The Social Proof is in the Pudding

We’ve all been there. You’re out for dinner with a group of friends and you can’t decide what to order.

If you’re like me, you might ask the person next to you (or everyone at the table) what they’re ordering and then triumphantly declare, “I’ll have the Cobb salad too!” Or maybe you ask your server, “What’s popular?” Or you just look for the part of the menu labeled “Favorites” and call it a night.

Whether we’re inclined to admit it or not, many of the choices we make on a day to day basis are influenced by the choices of those around us. We rely on the endorsements of other people, friends or strangers, implicit or explicit, to help us make decisions about everything from what food to order to what products to buy to what links to click in our social media feeds.

And, when you think about it, it’s a reasonable strategy for dealing with the myriad decisions we’re faced with each day. With so many choices on our proverbial plates, why not get by with a little help from our friends?

The Social Proof Heuristic

Social proof is a heuristic — essentially a mental shortcut — that helps “ease the cognitive load of making a decision” by referencing the behaviors of others. In the restaurant scenario, we’re using other people’s choices as a guide. Not only does this help us come to a decision more quickly, but it also reinforces the feeling that we’ve made a “good” choice. That said, the likelihood with which we will reference other people’s behavior in a given situation can be influenced by a few factors.

For instance, we tend to give more weight to ideas or opinions that we receive from multiple sources. If five different people tell you that the new Wonder Woman movie is great and that you should see it (which is true), you’re more likely to decide to buy a ticket than you would be if one person told you over and over to see it. (But really, you should see it.)

We also tend to be more influenced by the behaviors of people or groups whom we be perceive to be similar to ourselves. So if your well-meaning cousin from San Francisco shares an article on Facebook extolling the virtues of nootropics, you’re more likely to take her recommendation seriously if you feel you share a similar outlook on the world.

Our level of uncertainty in a given situation is another factor that influences our reliance on social proof. The more uncertain we feel about the “right” course of action, the more we will rely on social proof to guide our choices and behaviors. This is especially evident when we’re shopping for a product we have little experience with. Imagine you’re buying a car or a house or a vacuum cleaner for the first time. You’re much more likely to rely on the input and behavior of others to guide your purchasing decision.

Designing with Social Proof in Mind

People are constantly on the lookout for cues that tell them they’re making the right choice. So how can we, as designers, employ social proof to help inform user decisions?

  1. Provide Multiple Cues
    Social media companies are particularly effective at this. Instagram, for instance, recently made a subtle change to how they display the number of likes under a post. Instead of just seeing the total number of likes — which already influences your likelihood of liking it — Instagram also highlights whether or not any of the people you follow have also liked that post. It’s an effective one-two punch.
  2. Make it Relevant
    Sometimes users can be influenced by numbers alone: 1.2 million followers, 55 million views, over 1 billion served. But there are other times when “who” is more important than “how many”. Amazon’s “customers who bought this item also bought” recommendations are a great example of providing relevant social proof. Knowing that people who share my interests also purchased a particular title makes me more likely to buy it than simply knowing it’s a “best seller”.
  3. Focus on moments of uncertainty
    The point at which a user is first introduced to a product or a service can often be a moment of uncertainty. Providing social proof during the early stages of a user experience or customer journey can offer reassurance and encourage user acceptance. Mattress startup Casper, for example, relied heavily on the referrals of brand evangelists and “word of mouth” when it launched, ringing up $20 million in sales in its first 10 months.

With the proliferation of fake followers, fake reviews, and undisclosed paid advertising, people have (rightfully) grown skeptical of some forms of social proof. Nevertheless, in most cases, referencing the behaviors of the people around us remains a reasonable decision-making strategy. As designers, we should be mindful of this and consider the ways in which social proof can be used responsibly to help ease the stress involved in user decision-making.

Further Reading

Social Proof in the User Experience
Making Use of the Crowd