How to use “positive friction” to create better experiences

At last year’s EPIC conference I presented a pecha kucha entitled “Shopping as Modern Quest.” My premise, based on research I had done with shoppers, was that shopping can be a journey of discovery that is deeper than the pursuit of goods, and that in some instances the act of looking for a specific item can bring an individual into a community, or create closer bonds to an existing community. My choice of the word quest was specific, and based in the use of the term as a literary plot device in which the hero goes on a journey in pursuit of a goal. In these tales, the journey is often more important than the destination, whether or not the protagonist knows it.

Quests have challenges and difficulties along the way. Overcoming these difficulties is a fundamental part of the journey. In conversations with other attendees after my presentation, I had several interesting discussions around this conundrum: As designers, we often seek to take friction out of the system (think “seamless customer experience”), but are the benefits to introducing friction at strategic points in the journey? Where, why, and how should “challenges” be introduced in order to make a positive impact?

There is a fine line between creating positive friction and gamification. Last year Trendwatching released a report on the Future of Customer Experience in which they briefly mentioned a trend they dubbed “questification,” simply asking “Beyond embedding a progress bar and some virtual badges into your app, what would it look like if your brand took the customer on a quest? Design an adventure that makes your CX seem like Final Fantasy vs. your competitor’s Pac-Man.” It is a good question, and one they did not answer.

In my conversations with fellow EPIC attendees, one area ripe for friction was education. It is fairly well established that new information is retained better the more effort has gone into achieving it. At the same time, too much challenge and learners can turn away before becoming engaged. Last year, my husband and I took an introductory Spanish course together, then both continued practicing with Duolingo. I worked through the skill tree a couple of times, but recently realized that while my Spanish skills are not great, they are also not getting better at this point. Last week, new levels appeared. Duolingo’s FAQs on the topic address this friction issue noting that it “solves one of Duolingo’s biggest challenges: remaining fun for casual learners while still offering advanced content for serious learners. Casual learners can still go through the whole tree fairly easily, while more advanced learners can get a lot more depth by leveling up their skills and earning Crowns.” While it remains to be seen if the problem is solved, I am one user who is intrigued by the ability to dive in deeper.

Beyond education, it is easy to find examples of how overcoming challenges leads to bigger and better things. Adam Grant has argued for the importance of arguments in enabling people to get to better solutions (and ultimately to learn how to get along with people despite differences). On an individual level, most athletes know that breakthroughs come from pushing through discomfort to get to the next level of performance.

This may all be beneficial in the scope of personal growth and attainment, but what does positive friction mean in the more mundane world of commercial transactions or functional software? While the shoppers I interviewed ultimately found their goods (as well as their communities), for many transactions friction creates a risk of losing a customer.

No one wants to introduce friction to the process of buying a pack of gum or finding product help — quests are only appropriate for some products and experiences. But as creators, it is worth asking what, if any, is the right level of struggle for different destinations, while also incorporate the question deeper into our thinking of all the stuff we create. I don’t claim to have worked through all the implications yet, but here are some starter guidelines for identifying if your product is quest worthy, and for framing positive friction.

1. Is there a goal for the customer to accomplish, and can it be clearly defined and realistically completed? There is a difference between reaching an objective and deciding to reach for the next target, and being constantly subjected to new tasks that simply move the bar beyond reach. Admittedly this form of gamification works for a while, but who plays Farmville anymore?

2. What is the value in accomplishing the goal, and how can it be expressed tangibly to users? While many benefits are intangible, it is important to make the destination and the steps to it clear so that users both want to reach it and can envision themselves reaching it.

3. What guidance can be provided along the way? Beyond framing the initial steps, how can you provide assistance throughout the journey for those that want it?

I plan to continue building this out, and invite others to help by providing input and examples from your own challenges and experiences.