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Scarcity: Focusing on Limitations to Explore Design Opportunities

As UX professionals, one of the things that draws us to this work is a keen focus on people. To understand who they are and what makes them tick, we use a range of methods, including ethnography, interviews, and usability studies. But when we focus solely on people’s tasks and actions, we may be missing something. When designing for social impact spaces, whether the project is for government or for a nonprofit, the people we are designing for often face unique challenges and have lives that look remarkably different from our own. In my own work I have found considering the concept of scarcity to be helpful in order to see users’ needs in a different light. Looking at what is scarce, in terms of resources and support, can lead to new ways of thinking about users and designing for their needs.

What Is Scarcity?

The concept of scarcity comes from the field of behavioral economics and was developed by Senhdill Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. Scarcity refers to how people behave when they feel they have less than they need. When we don’t have the money, time, or willpower we need, the state of scarcity captures our attention in a way that impacts how we act and behave.

Scarcity has several components. First, scarcity is involuntary. You have not chosen to be lacking in resources, such as money, time, or willpower. Second, scarcity consumes your attention, which diverts your focus away from other things. Third, scarcity has an upside: when resources are scarce, you work hard to maximize them and, as a result, develop unique expertise including innovative workarounds. Scarcity is a powerful concept because it cuts across many groups: busy people, lonely people, dieters, and more. For the purpose of this article, I will focus people who are facing financial scarcity—that is, the poor.

The Case of the Payday Loan

Let’s look at a common scenario facing someone who is poor and how the concept of scarcity can help us see the situation differently. Susan and her family get by, but often live paycheck to paycheck. Suddenly she has some unexpected bills. The car breaks down. One of her children needs an emergency visit to the doctor. She has to pay the bills but payday isn’t until next week. Susan takes out a short-term, or payday loan, to cover the costs. She is relieved. Later she realizes that she had forgotten to let her boss know she’d need a couple shifts off from her job at the restaurant to take care of her daughter. When she tells her boss, he sighs and says, “Why don’t you take the whole week off? I’ll put you back on the schedule next week.”

Now she’s going to be short on rent, and has to pay back the loan too. Susan doesn’t see any other options, so she takes out another loan to cover the difference. Soon the fees are piling up—even higher than the original bill—and she’s falling behind in payments and slipping deeper into debt. In this scenario, it would be easy to blame Susan, to think maybe she isn’t good at saving or planning or that she should have read the fine print about how the fees accumulate on the loan. But, considering the concept of scarcity lets us see this situation differently.

Tunneling, Bandwidth, and Slack

Susan’s experience demonstrates several aspects of scarcity. First, when resources are scarce, people tend to engage in tunneling. Similar to the concept of tunnel vision, tunneling allows us to pay close attention to the problem at hand, but it obscures our ability to notice other important things. Susan had to tunnel to figure out how to pay the emergency bills. But when she does, other details fall out of her frame: details such as how quickly the loan fees will pile up and how she will pay her other bills.

In their work, Mullainathan and Shafir conducted many research studies that show there is a decline in decision making that can be attributed to the scarcity of the resource rather than to a personal characteristic. In other words, engaging people’s minds in a scenario related to financial hardship causes them to perform poorly on intelligence or cognitive tests. They have less bandwidth for decision making. But as the authors so eloquently state, it is not that the poor have less bandwidth, it’s that all of us would have less bandwidth if we were poor.

When resources are scarce, when people don’t have a lot, they have little room for error. Susan was able to pay her bills until the unexpected happened. She and her family did not have much slack in their budget; she had no reserves to make the payment. Many people do not. There is no breathing room. When you live in a state of scarcity, small problems can escalate quickly.

In UX, there is a lot of talk about the importance of empathy in our practice. In this scenario, if we focus solely on Susan’s actions, behaviors, and tasks, we may miss the state of scarcity she is living in and how it impacts the choices she makes. We may miss the opportunity to design to acknowledge or alleviate scarcity.

