What I learnt this week: The Power of Social Proofing
A weekly reflection of what I have learnt this week as a Digital Product Designer
Recently I was lucky enough to go to the Mobile UX London conference. This full-day conference had a range of speakers from companies such as Google, Uber, and Fitbit with topics that focused on the evolution and future of UX design.
There were so many thought-provoking and interesting presentations and I feel that I learned so much in such a short space of time. Though I’d love to cover everything I learnt, I’m going to focus on one concept presented to us by David Teodorescu who is a Senior Product Designer from Fitbit. David spoke to us about how our decisions are influenced by other people’s choice and how this herd behaviour has been used by tech companies to push people into making decisions.
What is social Proofing
Social Proofing is a term used to describe how people, when making decisions prefer to follow other’s previous decisions. The idea is that people do this because they are looking to others who they think have already made the correct decision so why risk making a mistake. Humans do not like to make mistakes or fail, so looking at what others have done already is a natural instinct.
This Social Proofing manifests itself in a variety of ways, such people picking a restaurant as they can see that it is full of people. With Social Proofing, people are picking that restaurant as they are naturally making the connection that it must be serving good food for so many people to be there.
Social Proofing is part of our everyday communication. When we say what a great time we had visiting a country we are putting out information to our friends or wider community that we’ve done something and it’s safe even beneficial for others to do the same.
Levels of Social Proofing
There are a variety of ways that we can use Social Proofing in our design work and this can range from case studies, testimonials and company logos. However, the focus of David’s presentation was not to tell us how to use Social Proofing in our design work but to explain that there are multiple levels of Social Proofing strength which will impact the effectiveness of this technique.
The most basic level of Social Proofing is that we see someone has done something similar to what we want to do already.
In product design, a basic level of social proofing would be that we see on Instagram that an image have 1000 likes, therefore it either must be a good image or interesting content that we should also like.
The next level of Social Proofing would be that we see people similar to ourselves and we can associate more so to their decision making. This differs from the first level as there is more relatability between us and the person we are seeking proof from therefor reinforcing that we can trust their judgement.
An illustration of this in product design would be where we know the demographics or other traits that we have in common with those we are seeing proof from. For example, a testimonial from someone we can connect with such as this Figma testimonial. This testimonial feels far more relevant to me as I am also a designer, therefore I can base my trust that this individual knows what they are talking about.
This is the strongest level of Social Proofing — looking to people you know personally for proof.
As mentioned earlier, if your friends think something is a good choice then it’s very likely that you’d agree with them. Your friends are individuals you have the most similar values to or at least agree with a lot of the time.
Back to Instagram and product design, this element of Social Proofing can be seen in image Likes. In 2019 Instagram removed the following tab, where you could see what your friends had liked. They have maintained the strong element of Social Proofing through the main feed instead as you can see which of the people you follow like an image. This is a subtle use of social proofing but no doubt very effective.
When would we use it
Social Proofing is a psychology method that can be used throughout product design and naturally it lends itself to eCommerce or other platforms where we want users to make a decision between a variety of products.
That said it can work on social media but not for the users themselves but for the customers — those who pay money to Instagram for extra services. Instagram wants more users to like a post so that they can shout about how great their platforms engagement is to potential advertisers, the Social Proofing benefit to the user isn’t really there. Instagram will lead us to believe that us seeing what our friends have liked on is important so we can discover more content relevant to us — though in terms of social proofing, the decision to like an Instagram post isn’t that important and we can easily change our mind.
When we shouldn’t use it
Any way that we can influence users decision making, as product designers, we must be ethical about it. There has been a lot resentment towards this kind of psychology being used against the users from both the user and designers alike. Using psychology against a user in design has been coined as Dark UX in the industry.
As most of us know Social Proofing should only be used to really help users make a genuine decision that is best for them and not to push them into making a decision that is best solely for the client's pockets.
As well as ethics we should consider how this kind of Social Proofing can make people feel. While working on a project for a major bank there was the suggestion of using Social Proofing to encourage customers to save more money or at least as a minimum stay on track.
Think of how many people want to connect their banking to their friends or even random strangers to see whether they are as good as others at saving their money. As you can imagine this idea never went any further as there is a time and place for Social Proofing, and with regards to personal subjects such as money or health users aren’t so keen on this community approach.
When the proof isn’t there
As product designer’s we work for clients, therefore Social Proofing won’t work if the community isn’t engaging in providing information about a product or service. For example if you have a hotel comparison website and every result has a no star rating this Social Proofing isn’t going to help you sell those hotel rooms as you are signalling to potential customers that people have the option to leave a review but no one has, and this is where we start getting sceptical as users.
I’ve found Social Proofing absolutely fascinating to research and understand and I hope you’ve found this concept interesting too. As I said at the beginning David Teodorescu introduced me to this concept while listening to his talk. As I’m now understanding more and more the impact that psychology has on user behaviour, I’m interested to look at other ways we make decisions and how this can influence Digital Product Design — so if you have any resources or interesting articles please share them with me!
Have you used the this method before? Do you think social proofing works?
Let me know! If you want get in touch you can find me on Twitter as @LizHamburger