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August 14, 2020
0 min read

Understand friction before you get burned

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I first came across the concept of friction in the IT space during a TED talk all the way back in 2009 by the excellent Rory Sutherland. Sutherland made the observation that if we had a large red button on the wall of our homes, whereby 50 dollars were deposited to our pension fund each time we pressed it, we would be much more likely to save for retirement. His key point was that the ‘interface fundamentally determines the behavior’. This idea is at the core of efforts to propagate good UX design to ‘nudge’ consumers towards the ‘correct’ behavior. Needless to say, we will not visit the ethical aspects of this here, but you will get the general picture. 

One of the core notions behind the friction concept is that due to the inherent pressures of life in the current century and the distraction caused by constant smartphone use, we have the attention span of a goldfish. Actually, this is unfair on goldfish. A study by researchers in Canada recently found that the human attention span has now reduced to eight seconds versus nine seconds for the goldfish. So we don’t have the attention span, and even if we did, we are often too lazy to complete a transaction that causes us even a nanosecond of discomfort. This problem was wonderfully squared in a mathematic equation by Scott Jenson in his UX golden rule that value must be greater than pain (Value > Pain).   

Now assuming that you are still reading this, it follows that reducing the pain that friction can cause is possible by designing intuitive interfaces that direct the user to painlessly complete a transaction. This is key in establishing your competitive advantage and is at the heart of the concept known as the customer journey. By having a knowledge of your customer's digital footprint, it is possible to provide more engaging and targeted content likely to elicit the required behavior. Reducing friction is especially important in delivering services that people often consider a chore such as taking out a new insurance policy, buying a new mutual fund, etc. Much of the current zeitgeist is focused on the use of AI and machine learning to make an increasingly personalized offering to reduce friction further and increase digital sales.  

Too much friction (i.e. effort) was often cited as a reason for customers staying with service providers who were offering a substandard or overly expensive service. The mere pain of moving the service was considered greater than the potential value. This is part of the reason why people stay with poor banks, insurance companies, utility providers, etc. However, inadequate incumbent services are now threatened by an increased focus on frictionless onboarding processes designed by digital-savvy competitors to entice potential clients to move their business. So the friction war is well and truly on and dictating more human behavior than some might be ethically comfortable with. 


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