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For example, Expedia (and other hotel sites) have alerts that come and go that say things such as, "17 people have booked this hotel this week." Is there any documentation out there concerning this practice?

Interested in reading more about this and what kind of impact it has on users and interaction with the site.

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I can only think that this helps build urgency in a users mind. "All these other people can make up their mind. What's wrong with you? Just book it already!" In my work context, we are designing this sort of activity alert in our product to help users determine best practices. ie. 15 users ran this report today, or, 32 people have this widget on their dashboard. But I'd like to read some studies when there are REAL dollars on the line if you can encourage a user to act now. –  drawtheweb Jan 24 '13 at 21:02
@drawtheweb that doesn't show best practices, that shows most used practices, the 'majority' don't always know whats 'best' and whats 'best' isnt always used the most. –  RhysW Apr 17 '13 at 10:12
@RhysW: True, just because everybody's doing it, that doesn't make it right or best. That said, knowing nothing about drawtheweb's particular project, it's certainly possible to use social proof to encourage "best practices" within a given community. Seems to me like an interesting challenge ... of course, that doesn't mean the design will generalize elsewhere. Also, we have to believe in the wisdom of the crowd to some extent, don't we? Is something "good" because 100 people like it, or do 100 people like it because it's "good"? Who's to tell the majority they aren't "right"? –  in_flight Jan 16 at 13:50
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2 Answers

I believe this is 'social proof' phenomena. Basically, people are more inclined to buy something or perform actions if they believe that other people have done the same. It gives them confidence and a belief that their actions are 'approved' by other people.

A nice experiment is summarised in this paper:

In the elegant experiment described in Salganik et al. 2006, researchers constructed an online music market and examined the role social influence played in which songs participants chose to download. The experiment revealed that increasing the extent to which participants were able to observe the selections of others [...] led to an increase (decrease) in the popularity of the most (least) popular songs and a decrease in the predictability of song popularity based on quality.

In other words, by showing the "number of downloads" statistic, users' perceptions of quality changed and they were more likely to download music if it was downloaded by others.

Other examples of social proof include product ratings on Amazon, customer reviews and number of upvotes on this question/answer.

Interestingly, it's also suggested that queuing for a product increases its value -- perhaps being the first to do something gives people a euphoric feeling, hence why "n people are viewing this right now" could be encouraging (this is my guess).

This is a very clever trick that Expedia is using, and has certainly made me think about using it in the future.

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Would be interesting to know how many sites are actually honest. I've never seen one that says '0 are doing this' etc, when you know that at 1am in the morning for some obscure b&b thats had a website for a week, definately isnt getting collectively 50 bookings in the last 15 minutes! –  RhysW Apr 17 '13 at 10:17
"...people are more inclined to buy something or perform actions if they believe that other people have done the same." I'm not sure that applies to the booking and reservation practice of displaying reservations left. It is informational, not a sales technique. –  Steeev Jan 16 at 10:32
Interestingly enough, airplane ticket sites like Kayak don't technically need the "finding ticket prices" progress bar at all, (like this: puu.sh/6n2mP/ff73f701cb.png) since servers and computers can do all those calculations in less than a blink of an eye. However, on a UX stand point, the fact that you have to wait for your results gives you a sense of anticipation and reward. –  theGreenCabbage Jan 16 at 17:12
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I have seen this way too ofter to believe what they show is actually true. There is absolutely no way for me to check and absolutely no reason for them to be truthful.

It is basically a clever marketing trick. And as with any trick, it loses its effectiveness when overused.

EDIT. Maybe I should expand a bit.

I am a regular user of various hotel booking sites and here is my opinion.

  • The practice of "x people are viewing this hotel", "x people booked this hotel today/ this week/ this month/ in the last hour" etc is only there for a couple of years but is getting more and more popular.

  • It can be effective to create a "sense of urgency" or as "social proof" as mentioned in other answers.

  • It had some effect on me at the beginning. However, after seeing it more and more, it lost its effectiveness on me.

  • What I find far more effective though is "there x rooms left at this price". This is a verifiable information. I can make a booking and see if it changed.

  • After seeing this practice more and more, inevitably you start questioning its truthfulness. Then you realize that you can't verify it and that they can use it as they like. As soon as the user raises this questions, the effectiveness will go down.

  • Nobody can predict the future. But my feeling is that more and more sites will try to copy this practice. Then more users will question it and the effect will decline as I mentioned. It is simply too easy for a site to program it the way they like and the temptation is too high.

  • A marketing practice with long term potential must be verifiable.

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Your personal opinion on the truthfulness of the examples in the OP is not an answer to the question being asked. –  RedSirius Dec 20 '13 at 14:48
@RedSirius The OP asked about the impact on the user, which is what my answer analyses. Yes, it is personal opinion, as most other answers. –  Dmitri Zaitsev Dec 20 '13 at 15:02
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