10. Conclusion, next steps & some last thoughts on ethics
« We are analog beings trapped into a digital world, and the worst part is, we did it to ourselves. » Don Norman, the Invisible Computer, 1998
This sentence could be my only conclusion as it sums up perfectly the research I set out to do. We, designers, are on a courageous path to find a difficult balance between simplicity and complexity. Inevitably oscillating between one and the other. What frictionless design has brought to our everyday lives is invaluable. Modernity has essentially been about removing frictions from our lives, giving us time to focus on living rather than surviving. Designs of an absolute simplicity, like google’s homepage brings Norman’s idea of « knowledge in the world » to another level, and the future of payment looks as smooth as a beautiful frozen lake on which a worry-free user would be effortlessly sliding. The context for designers is to thrive for frictionless at all cost. This very word makes everyone agree around the table: clients, stakeholders as well as designers. It fits so perfectly into the image we have of ourselves: we are human centered, we are the user’s advocates.
However, my research led me to realise that we are not exactly creating a utopia. Indeed, frictionless design can create passive experiences that confirm users as consumers rather than producers. Because by removing all frictions, we remove opportunities for challenges and because by hiding ever more complex systems behind overly simple interfaces, we don’t allow the user to feel in control or interact meaningfully with those systems.
Over the last 6 months, I learnt that there is a kind of friction that we can call productive. And whose elimination the user would suffer from:
A friction that brings critical thinking and engagement to the table. A friction that fosters learning and appropriation. A friction that achieves pride and satisfaction.
Such a friction, I discovered, can be a very powerful tool for designing better experiences. Ones that are meaningful and long lasting. Nevertheless, from all the casual discussions or formal interviews, a common theme emerged: the concept of friction had been the victim of the frictionless cult and was commonly associated with a very negative idea. Education is going to be needed to change that opinion and allow designers to contemplate friction as a tool rather than an obstacle. The small workshop that was led as part of this research, proved that, when presented with the possible benefits of friction, designers easily change their minds and realise the usefulness of friction.
Limitations and next steps
A small workshop is of course not enough to scientifically prove my point and it will need to be reiterated on a larger scale, with different industry professionals. Moreover, this research was executed over 6 months only and the interviewees were all working in the same country, Sweden. Therefore they might have been biased by a certain culture or way of looking at the problem. The body of academic papers on frictions in design specifically is still to be developed further and tend to focus on the relation between seamlesness and seamfulness.
But besides those limitations, the very positive results that the research presented in this paper gave, can let us catch a glimpse of the possible impact of a further work on raising the awareness on productive frictions. There are a few directions that this research could take next: Continuing the education is of course one, but one could also consider coming back to my first hypothesis and build a tool that the newly convinced designers,who are now eager to try frictions, could use in their design process. The need has already been voiced by the participants of the test workshop.
Some last thoughts on ethics
This research, as well as the heated discussions it caused, taught me that the question of friction is very much a question of ethics and of the responsibility that designers have, to be aware both of their own value system and of the impact that the digital age gave to the product and services they create. It is a point that I realised late in the process and that I wish I had developed more. Don Norman says (1998) about modern day technology that it enslaves us as much as it empowers us. It is very much true for frictionless design as well. Indeed, technologies are more than material objects, they create ways of organising our social relationships — see Facebook, instagram, etc. — and therefore become an « instrument for control and domination » as Marc Ratto points out (2007). From there we can easily understand the need for researching on the ethical dimensions of our technological world. If we are calling ourselves human centered designers, then we have the responsibility to ask ourselves the questions of the impact of our design on longterm, societal and psychological levels.
Frictions are in the center of an ethic battle that I would like to investigate in the future. A battle that puts face to face seemingly conflicting interests: capital & consumption versus human needs (Hall, 2009). During the interviews I have conducted, I realized that there were two very different position taken by designers on the subject: Some stated that if the user wants to be a passive consumer, we are no one to judge. While the others argued that, whether we want it or not, we have an impact through our design so we must try to make it as positive as possible, even if it means making choices on behalf of the users.
This question deserves a whole other research and promises to be fascinating too.
Hall, P.A. (2009) ‘True cost button-pushing: Re-writing industrial design in America’, Design Philosophy Papers, 7(2), pp. 59–70. doi: 10.2752/144871309x13968682694957.
Norman, D.A. (1998) The invisible computer: Why good products can fail, the personal computer is so complex, and information appliances are the solution. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Ratto, M. (2007) ‘Ethics of seamless infrastructures: Resources and future direction’, International Review of Information Ethics, 8, pp. 20–27.