The Reciprocity Principle: Give Before You Take in Web Design

by Raluca Budiu on February 16, 2014

Summary: Humans tend to return good deeds: use this social psychology law in user interface design to gain users’ trust and motivate engagement with your site or app.

Recently, I got a dollar in the mail from a company that wanted me to fill in a paper survey from them. Guess what? I took the dollar (what else could I have done?) and felt obliged to send back the survey.

This situation is an example of the reciprocity principle at work. The reciprocity principle is one of the basic laws of social psychology: It says that in many social situations we pay back what we received from others. In other words, if John does you a favor, you’re likely to return it to him. In my example, I got the dollar and therefore felt like I had to give something in exchange (my time and my information).

A simple evolutionist explanation of reciprocity is that in a group of protohumans it paid off to behave nicely and cooperate: those who obeyed this principle were probably less likely to get enemies and thus more likely to survive and pass on their genes. (This explanation is however not universally agreed upon by scientists, as it assumes that people behave consistently over time, that is, it assumes that one act of cooperation predicts further acts of cooperation.)

Reciprocity works in a variety of situations; businesses use it in advertising, marketing, and propaganda. For instance, it’s been shown that a free sample encourages people to buy the corresponding product because they feel that they have to return the favor of being given something for free.

Reciprocity is a principle that you can also use to your advantage (but also to your users’ advantage) in user-interface design (see our class on credibility and persuasion in web design). The bottom line is simple: give your users something before you ask for anything from them.

Giving Information Away for Free

Free content is the digital counterpart of the free samples from the physical world and is an ingrained use of the reciprocity principle on the web. That’s why newsletters, social media content, and articles such as this one are popular with many companies — as proven by our own studies, users appreciate these kinds of sources when they are informative and relevant.  Later on, these same users are more likely to reciprocate by doing business with the company.

Many websites that offer white papers or other information will ask users to fill in a form before they can get access to the content of interest. The thinking there is that users will first work for the paper (fill in the form) and then they will get rewarded with the content. comScore (below) takes exactly this approach when it asks people to enter their information before downloading a free report.

comScore asks users to enter their information before accessing a free report.

This may seem like a simple case of quid pro quo. But the problem is that the two steps don’t happen simultaneously. Users are asked for the “quid” right now, in the hope that they will later find some value from the “quo.” This annoys users and makes them likely to abandon the site.

The Nielsen Company takes a slightly different approach.  When people click on View Full Report, instead of showing a form that asks users to fill in contact information, the site takes them to a brief article about the report. Users can read the article and then they can decide if they want to fill in the information to get the entire report. (Note that we are not affiliated with The Nielsen Company.)

The Nielsen Company lets users read an article about a free report. If they want to download the whole document, they need to fill in a contact-information form.

This second approach is better. First, it is respectful of users’ time and effort — it allows them to make a more informed decision of whether they want to take the time to fill in the form and load the report. Second, it also takes advantage of the law of reciprocity.  Users will appreciate being able to read the summary and will be more likely to fill in the information because they were given something interesting in advance. But even those users who may have decided that the report is not for them will appreciate the honest approach, will form a positive impression of The Nielsen Company, and  probably pay back in kind when asked (for instance, by returning to the site for more information). And they may also be more willing to fill in the form in an honest and meaningful way by providing extra information about their request or giving email addresses and contact information that they actually use.

(Our studies of B2B website use show that users frequently enter made-up information when they encounter overly aggressive lead-generation forms before the website has established its credibility. Unless you want your sales force to make a lot of calls to Mickey Mouse, it’s a bad idea to ask for user information too soon.)

In a study published in 2007, Luciano Gamberini and his colleagues at University of Padova investigated exactly this issue:  how likely web users are to fill in contact information to access free content.  Gamberini had two conditions in his experiment that mimic the Comcast and Nielsen examples above: in one condition users were asked to first fill in the form and then, as a reward, they got access to a set of guidelines. In the second condition, users got access to the guidelines first, and then they were asked to fill in the form.  Users gave out more information in the contact form in the reciprocity condition than in the reward condition. They were, however, more likely to submit the form in the reward condition.

