Embracing Friction in UX
Designing Friction as a Function in Usability
What is Friction in Design?
Originating from classical mechanics, friction is defined as a force that resists the relative motion of two touching objects sliding against each other. The concept of friction can be lent to the realm of usability design where the user and the interface are two entities moving against one another, creating an abrasive opposition as the user travels through their intended task flow. The more friction present, the more effort the user must input into the system in order to complete the end goal.
Friction in UX is generally defined as anything that prevents or slows down the user from completing their intended task.
Friction typically varies in nature. For a user, it can be exiting out of a newsletter signup or an advertisement before being able to read a news article, it can be unclear language on a homepage, or it can be having to create an account in order to apply for a job position.
User interface friction can manifest in a number of ways but is widely regarded as a substandard practice in UX Design school of thought. Steve Krug’s book ‘Don’t Make Me Think’ (an integral piece of literature for every UX designer), covers principles of good usability design in human-computer interaction. Krug’s sentiment, aligned with many other usability design pioneers, is that good UX should require the absolute minimum amount of cognitive effort and steps necessary to complete a task.
From a designer’s perspective, minimizing friction means establishing a clear information hierarchy, applying common UX standards, reducing visual load, and constructing a stable intrinsic system logic to help users establish usage habits.
In most cases, the concept of avoiding friction should be universally applied to create seamless digital user experiences. Sometimes, especially when designing highly critical systems, a frictionless experience may not always hold the best interest of the user.
A lack of friction seems appealing at first, but when it begins to compromise other usability constraints such as user security and safety, it’s advantageous to realize that friction can have an intended function in usability design.
In this article, I will demonstrate a handful of scenarios where friction can be employed in usability design for the ultimate benefit of the user, the product itself, and those that it effects.
Using Protective Friction for Error Prevention
Here is an Amazon Dash Button. Simply press the button and an order is made instantaneously on your Amazon account for the respective product. This purely frictionless
experience is borderline magical, right? There you are tending to your weekly load of laundry and you realize you’re out of Tide Pods, you hit the button and instantly, the words “Tide Pods”’ will never see the face of your grocery shopping list again!
What if every interaction was this simple?
Maybe in the interest of laundry affairs, a lack of friction is appropriate. But what if permanently wiping your computer’s hard drive or sending out a false ballistic missile threat alert to 1.2 million people in Hawaii was just as easy as pressing a button to order Tide Pods?
It is clear that some mistakes are not as easily forgiven.
Now you’re catching my drift. Not every interaction is and should be created equally…
If more tiers of friction were implemented in the emergency alert interface, the admin user wouldn’t have mistakenly alerted 1.2 million people that a ballistic missile was currently heading their way and widespread existential panic could have been avoided.
It is important to recognize digital interfaces as tools that can impact our physical world and understand that we should take appropriate precautions to maintain safety when using them.
As the internet continues to become more globally adopted, it also grows increasingly more dangerous. Behind every corner of the internet, someone or something is lurking, waiting to access your personal data.
These days, creating an account is more complex than ever, you have to provide an email, a phone number, and answers to personal security questions just to complete onboarding.
Although tedious, introducing multi-faceted security layers is not there just to annoy you as a user. In the long-run, the overhead friction will prevent the chances of a loss of security down the road.
When you leave your car parked on the street you lock the doors to prevent any possible theft. Why wouldn’t you respect your digital possessions the same and lock your figurative online doors as well? Yes, It takes a few extra steps, but it’s integral to protecting your computerized belongings.
Make Users Feel Good
Have you heard the term “labor leads to love”?
In 2011, business researchers from Yale, Harvard, and Duke conducted a study where individuals reported feeling more in-control, competent, accomplished, and placed a disproportionately high value on products they partially created. They named this cognitive bias the IKEA effect. In order for the IKEA effect to take place, the reward must be superior to the amount of effort required.
This same philosophy can be applied to digital interfaces. For example, Instagram offers a platform for expression, but no content itself–it’s up to you to do that part on your own. The more creative effort the user puts into constructing their digital persona, the more valued it becomes by that user as a result.
If Instagram provided the content itself, there would be no allure in the diversity of expression generated by the user-base. There’s no fool-proof formula for establishing a noteworthy Instagram page, and that’s all of the enchantment!
As machines become increasingly more powerful, computations that used to take days at a time are now performed in seconds. The rate at which our gadgets become speedier does not exactly parallel the level of faith humans have in them. This becomes evident when we take a look at a case study where our products became so fast that we still didn’t always believe when something important occurred instantly. And thus, artificial waiting was born.
