Research shows that we are more likely to do things if they seem popular or rare, while we are more likely to complete mundane tasks if they don’t seem unique. In the case of Gmail, the banner shows only one new email has arrived (rare), with “just one” character’s inbox available (popular). This way, our brain is tricked into thinking this means there’s a sense of urgency on our end–and so we’ll be more motivated to act. Gmail superscript is an example of social proof, a concept that is often used in sales and marketing. And it isn’t the only time Gmail is using this psychological technique–go figure.
Gmail’s outsized emphasis on popularity shows that the company believes its users have short attention spans and needs to trick them into thinking their emails are more important than they actually are. The interface designer has explained that the company’s goal is to “make every email feel like a precious piece of paper, something you want to save.” This way, it consumes a significant chunk of our brainpower while we’re looking at it, knowing that later, when our email inbox has virtually all been filled up again, we won’t even remember how many messages we missed in the first place.
1. It’s all about ‘Dupes’– Ditto distribution.
Earlier in the article we mentioned there appeared to be a minimalist design ethic in play here–and at first I thought, “that’s odd, because Google is usually very careful with its aesthetics.” And it’s true, if you were only looking at the details of this particular email interface and not thinking about it in terms of the company as a whole. But then again, no one has ever accused Gmail or Google of having pretensions other than being pretty damn successful in the first place.
And in that context, it makes perfect sense. The idea of a “minimalist” design ethic is often used by advertising agencies to make sure that the company’s logo gets the most possible exposure. In this example, Google has taken this same concept (and one which Apple is also known for pursuing), but injected it with its own unique twist.
2. The company’s mission of maximizing exposure is at work.
Well, when you think about it, Google has always been about this. It’s main motto is “Do no evil”–and in the context of email itself, its goal is to make sure that people are receiving all the messages they possibly can. And if it takes a little bit of trickery to increase that number–well, then I guess we’re looking at what amounts to a more specific purpose of living up to that credo.
3. The psychological principle itself works at multiple levels.
We’ve taken this concept and added another layer onto it: “if everyone else is doing it, then maybe I should be too. This way I can prove that I’m popular too and that should make me feel good.” (Gmail users are twice as likely to use the service if they see others using it.)
4. Social proof taps into our inherent sense of being part of the pack.
We’re social animals at heart, and when we know other people are doing something, then we feel like we should be doing that thing too. It’s actually an innate form of advertising that has been used over centuries to get people to buy things. Social proof is a permanent fixture in marketing for this reason–and this idea applies perfectly in terms of Gmail’s strategy here.
5. The psychology is simple and easy to understand.
If we break down what’s happening here, it appears that Google is using a subliminal marketing technique to get us to check our email more often than we otherwise might–and those people who don’t check their email right away are being nudged towards doing so by being made aware of the fact that they’re not checking their emails–whereas those people who do, get that extra little dose of satisfaction at knowing that they’re keeping up with their messages as quickly as they possibly can.
6. It drives us to spend more time with our computers.
This is another reason why Google’s website gets so much traffic: it is optimizing its email program in such a way that it makes us keep coming back for more–even if we don’t consciously realize we’re doing it in the first place. That, in and of itself, is a pretty impressive strategy, given that consciously we are not thinking about checking our email that often–but unconsciously we’re doing so far more than ever before. Who knows, maybe next Gmail will start sending out emails reminding us to pay attention to our emails as well? They could probably make quite a few sales that way..!