So what does that mean? If you decide to force your users to fill in the form before they get the content, you may get more submissions. But if you want to establish meaningful, long-term   relationships with your customers, then you’re better off showing at least part of the information upfront, with no request upon users.

Permissions and Tutorials on Mobile

Mobile apps and sites would also benefit from using the reciprocity principle. Too often they require users to cross login walls, read complicated instructions, accept the use of the current location, or give permission to receive notifications before these same users have received even the slightest glimpse of the app’s offerings. Starting the initial experience with requests of any kind puts the load onto the user, creates suspicion, and makes the user reluctant to cooperate. It’s much better if, instead, the app focuses on making it easy for the users to get started right away.  Once users find value in the app, the will be more likely to trust it and reciprocate by accepting requests of any kind.

For instance, often after downloading an app, iOS users will get an alert box prompting them to accept push notifications.  Wrong! At this point, the user has no idea whether they like the app, whether they will be using it, or whether the type of content that they will be notified about will be relevant in any way. Asking them to accept push notifications is too much — the users’ first reaction will often be “No” at this stage. The user needs to first establish a relationship with the app, see what it is about, and then she can decide that she can trust it with push notifications.

Evernote asks permission for sending push notifications before the user has gotten a chance to use the app.

Once users have explored the app, you can ask them if they want to be notified of specific events.  (But be as explicit as you can and tell people what they will be notified about; otherwise, you risk annoying and alienating the users with notifications that they don’t need.)
Many apps also request permission to use the current location before actually needing it. For instance, there is no reason for Expedia to ask for the current location on their home page, before the user has initiated a search. It’s possible that users need to search in a different location than their own, and asking for this information when it’s unnecessary will diminish their trust in the app. (Particularly in these days of constant privacy scandals, users worry that any snooping question is for nefarious purposes.)

Expedia asks for permission to use the current location before the user has initiated a search.

Epicurious rightly asks for permissions to use the microphone only when the user taps the Voice Control button. In that context, it is logical for the user to say yes, since it’s clear why the app needs that permission. Should the app have asked for it on the first screen, before the user had gotten a chance to form a mental model of how this app works, it would have looked unnecessary and the app’s request would have been likely rejected.

Epicurious only asks for permission to use the microphone when it needs it to enable voice control (that is, immediately after the user has tapped the Voice Control  button).

Another practice popular with apps is showing a tutorial when they are first launched. We can count on the fingers of one hand the number of users who have actually sat through these initial tutorials after they have just downloaded the app. Even when the tutorial seemed fun (like the comic-reader tutorial  which was designed to look like a comic book), users did not have the patience to sit through it. (And if they had sat through it, they would not have remembered all the information that was poured over them.) It’s much better to use a quick tip page if you must instruct your users. But even better: don’t make your users feel like they have to study in order to use your app.  Create an interface that is simple and usable and that doesn’t need any instruction.  It’s again a simple instantiation of the reciprocity principle: in the user–app relationship, the app should put in most effort, especially in the beginning.

Clear, a todo list app, starts with a 7-page tutorial. That’s bad because it requires users to work upfront: they have to patiently read all the information and try to commit it to their memory.


The reciprocity principle says that people respond in kind to nice behavior. If you want your users to trust you with their information and come back to you repeatedly, plant the reciprocity seed by being nice to them upfront and minimizing their interaction cost. Ask as little of your users as possible.  On the web and elsewhere, start by giving before taking, and people will reciprocate.


Luciano Gamberini, Giovanni Petrucci, Andrea Spoto, and Anna Spagnolli. 2007. Embedded persuasive strategies to obtain visitors' data: comparing reward and reciprocity in an amateur, knowledge-based website. In Proceedings of the 2nd international conference on persuasive technology.

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