Free, but Not Free

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by: Iqbal Mohammed

A ‘skeuomorph’, I recently learnt, is a superficial and functionally unnecessary design element/feature in an artefact, copied from other similar artefacts to reinforce familiarity. (Via A Word A Day)

A great example of a skeuomorph is the clicking sound of a shutter in a digital camera. Unlike in an analog camera, the clicking sound is not a by-product of the functioning of the camera. It’s reproduced in a digital camera by playing a sound clip – to provide feedback that a picture has successfully been taken.

Another example of a skeuomorph is ‘engine noise’ added to electric vehicles – as their noiseless running can be quite unsettling and deceptive to pedestrians and other traffic.

With a lot of discussion about Chris Anderson’s upcoming book on the free economy, I wonder if price could ever become a skeuomorph? As in, the cost of supplying a particular product or service is virtually zero, but a price is charged just because customers are unfamiliar/ uncomfortable taking it for free.

One example – the only one I could find – comes from behavioural economics (via Rory Sutherland’s blog). Apparently, prostitutes almost always end up losing any clients whom they offer to serve for free – any form of discount or freebie suppossedly moves the interaction from the purely transactional realm (where the only currency is financial) into the social realm (where the currency is partly emotional). As a result, clients want to pay prostitutes in full to make it clear that it is just a financial transaction.

Do leave a comment if any more examples come to mind.

[Pictures courtesy Spell With Flickr]

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