Friction & Work

Not a lesson in physics

Everything in the consumer and product world today centers around one goal:

Reducing friction.

Now, it would be a little odd if everyone somehow became concerned with forces and µ, so let’s qualify that:

Reduce the end user’s cognitive load.

In every feature planning meeting that’s ever dropped onto my calendar, I’ve heard someone say:

How can we make this process smoother? How can we reduce the number of clicks? Where can we make this flow feel more natural?

Speaking purely as a consumer, I’m a fan. Everyone’s said it over and over again. Reduce friction, increase happiness. So let’s get that out of the way — I’m not the guy who’s going to advocate for a 10-click signup flow for your next big app. More often that not, thinking in simple terms and advocating for the user leads to better design.

But, of course, there’s something missing.

Think of your average workday. You stumble your way into the office, Starbucks cup in hand. Plopping down on the chair, you type in a 4-character password and open up what you’ve been working at for the last couple weeks. Say you’re a developer — meaning there’s that good old text editor, staring back at you.

Of course, you have no idea why you left off in the middle of that line two afternoons ago. The red underline is annoying — maybe even menacing.

⌘Tab. Chrome. New Tab. Facebook.

8 minutes pass by — you didn’t notice. Mark and Jenny, who sit next to you, make their way in. You start to feel a little claustrophobic, so you ⌘Tab your way back to the text editor.

You lean back in the chair and start typing. Ugh, nope, you’ve already tried that approach. Oh man, it’s only 10am — you got the whole day ahead of you to take care of this.

You tap home on your phone. Instagram.

And so the cycle goes.

How has this changed how we work?

Through the products the industry has created, we’ve trained ourselves to expect rewards with low-friction and low investment.

The phone is a big player in this. Instagram — Facebook — Twitter. Dopamine hits come at almost no cost. ‘Happiness’ is literally a tap away.

But you know you can’t fix that pesky bug in your code that easily.

Your day job is inherently a high-friction process (after all, that is why you’re getting paid). So you do what the brain normally does — you use the crutch, moving quickly to a low-friction activity. Notice one thing: what I’m describing isn’t a recharge — it’s not like taking a break. It’s an addiction. You go back to your crutch knowing there’s nothing new.

You see, this isn’t an accident. Let’s get a couple things straight:

(1) Your attention is scarce, and more importantly: it drives revenue. The higher the friction in any process, the less patience you’ll have for it. Almost every company has incentive to not only get you to use their product, but also stay in it.

(2) Productive work is the most high-friction thing you’ll do in your day. Why do we complain that work isn’t easy? Is it supposed to be?

Let’s say you just acted greedily. At every step, you always picked the path of least friction. You would probably still get your job done. You might even feel “satisfied”. And yet — there’s the realization that the path you want to be on isn’t so easy. It’s not your phone’s fault. It’s a problem in self-discipline.

So yes — having friction-free processes is good for consumers. The only problem is when these expectations spill over to your way of thinking — and your way of working. They inevitably do.

Maybe a little bit of friction in your workday doesn’t sound so bad after all.