How people pay: money, time, and discomfort

How much does your product cost? \$10? $2,000? If that’s all you think your customers pay, you’re missing two key aspects of the full cost:

The full personal cost to your customer is the sum of the money, the time, and the discomfort required of them to get the value your product aims to provide.

Discomfort is anything that your customer would rather not do: remember yet another password, experience pain, experience uncertainty, have their beliefs questioned, risk being judged by a shop assistant, make a phone call to someone they don’t know, feel frustration over a user interface, abstain from pleasures, or risk the disapproval of their friends. Jan Sramek pointed out that Fogg’s six elements of simplicity splits out the different kinds of discomfort (in addition to time and money) more precisely: physical effort (which I presume includes pain), mental effort, social deviance, and routine deviance. I think “cost” would have been a more appropriate label than “simplicity” though.

If a company offered a credible way to give you a strong, healthy, and good-looking body for \$10,000 it would make the iPhone look mediocre in comparison. Now, swap the \$10,000 for a couple of hundred hours and discomfort and you can get the same outcome at little to no cost. Not as many takers for that one though. I’m not saying there are no takers, just that they are far fewer than those who’d happily spend \$10,000, but not put in the time and effort to get it for free. CrossFit is the closest we have I think, which is basically, pay \$2,000 and put in the time and discomfort (mitigated by community spirit). Sort of works though.

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that Apple is running laps around Microsoft, that educational startups struggle to get exponential growth, that shallow commentary is winning over nuance and rationality, and that privacy is sacrified for convenience and perceived short-term security.

Thus, when you design a product that you want someone to buy, think carefully about the full personal cost your customers pay. Do you know how your target market values discomfort and time? Can you convince them that the benefits outweigh those costs? You’ll probably be over-optimistic. How does your offering’s full personal cost compare to competing products and activities? And finally, how sensitive are you yourself to time and discomfort costs in the products you use?

Thanks to Jan Sramek and Emily Rookwood for commenting on drafts.