The value of free (and why it matters for user experience)

When someone gives you something for free, how do you feel about it? How much value do you assign to that thing?

I don’t mean from the supplier’s perspective — that’s a matter for them, whether it’s about promoting a brand, making loss leaders, being seen as a benefactor while getting rid of old stock, creating a buzz, there’s usually a long term view behind giving stuff away.

I’m thinking about the value from your perspective. Not monetary value but things like effort, thought, goodwill, time — personal or social values if you like.

The answer is, as ever, that it depends.

Let’s take a few examples. I was in a busy shopping mall in London a few weeks ago and a well known drinks brand was giving a way sampler-size ice cold cans of their zero sugar product. It was mid-morning, windy and still chilly outside. We were bored, waiting to meet someone for brunch. But hey this was free right? Nothing to lose.

They’re not stupid though. They open the can before giving it to you so you have to stand there so other people can see you holding the can or drinking from it. No opportunity to bag it, get another and end up struggling home with bags weighed down by sampler cans of Coke. (Yeah it was Coke — I’m not really being coy about it.) Half a can later and I’m thinking I didn’t want this really, but it was free — I almost felt obliged to take it. That’s the psychology of free. The value of free wasn’t very much, but it didn’t take much effort to get it either. Even so, the perceived cost of having to finish it and make sure the can got recycled felt like it outweighed the value of free.

Fast forward a few hours. We’ve been shopping and gone for a walk in the park. It’s warmed up a lot. We’re back in the mall and it is heaving. We’re thirsty and gasping for a drink and we know just where to get one. For free! We’re prepared to battle our way from one end of the busy mall to the other to get a free sampler of Coke. Even when we see the queues snaking around the foyer, we still wanted it. Begrudgingly we actually gave up at this point, in preference for a choice of other drinks and a sit down on a sofa in an air conditioned cafe — and pay for the privilege.

Maybe we didn’t take advantage the second time, but the value of free was apparently now worth a whole lot of effort in unpleasant conditions. (Crowds. Eeuuch!)

From the morning to the afternoon, the value of free changed. In the morning it was a psychological thing. We wanted the Coke because… well because it was free, not because we wanted a drink. In the afternoon we wanted that Coke because heck we were thirsty.

Here’s another example. I recently saw on a reputable website a featured book on a topic that sounded interesting. The eBook was being offered for free download. Great — I put in an email address and downloaded the book only to realize it was the first two chapters. I felt conned. This wasn’t what I expected. I sat there mildly annoyed at the wasted effort. The truth was it was no real effort to speak of. And it was free (well apart from my email address) — I had no right to be complaining. But the sense of misplaced and unmet expectations seemed to be overwhelming the reality of the situation. The value of free had actually been negative and I had a bad opinion of the promoting company. And the book. And the author who I expect had nothing to do with it. And probably I was less interested in the entire subject matter of the book. For a while anyway.

Had I come about the same offer differently it could have worked out so much better. Had I been considering whether to buy that specific book, and seen an offer to download what was clearly advertised as the first chapter for free, and then perhaps discovered I’d received two chapters, I’d have been delighted!

Free can still go wrong. The value of free can be negative, positive, or just a bit flat.

That’s because the value of free is not the intrinsic value of the thing, it’s the benefit in context of the receiver given their environment, mood, and other contexts specific to that person. There is much more value in a free thirst quenching ice cold can of Coke to a tired, hot and bothered shopper than there is to a cold bored hungry person waiting around with nothing better to do than to take your goods because it happens to be free.

Makes sense, right? It doesn’t matter whether it’s a free drink, a free book, a free paper, a free lunch, or a free beer. ‘Free’ still needs to complete the idea and the expectation along with the experience.

Now consider what products or services you provide that might be considered by its users as free. It might be a website, a publication, or access to a service. It might be paid for by a business, a government, a council, an institution, or a sponsor, but the users are essentially getting something not at their own expense.

The psychology of free still applies, but it’s not enough on its own. The value of the product or service is still not in the thing itself, but in the idea, the expectation and the experience for each individual user given their own environment. If the needs defined by that combination don’t match up with the offering, there’s a risk that the effective perceived value may be negative, and that your product or service, and your brand, may be seen in a negative light.

You need to work hard to ensure that your free product or service meets or exceeds the user’s idea and expectation and engages with a positive experience.

Now consider that the users who perceive your product as free are probably your best case users. If you can’t please customers with your free product, what about the ones who you want to actually pay for it? The perceived value of free is the peak possible perceived value of your product. The best possible outcome for a paid product is that the user couldn’t be happier even if they’d got it for free.

That’s because the formula above has nothing to do with free, it’s all about the user. And that’s why user experience is important for any product.