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.1

A company that for $10,000 offered a credible way to give you a strong, healthy, and good-looking body would make the iPhone look like a mediocre success 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.2

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that Apple is running laps around Microsoft, that educational startups seem to struggle to get exponential growth more than other sectors, that media endorsing shallow reactions are winning over nuance and rationality, and that privacy is sacrified for convenience and imagined 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? (Hint: you’ll probably be over-optimistic on this one.) How does your offering’s full personal cost compare to that of your competitors? 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 reading drafts and commenting.


  1. 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.

  2. 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.