the researcher’s likeability higher than those who were allowed to keep the money with no question. However, another participant group that was asked to return the money by a secretary rated the researcher’s likeability lower than the second group, expressing that the request was impersonal. [2]

“He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”
– Benjamin Franklin

Psychologists believe this works because of a theory known as cognitive dissonance. Humans are more likely to grant another favor because we have a tendency to convince ourselves that if we didn’t already like who we performed the favor for, we would not have done it in the first place, which is the primer for the next favor.

This comes with several stipulations. For example, if a person asks someone for things over and over again or too soon after the initial favor, that person is seen as greedy and the chances of being granted additional favors goes down. Conversely, we tend to develop a dislike for people that we have wronged, who have never done anything to warrant it but to make us feel better for doing them wrong.

Where can this be seen in design?

The Ben Franklin effect can be directly applied to product design. Asking for, and rewarding the completion of small favors can result in more engagement down the road. The key word here is small. Forty to sixty percent of users will never log into an app again after the first time. [3] By asking for the minimum amount of information needed for the experience, the user is likely to spend more time in the app. Designers can then prompt the user for more information when it is appropriate. For example, Eventbrite, an app that finds local events, only asks for a zip code. After a user wants to register for an event, then the app asks them for an email.

In something like advertising, the effect may be best used as a single piece of a larger strategy. In 2012, when Frito-Lay wanted to generate buzz around their 75 year-old-brand of Lay’s Potato Chips, they turned to its consumers. Aptly called ‘Do us a Flavor,’ Lay’s simply asked its audience what the next flavor of chip should grace supermarket shelves. They created a Facebook app to make it easy for their target audience to participate and the results were impressive. At the end of the ten-month campaign Lay’s received 3.8 million submissions and over the few years they have run their campaign they saw a 12% increase of sales. [4]

How to Use it in Design

There are a few ways to employ this effect in your next project as a way to boost some engagement:  

Make sure it’s personal

People are savvy—if the request seems phony or out of line, it will be denied. Remember the study where the participants related the likeability of the researcher to how appropriate they thought the request. Developing an authentic voice for a product or campaign helps to create that feeling of genuineness.

Ask with your audience in mind

Don’t ask too much too soon. Humans are averse to loss so don’t waste a user’s time. When the request is too big, the likelihood of being granted a favor goes down considerably. Start small like in the case of Eventbrite, or position the favor so it is in line with the interests of your audience so it is something they are willing to invest some time, energy, or money in like in the case of Lay’s campaign.

“Ultimately as designers, we need to be conscious that we are giving more than we are asking for.”

It’s a tactic, not a strategy

The Ben Franklin Effect works best when it’s one part of the overall experience. It helps to drive the initial interaction and shape the attitude toward the brand, product, campaign, etc. In the ‘Do Us a Flavor’ campaign, Lay’s strategy was to empower potato chip lovers to shape a classic brand. By engaging consumers to contribute their ideas through apps, games, and an online community of fellow flavor creators, Lay’s rewarded the favor ten fold. The creators of the flavors were directly benefiting from the request. Ultimately as designers, we need to be conscious that we are giving more than we are asking for. This balance is crucial in keeping the relationship between designer/brand/product and consumer/user/target audience strong.


Further Reading:
Hooked: How to Form Habit-forming Products
The Benjamin Franklin Effect: The Surprising Psychology of How to Handle Haters

About the Author

Sarah Croughwell is a User Experience Researcher at Motivis Learning and the Communications Director for AIGA Boston. Guided by curiosity, Sarah explores the intersection of design and the social sciences both in her work and in her observation. You can follow her on Twitter, Dribbble, and Instagram.

Published November 1, 2016