In 2016, Wells Fargo introduced biometric authentication via eye scanning–users could now sign into their Wells Fargo app with a nimble eye scan. This innovative feature greatly streamlined the login process since users no longer had to manually input a username and password to be authenticated.
The assumption that a streamlined login process would naturally become adopted ignored a key insight–users must trust the action in order to embrace it.
Instead of receiving feedback that mobile app users were delighted by the new, frictionless process, Wells Fargo instead discovered that customers felt the validation was far too hurried to possibly be accurate. Given the sensitivity of the app context, users expressed apprehension and an unwillingness to use an “unreliable” login gateway to access their finances.
Despite this feedback, there was no fundamental reason to actually slow the eye-scanning computation. Instead, the solution was to introduce artificial waiting (also named the labor illusion by Harvard researchers) to the interface to build trust and communicate to the user that the system is computing properly. This way, users can use the simplified login process without feeling like it would allow any user with eyes to access their account.
illusion by Harvard researchers) to the interface to build trust and communicate to the user that the system is computing properly. This way, users can use the simplified login process without feeling like it would allow any user with eyes to access their account.
This case study illustrates that facilitating user adoption entails more than just the existence of cutting-edge technology. It is imperative that the interface communicates to the user generally what is taking place behind the scenes in a way that’s straightforward for the user to interpret.
When strategically architected, friction can guide users in an intended direction. Nudging is a theory derived from behavioral science that purposes indirect suggestions and positive reinforcement as methods to influence the decision making of an individual.
For example, an office building that reduces how frequently the main elevator returns to the lobby from every 45 seconds to every 90 seconds will ‘nudge’ a fraction of the elevator-users to take the stairs instead.
Nudging essentially adds small tricks to change behavior (for the better) without limiting the options available. We can observe the same concept in user interfaces.
Slack is a professional instant-messaging platform that facilitates communication for remote teams. Given that it is used in a professional setting, it is likely to assume that a
percentage of its users allow for push notifications due to high priority. Understanding this, the system alerts a user attempting to send a message to group members in alternate time zones with a message double-checking that they want to confirm this action. This added layer of friction doesn’t eliminate the option to continue sending the message, but it causes the user to deliberate if this is in fact what they are intending to do. Potentially disturbing a team member in another time zone might not be at the forefront of the sender’s mind, so an extra step to communicate this consequence instills responsibility when using the product.
Build User Skills
The epitome of building user skills through friction is video games. Essentially the entire premise of video games is to gradually increase friction at a relative rate as the game player improves in skill. If the game has too much friction, the user can’t advance and is discouraged. If the game doesn’t have enough friction, it is unrewarding and uninteresting.
Another setting we can observe this is on is educational platforms. When learning a subject, the student will begin on easier assignments and advance onto harder ones as they travel onward through the course. Circling back to an earlier section referencing making users feel good about themselves, friction in this context adds a sense of achievement.
Increase Product Value
A high level of friction can also induce exclusivity in some user interfaces. Snapchat, for example, doesn’t follow traditional UX guidelines and patterns. Many have ridiculed Snapchat for being unintuitive and not exercising better navigational standards. In response, Snapchat’s CEO, Evan Spiegel has said
“It’s simply anti-adult… This is by design. We’ve made it very hard for parents to embarrass their children.”
Unassociating with other social media platforms like Facebook that have been widely adopted across all age groups, Snapchat’s manifesto is to maintain the age-exclusivity of their product by, you guessed it… friction!
Juxtaposing Snapchat, Product Hunt applies friction to maintain the caliber of its platform. Product Hunt operates on the basis that its users make superior tech product recommendations. If the community allowed any and everybody to become a contributor, the quality of suggested products would be diluted and overcrowded. To be a contributor, you can’t just sign up with an email, you have to jump through a few hoops first to prove yourself worthy.
Although it can be hard to admit, sometimes not inviting everybody to the party can make the party better for those that are already there. Friction as a filter for those who are the intended users of the product preserves a level of integrity that isn’t mutually offered when it’s all-inclusive.
Moving Forward in Design
Sometimes it is difficult to grasp the fact that digital systems can have tangible impacts on our physical lives. Designers have a large responsibility to uphold standards of security, safety, and ease of use throughout usability design but it is important to remember none of which should be exploited at the compromise of another. Generally, unwanted friction should always be eliminated, but it is important to remember that not all types of friction are insidious. Whether it is about slightly nudging users, maintaining exclusivity, slowing down risky actions, teaching responsibility, or boosting credibility, don’t be reluctant to leverage some friction if it will evolve the user experience and the context demands it.