Friction in Perfect systems

Stories of how and when friction can be helpful

A perfect system is frictionless - that’s what I used to think, atleast for the longest part of my life.

We invent shortcuts right from early age, to study less, or to extend our playtime, which is eventually a way to get rid of friction.

When I joined the corporate life, I was introduced to it again. I spent better part of my early career optimizing SQL queries, the ones that required finding needle in haystack, digging through logs to find one small bit that’s slowing down the report, that was meant to be done before the user even clicked Run, at least thats what the users expected.

With this background, I was primed to solve friction, whether processes, softwares or products that I built, until a story from Power of Habit made to rethink on my thoughtless crusade.

Once a ready-to-bake cake company decided to spare all the hassle for its consumers, the housewives, by the process so simple that you just have to mix the contents of the pack (they sell) in water and put it into oven. That’s it! Your cake will be ready by the time your spouse returns from work.

The product creators thought it was a mind-blowing upgrade, and the housewives are going to love it, but the sales plummeted after an initial spike.

The reason was simple - but hidden in how user motivation works - the house wives loved the hard work. Baking the cake was not just about cooking a sugary, tasty treat for their spouse but a way to express how much they care.

It had to be hard.

By making the entire process as simple as ready-to-cook top ramen noodels, taking all the hassles and the wait times away, the job of baking the cake became extremely efficient but the desired outcome failed to reach its potential.

“The task must be made difficult, for only the difficult inspires the noble-hearted.” ― Søren Kierkegaard

Nature also has it’s own way of telling us how friction enables perfection. This is apparent from the famous butterfly and cacoon story.

A kid was once excited to find a cacoon (of butterfly) in his garden. The cacoon had a small opening. He watched the butterfly make several attempts to break out through it. After seeing that struggle, the kid decided to help it out by making cuts into the cacoon. But to his dismay, the butterfly could never fly.

He probably learnt on that day - that nature had used friction to perfect the system.

When it comes to human tasks, the absence of natural friction tends to lower user motivation as well. What do you do when this happens? A mall manager at a shopping centre proved that introducing minor friction in form of challenges can lead to better results.

After noticing that shoppers were abandoning the cards midway after use, he decided to triple the cart drop sections. This ways the shoppers wouldn’t need to walk more and return the carts. It did not help as much as he thought. After all the task is something anyone can do and is outright boring. He needed to add a bit of fun and friction. And so he did.

He added a bowling alley in the cart station, but instead of slidding a ball, you would push through a shopping cart. A shopper would not longer just have to walk and drop the card like everyone else, but towards the end he had to push it through a narrow line to win points. You can imagine why carts were rarely abandoned after this trick.

Though I must say this - I have no such suggestion as to sprinkle friction all over the user journey, to make her feel challenged, but it’s more about finding intrinsic motivations and her understanding of the process.

Weebly, a website builder app, during its first release, decided not to bore users by adding a confirm password text box that is often seen on signup forms. This resulted in more drop-outs on signup screen than they had ever seen.

When asked, a user said - “Oh, I couldn’t see a signup form, I was just stuck on the sign-in form”.

Users often record UX pattern more than we think and in this case they expected a sign up form to have 3+ inputs. To the designer’s defence, the sign up form did mention ‘Sign up here’, but users did not bother reading. I won’t blame them, even I don’t like to read warnings and headings.

The smart and low effort sign up form ended up confusing it’s users. I am also guilty of doing something similar a few times, marching in one direction at friction with no inkling of user’s mindset.

Now that we are here, a few questions become important -

In what stage of the process, does friction help?
When would it be wise to live with the friction and when not?

My theory in regards first question is - friction can only be useful after the user gets through 1/3rd of the job. Anything before that timeline, and the users are more likely to quit. I would love to be proven wrong about this though.

The second question demands a deeper understanding of user’s Motivation levels - the ups and downs through out the journey.

The user motivation has a love and hate relationship with friction. Perhaps, this relation is entirely contextual and requires deep thinking every time you come across it.

Stackoverflow, a well-known community of programmers, uses badges and points to motivate users to contribute answers. The site also allows extra points for difficult questions. The contributors are often looking at challenging problems (high-friction) to answer. Hence, the really simple questions often get downvoted. Perhaps, the site can add a time counter on easy questions.

In SaaS products, placing an onboarding video can be considered as friction by tech savvy users, who always want to figure things on their own, but at the same time these videos can also ensure long term retention of users.

Sometimes, a frictionless experience can also create side-effects. Substack, a paid newletter app, makes it easy for anyone to get started with newsletters. The site has really removed the barrier to authoring content online. Their goal for high quality publishing is boldly highlighted on their own blogs, but when you come across a blog hosted on substack you have no idea if about author’s commitment to the audience. By reducing the entry barrier, it gets harder to spot - whose in it for a longer run and who is just trying luck.

It may sound biased but barriers, when used wisely, can ensure only the highly motivated and commited get through. Thus result in better quality of work. Patreon, a membership platform for creators, has realised this early on, that only a few creators will stay the course and their job is to identify and focus on them.

So next time, you think you can make something ridiculously frictionless, do consider it’s impact on -

  • user motivation - will it reduce the value of reward on the completion of the task?
  • Will it reduce the quality of your user base?
  • and user’s understanding - will this confuse them?

When the answer is affirmative, feel free to look the other way.

This blog is open-source on Github.