Deliver Better Experiences by Designing for Friction

Author Date June 18, 2019 Read 5 min
In this presentation, projekt202 Senior Strategist Leigha Selby talks about ways to strategically leverage the idea of friction to deliver better experiences. WATCH THE VIDEO NOW. A TRANSCRIPT…

In this presentation, projekt202 Senior Strategist Leigha Selby talks about ways to strategically leverage the idea of friction to deliver better experiences.


Hi. My name is Leigha Selby, and I’m a senior strategist at projekt202.

Today I’m going to be talking about how we can design for friction.

There’s been a lot of work done that shows just how fallible us humans are. Think about behavioral economics, and that teaches us that we are inherently lazy, that we never saw a shortcut we didn’t like, and we’re pretty much entirely relying on rules of thumb that can be wildly inaccurate.

I think that the best designers actually know this and understand this, and they’ve learned how to leverage it.

That really largely accounts for the prevalence of words like simple, and effortlessness, and seamlessness in our lexicon.

But I think that there is a flip side to all this that’s not really getting its due. That’s actually the idea of friction.

I know, designing for friction can feel a little counterintuitive. I’m not talking about this, I’m not talking about intentionally making products difficult to use or getting in the user’s way or frustrating them.

But without some friction, you risk creating experiences that feel a little like this banana peel. They can feel slippery at best, and at worst they can actually make your users feel nervous or not quite in control.

So what I want to do today is I want to talk a little bit about how we can strategically leverage that idea of friction to create better experiences.

The first benefit I want to walk you through today is the benefit of control. I think my favorite real-world example of this is people who take their credit cards and then freeze them in blocks of ice.

See, it turns out that the act of having to de-thaw your credit card from ice if you want to make a purchase is just enough friction to actually get you to slow down and rethink what you’re doing and reassert control over your finances.

Likewise, you can also see this dynamic play out when it comes to poppable blister packs with pills and child safety locks. It’s introducing just enough friction that actually you rethink how much you need to take and make wiser decisions.

I think we can then use these affordances to design products and solutions that give users a better sense of control and help them feel a little more empowered.

The other benefit I want to talk to you about is the idea of comprehension.

Here’s a scenario for you: Imagine that you got in your car, and you’re going somewhere you’ve been to literally a hundred times, but then you realize you have no idea how to get there because every time that you’ve been there you’ve been a passenger.

It turns out that actually the act of driving itself plays a big role in creating those pathways in our brains that allow us to understand and navigate and know where to go. So without that friction, you start to lose sense of that.

Similarly, when you look at friction in information architecture and then again in UI, without it, you run the risk of creating major issues with sense of place with our users.

So users navigate somewhere, they don’t understand how they got there or how they can get out. Even worse, they lose track of what the task that they’re there to accomplish is in the first place.

Sometimes reintroducing a little bit of friction can go a long way to ground your users to the task at hand.

The next benefit is ownership and pride.

I actually have a good example of this from my own life. Last week, I was meant to bake a cake for a friend whose birthday it was, and I ran out of time because I got super busy at work. So I went to the grocery store, but instead of buying a fully decorated cake, I bought a sheet cake and then decorated it at home. So not only was I actually to pass it off as my own home cooking, which I did, but the act of actually decorating the cake was enough to give me a sense of ownership and pride that I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise.

Similarly, I think you see this in the product Blue Apron, where users get sent to them a number of pre-packaged, pre-sized ingredients, but they actually get the creative act of cooking. That in itself is building a skill and taking a sense of pride and ownership that you don’t get if you just order Uber Eats, for instance.

I think that we can learn a lot from this when it comes to building enterprise technology and systems around allowing users who are employees to put their own thumbprints on the work that they’re doing in those systems.

Then there’s the idea of how friction can actually enhance the sense of reward.

Imagine this: it is a thousand degrees outside and you’ve just finished mowing the lawn. You come in, you’re a little hot, a little sticky, and you pop open an ice-cold beer. Imagine how good that tastes. But I can almost guarantee you that it tastes better because of the heat and because you just mowed the lawn, because of the role between effort and friction and reward. You see this play out in digital experiences all the time, particularly in gaming, where the level of effort has to be equal to the level of reward.

I think it’s so funny how designers can be hellbent on removing all of the friction from our experiences, and I think after doing this presentation it’s really clear to me that friction is actually a huge part of our lives just as humans.

That accounts for a lot of the language we use. Think about phrases like, “No pain, no gain,” or “Anything worth having is worth fighting for.” It becomes really clear the value and the importance of friction in the human experience.

So I personally am going to keep looking for moments of friction to not only leverage, but to celebrate. I hope you do, too.

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