Signing up for Healthcare as an Immigrant in the US

In the past year, I was part of a team conducting a study on immigrant populations signing up for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, as it is commonly called. When the Affordable Care Act first launched, signing up for healthcare was no easy task. The online process on was infamously difficult due to UX and technical problems.

Now imagine that you are an immigrant and new to the US. Perhaps the entire concept of insurance is new and you have limited English language skills. You are told that if you don’t sign up for health insurance you will be fined. These are the challenges that many people in our study were facing. Figure 1 shows a sign in a Community Health Center where Vietnamese patients go for help with insurance.

A picture of a sign in a health clinic in Vietnamese with the word “Obamacare” in English.
Figure 1. A sign posted in a Community Health Center in Vietnamese that provides assistance to patients signing up for health insurance.

Think about the complexity of insurance and terms like deductible, co-insurance, and co-pay. The concepts are difficult for many of us, but add health insurance literacy on top of cultural and linguistic literacies, and we can see how comprehension becomes even more challenging for immigrants.

In our study, one young woman revealed that she had thought the word “deductible” meant the amount you had to pay up front for insurance. Worried about her family and their health, she panicked. She went to her bank and withdrew $2,000 to pay what she though was an upfront cost. This represented all of the money she had in savings. She spoke of the stress of contemplating spending all of her savings for the next year of healthcare. She finally decided not to enroll in health insurance because of this misunderstanding.

Now think about a person supporting a family and living on limited means. The concept of scarcity helps to explain why comprehending the myriad information related to support services, such as healthcare, would be overwhelming. For people who are trying to enroll, the process itself is cognitively challenging: it’s a tax on their bandwidth, which is finite. This additional struggle has depleted their energy and ability to make other decisions, including ones that are financial, or even personal, such as an ability to be patient with their children.

Being Transit Dependent and an Upside to Scarcity

In another study, I looked at the experience of people who are transit dependent in the City of Seattle. Those that are transit dependent do not own a car and therefore rely on public transportation to get around. Not everyone who is transit dependent is poor; some rely on transit because they prefer to take the bus instead of driving in traffic. For some it is an expression of their environmental values. However, many of the participants in the study were poor. Some were homeless, some were in transitional housing, and others qualified for disability discounts due to health issues.

We saw plenty of examples of how scarcity played out for the poor in the transit dependent study and the bandwidth it required to figure out transit schedules and routes. We could see how the transit schedule dictated what jobs you could apply for and where you could live.

A screen capture of a video where a woman waits at a bus stop.
Figure 2. A screen of a participant’s video diary where she reflects on a long day of taking several buses across town to visit a particular store.

However, we also saw an upside to scarcity. The people in our study had developed deep expertise. All participants had a good understanding of how the transit system operated, but we noticed that the participants who were poor had developed a level of expertise that seemed to eclipse that of the others. They had extensive knowledge of routes, services, and vehicles. They knew which route was the best to take to get somewhere quickly, or which had a nicer view, or seemed safer at night.

The participants who were poor maximized the transit system in resourceful and unexpected ways. For example, people used their transit trips to structure their time. They would take a trip and bunch errands based on routes in order to maximize a free ride within the transfer window. Some people learned to exploit the weaknesses of the fare payment system to ride for free. We heard from homeless participants in the study on how riding the bus enabled a sense of refuge from the chaos of life on the street and provided an escape. On the bus, they could be like everyone else.

Implications for Scarcity for UX Design

Scarcity can, and does, affect us all in different ways. When designing for people living in poverty, we can use the concept of scarcity to inform research and design.

A holistic approach

As UX professionals working for a government and nonprofit, we tend to work for an organization with a specific goal or program that addresses one aspect of peoples’ lives. Although we work in silos, we know users don’t see the world in that way. We are already aware that we have to think more broadly about people and their needs that cut across silos and organizations.

