The FOMO is real: UX patterns capitalizing on human misery

Seeing a discounted price along with a ‘limited period offer only’ tag makes any user feel the need to purchase the item before the offer expires.


Vasudha Mamtani

2 years ago | 4 min read

FOMO is defined as the apprehension that one is either not in-the-know or missing out on information, events, experiences, or decisions that could make their life better. But we don’t need to be told that, do we? A majority of us have experienced FOMO, the fear of missing out, personally. It is a feeling we have come to understand viscerally.

While social media is the most obvious contributor, a lot of us feel FOMO in our day-to-day. It is sometimes as trivial as movies that get raving reviews that friends tell us we HAVE to watch, or as major as having genuine mental health issues caused by missed events.

When the term FOMO was coined, it became a widespread phenomenon. It was quickly adopted as a prime marketing strategy by several brands. It was deemed a technique that boosted sales by preying on the customer’s mind.
A very basic example of this is of e-commerce platforms showing the (very few) items left in stock which creates a sense of urgency in the customer’s mind and forces them to make a quicker decision.

Is FOMO a dark pattern?

As designers, we learn what dark patterns mean quite early on. The term was coined in 2010 by Harry Brignull who also created a wonderful website to define the types of dark patterns and shame interfaces that use them.

“A user interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things, such as buying insurance with their purchase or signing up for recurring bills.”

That being said, FOMO does not trick users into doing things. It might create a sense of urgency, or a desire of inclusivity, but it doesn’t misguide the user into doing the unintended. It might border on trickery, but in my opinion, it is not completely unethical to employ design methodologies that benefit from their users’ FOMO.

Let’s look at the 3 common ‘what-ifs’ that are typically leveraged and used as design patterns.

1. “What if it runs out?”

This is an extremely popular what-if that is leveraged by a ton of e-commerce platforms. The idea is to make the customer feel that the item they are looking for is high in demand and might be exhausted very soon. This makes their entire journey slightly more urgent. The user is forced to make a decision quickly or left waiting until the item they are looking to purchase is replenished.

“Few left” done by Myntra

Another instance where you can see this particular FOMO being exploited is during any sort of “flash sale”. Amazon’s Prime Day is the most well-known example of this. This sale period is advertised for weeks, which builds a lot of anticipation. Amazon ups the game by giving early access to their Prime customers, giving them a sense of privilege.

By putting a timeline to items they usually sell at a slightly higher price, Amazon makes customers think — “What if the best offer available runs out?”.

See for yourself how this strategy has worked wonders just the past year (2020).

2. “What if others have/experience it and I don’t?”

Very recently, Clubhouse, a new social media platform entered the big leagues. This platform gained sudden popularity after Elon Musk made an appearance and raved about it.

The invite-only iOS-only app already felt exclusive to the users, making them want to get onto it with more vigour. But a celebrity figure raving about it made the app the new “it” thing.

Suddenly, everyone with an iPhone was trying to get their hands on an invite to see what the hype was all about. The tremendous jump in the number of downloads indicates that once the users got wind of what they were missing out on, they decided to get onboard it immediately.

While this was accidental for Clubhouse, a lot of brands employ influencers to execute a similar strategy. By making end-users see that their beloved idols endorsing their products, brands are often able to boost their sales successfully; so much so that influencer marketing is a formally defined role in a lot of advertising agencies.

3. “What if this is the best it gets?”

Similar to #1, this aims that creating a certain sense of urgency.
A classic example of this is what users face while booking a flight. A lot of airlines add a “the ticket prices just dropped by $50” to certain fares. 
This is done so that the user feels that they have stumbled upon the best deal they might get.

Seeing a discounted price along with a ‘limited period offer only’ tag makes any user feel the need to purchase the item before the offer expires.

Coupon codes employ this tactic too. By adding an expiry date to a coupon, the users feel compelled to use it so that it never goes to waste. I personally on many occasions have bought items I never even needed because the deal was just that good!

It is important to understand that using FOMO to create design patterns is a double-edged sword. While it may boost sales and user interaction, it borders on creating dark patterns, which might be unethical. So in closing, do what you must to create delightful experiences, but stay cautious from going to the dark side.


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Vasudha Mamtani







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