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Delayed Rewards

Summary There is a direct correlation between a person's ability to delay gratification and their likelihood of success, salary, and credit score. And yes, it is still relevant to how we design our products.

The Science

Researchers gave their participants a simple questionnaire to determine how well they were able to delay their gratification. They were offered different variations of the following proposal:

"Would you prefer to receive a smaller amount of money right now ($10 for example), or a larger amount of money within a week or so ($50)?"

There is also a variation of this question for children, asking if they would like 1 marshmallow right now, or 2 in five minutes.

Results varied from person to person, but once those results were measured against salary, credit scores, and debt (for children it was measured against test scores and eventually future success), the correlation was clear:

Those who tended to delay gratification for a greater reward would tend to also have less debt, more income, and a better credit score.

The Practice

Though it seems there is little to connect this sort of research to product design, there are in fact two lessons to be learned.

The first relates to our user research. When researching our product's potential customers, we now know that income is a good indicator for impulsiveness. If our product is on the higher end of the income scale, our customers will prefer value over immediacy.

That sort of insight affects many design decisions, from pricing to the amount of time they could stare at a load screen before clicking away.

The second lesson has to do with the way we design our more common products. Those which relate to customers of a wider income range. In this case, we now understand that some value propositions attract one sort of customer and repulse another.

Forcing our visitors to delay gratification will lead to some of them leaving, or choosing a different option, but it will also reveal something new about those who choose to stick around.

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