Friction in the User Experience

Written by: Kevin Blum, Lead Designer, All Things Media

Friction, by definition, is the resistance that one object encounters when moving over another. In user experience, friction has popularly come to be known as the points where the experience becomes complex, redundant, uncomfortable, or time consuming. Digital experiences where friction was reduced have tended to demonstrate greater success. It’s no surprise that there is an incredible buzz around making user experiences as frictionless as possible. It’s tempting to infer that frictionless literally = good experience, but does it?

In what has become an increasingly frictionless digital world, almost every moment of our lives has become inundated with innumerable digital experiences. Whether it be shopping online, playing that latest semi-automated free-to-play “idle” game, or browsing social media; to name a few, large amounts of people’s lives are now being spent in front of digital experiences. The sheer quantity of digital content a person now consumes in just a single day is simply staggering. Yet at the end of that day, how much of that do people thoughtfully remember? The fact is people aren’t remembering much of it.

Daniel Kahneman suggests that the way we remember tends to be through all sorts of mental shortcuts. Aside from peak moments of joy and/or frustration and also how moments end, the majority of moments are actually completely forgotten. If an experience offers absolutely zero friction - nothing noteworthy whatsoever - and is finished before you can even realize it, it’s probably not going to make that lasting impression. Does this mean users crave experiences that aren’t memorable?

Actually, quite the opposite. Even though people aren’t remembering much, they are attracted to and highly value creating new quality memories. We see this even reflected in current trends like the attraction back to analog experiences. For example, Spotify provides a hyper frictionless music streaming service that is accessible from just about any device and makes use of machine learning to make highly personalized recommendations so their listeners have regular access to new content effortlessly. Top of the line frictionless. Despite the existence of such a service, almost paradoxically, there has been a resurgence in popularity towards going back to record stores to search through vinyl records for that new thing that resonates. This process is much more time consuming and inconvenient, but it also creates opportunity for exploration and play, forms of friction that are positive. Where the process of searching for a song on Spotify is almost completely immemorable, searching for a new one at the record store is much more memorable and therefore perceived as a comparatively more valued experience.

What we can draw from all this is in building a good experience, it isn’t enough to simply focus on making it as frictionless as possible. It is also important to identify any positive friction that should be retained, enhanced or even introduced. This is an ongoing conversation we have here at All Things Media and we’ve come to realize, identifying opportunities for things like creativity, play, nostalgia and discovery in our digital experiences can bolster positive retention and user loyalty. Next time you are creating a streamlined frictionless digital service of some kind, it may be worth considering how to also create those peak moments you want your users to really notice.