When we introduce the concept of scarcity, thinking holistically becomes even more crucial. Each additional requirement or unique online system we introduce is an additional tax on bandwidth that is already stretched thin. Each new password users have to memorize, or each new form that has to be filled out in triplicate, places more of a burden on the people we are designing for. Bringing together systems and services in government is never easy, but the concept of scarcity makes the argument for doing so even more urgent.

Researching scarcity

When it comes to understanding the context of people living in scarcity, there is no substitute for deep qualitative work, such as ethnography, to understand the material conditions of people’s lives. Video diaries allow participants to tell their stories in their own words. Seeing scarcity in action helps us to appreciate how it plays out in people’s everyday lives.

When researching scarcity, consider the following research questions when looking for the ways people struggle with and overcome constraints in their lives:

  • Where do users struggling with scarcity make common mistakes?
  • How do expert users exploit their knowledge to bring about desired results or overcome a system’s limitations?
  • What strategies and tactics do users deploy when a system does not meet their needs?
  • What are the consequences when systems do not work in ways that match users’ needs?
  • How will changes to systems impact users’ abilities to achieve their goals?

In addition to qualitative research focused on understanding context, the impacts of scarcity can emerge during usability studies. When participants are dealing with scarcity, it is important to keep in mind that their performance may differ from that of others, especially when performing scenarios that are directly related to financial matters. This is important because the well-being of our participants should always be in the forefront of our minds and because scarcity impacts performance, including time on task and task completion.

Designing for scarcity

Design is an opportunity for us to alleviate scarcity. When information and systems are designed well and do not require additional bandwidth, we are reducing cognitive load. We are giving people back bandwidth they can spend on other things: perhaps more time for work, loved ones, or sleep. Or they may have less anxiety or worry.

Using plain language

The principles of plain language are especially crucial when designing for scarcity. Providing information that is written in accessible, easily understood language that removes jargon and emphasizes action is a way to help people who are overwhelmed. Content should be written in a way that makes consequences of actions very clear. It should stress the upfront and longer-term ramifications in ways that can make the decisions clearer. For example, in explaining the costs of a loan, research has found that showing a dollar amount ($400) instead of an interest rate (3%) is helpful in letting people see the real costs. For examples, see the ClearMark Awards from the Center for Plain Language.

Preventing and recovering from errors

When designing for people living with financial scarcity certain design heuristics become crucial. Error tolerance and error recovery become central because it’s easier to make mistakes or hasty decisions when you are in a state of scarcity. For example, the 1-click purchase on ecommerce web sites might be easier to use, but it also makes it easier to purchase by accident, so it may not work well for a government or nonprofit site.

Sending more reminders, charging fewer fees

Because research shows that late fees disproportionately impact the poor, instead of penalizing people for forgetting to pay their bills, consider how we can remind them in a timely way. By doing this we can design slack into systems for people who have none. For example, send drivers a text when their car’s registration will expire in two weeks and remind them how much it will cost if they pay now compared with after the deadline.

Designing for a desirable condition

When people start a new job many do not sign up for a retirement plan right away and therefore lose out on saving money and taking advantage of matching employer funds. Some organizations have started automatically enrolling employees in these plans and asking if they want to opt out. This technique could be used in designing for a desirable condition. Consider ways to provide an opt-in for the desirable or beneficial option that does not require additional action from users. Also, provide a way to opt out. This should be done carefully, but good UX research and design can help reduce the decision-making burden on users.

In addition, when people are filling out forms online, allow them to save their work and continue later rather than requiring them to finish all at one time. Sending a reminder to complete a form can be helpful as well. Ecommerce does a nice job of reminding you that you have an unpurchased item in a shopping cart. Why not do the same for a financial aid form or an application for food stamps?


The examples in this article have provided UX professionals with:

  • An overview of scarcity and why it matters for design
  • Stories where scarcity impacted the ways users seek information and use systems
  • Implications for designing and researching scarcity when working in social impact spaces

As we strive to design systems that help users accomplish their goals with government and nonprofit organizations, let us use the concept of scarcity to inspire us to look for ways where our designs can give back some bandwidth to users instead of requiring more of it.


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