“We’re living in an age where ‘frictionless’ is increasingly synonymous with ‘desirable design.'”
Most people will tell you that friction damages a user experience because it slows down interactions, reduces conversions, and impedes progress. If the ideal UX is quick and easy, friction is obviously your enemy, right?
In fact, from education to social networks to marketplaces, friction can create feelings of accomplishment, improve engagement, and increase quality.
Here’s 3 ways friction could make your product that much better. But first, a definition, just to make sure we’re all speaking the same language:
“In user experience, friction is defined as interactions that inhibit people from intuitively and painlessly achieving their goals within a digital interface.”
1. Friction can make users feel good
If there’s 1 company that has looked friction in the face and laughed, it’s IKEA.
Think for a moment about the convoluted in-store experience: They make you walk through the entire store to get to checkout. Along the way, you have to take notes. And then you get to play gofer, pulling your stuff from inventory yourself.
And that’s all before you even go home to tackle the Rubik’s Cube that is your future desk.
From education to social networks to marketplaces, friction can create feelings of accomplishment, improve engagement, and increase quality.
Given everything they ask of you, Ikea’s approach seems to be the polar opposite of good experience design. Yet, science says that IKEA’s approach demonstrates their deep understanding of a core psychological principle:
People like to feel a sense of accomplishment.
In 2011, business researchers from Harvard, Tulane, and Duke conducted a series of experiments that demonstrated that people value things they create or build more than those created by someone else. They even called it the IKEA Effect.
So, strategically asking your user to do some heavy lifting can actually enhance their satisfaction with your product.
Fascinated, the team dug deeper, in search of the causes. It turns out that people enjoy the IKEA effect because it lets them demonstrate their competence to others. Just think of how proud you were when you showed your significant other the desk you’d finally conquered. The extra effort boosts your sense of pride and competence.
The same dynamic plays a part in Pinterest’s popularity too, because it lets you show off your hunting and gathering skills. Every pin represents a “secret” you discovered and are now proud to share with others.
IKEA shows us that serving up the outcome on a silver platter may rob your users of a chance to build self-esteem. So the next time you see a way to simplify a flow, ask yourself if a little friction (and even frustration) might increase the user’s attachment to or engagement with your product.
2. Friction can improve quality
When you’re thinking about acquiring users, it’s easy to assume that friction is the enemy of traction. That’s why many products make signing up so simple—the fewer fields, the better.
But that only really works when your user’s satisfaction doesn’t depend on other users. In the case of a platform, such as a social network or marketplace, the quality of users and their interactions define a good product and experience.
In fact, to achieve scale in a platform model, good UX design often requires that you filter out bad users.
Think about Product Hunt. If anyone could post a product, spammers would turn the experience into a 24/7 infomercial. By requiring a nomination from “the most engaged and thoughtful contributors” in the community, they’re carefully curating the content by first curating the people who can post. Good use of friction.
Even in products that don’t focus on community-generated content, user quality still matters. Think about a dating website like Match.com or caregiving site Care.com. For these sites, the users are the product. So some level of friction in the sign-up process will help deter or actively block bad eggs.
Now consider marketplaces that connect consumers with services. Traction is critical—if a person can’t find a massage or dance class near them, they may bail. But if LivingSocial or Groupon let anyone and everyone in the door, low-quality providers would bump refund rates and deter users from future purchases.
Think about Product Hunt. If anyone could post a product, spammers would turn the experience into a 24/7 infomercial.
3. Friction can help build skills
Friction can create confusion and increase cognitive load. That’s generally a bad thing if you don’t want to make me think. But for educational products, friction can actually improve the outcome.
In a study conducted at Tufts University (opens PDF), subjects were shown 3 types of sentence pairs. Some of the sentence pairs were obviously related, some required interpretation, and others seemed unrelated.
Here’s an example:
A) “Joey’s brother punched him again and again. The next day his body was covered in bruises.”
B) “Joey’s brother became furiously angry with him. The next day his body was covered in bruises.”
C) “Joey went to a neighbor’s house to play. The next day his body was covered in bruises.”
Can you guess which sentence sparked the most brain activity?
It was B. Not only did subjects spend the most time reading and thinking about connections that required some interpretation, but retention was notably higher.
The point? You don’t want to be totally opaque, but a little difficulty can add a lot of quality. In other words, reducing friction by making something very easy to understand could be doing your users a disservice.
Daniel Pink describes a similar concept in his book Drive. He argues that mastery is one of the three core components of motivation and that “Goldilocks tasks,” which are neither too difficult nor too easy, are core to mastery.
A fresh look at friction
“Friction in design is helpful if it facilitates the interaction instead of [getting] in the way of it.”
Friction has a bit of a bad reputation, but it’s not inherently negative. Like any design tool, it can either add to or detract from the experience, depending on how and where you use it.
So go ahead and take a fresh look at friction. Could it be doing you any favors?
Dina is the Director of Product Strategy at Prolific Interactive, a mobile-focused product agency serving brands such as Sephora, American Express, 23andMe, Gap Inc. and HBO. With more than 10 years experience building and growing startup and enterprise products, Dina helps companies create experiences that strategically balance business goals and user needs. She frequently speaks and writes about how to use consumer psychology to better understand user habits and serves on the leadership team of mBolden in San Francisco.