3. What is actually a friction?

Credits: Berenice Abbott. Interference

In order to start, it is important to define the idea of friction in design.

Physical frictions

It is in a way a metaphor and we will understand the concept fully only by coming back to the scientific definition of what a physical friction is. According to Hsu, Ying and Zhao, in an article on the nature of friction (2014), it all starts with the gravitational force. When applied to an object, this force produces the mass and the weight of that object, let’s say a wheel. When the wheel has to move, a « horizontal force needs to be exerted to overcome gravitation », in other words you need either to push or pull the wheel for it to move. This is the moment when frictions occur. As you probably have experienced before in case of a car breakdown, pushing your dead vehicle on a gravel road will demand much more energy than on an iced path. In both cases you will be able to physically experience friction, whether you appreciate it or not.

Scientists have been studying the origin of frictions since the 16th century with the work of Leonardo Da Vinci but the concept has been instinctively understood by all civilizations from the beginning of times. When humans started to use tools, build monuments or simply discovered fire — Hitting two flints to create a spark is actually a perfect example of friction, one that allowed civilization. They are an essential part of our human experience. We need them to walk, to stand, to work. To live. (Hsu, Ying and Zhao, 2014)

The concept of friction can also be understood on many different levels: psychological, social, societal, etc. Sliding slowly away from a literal meaning, on a social level, we can say for example that conflict between people generate frictions. The latter leading to war or breakup depending on the context.

credit of pictograms: noun project Ashley Van Dyck & athanagore x

Frictions in design

When it comes to design, the concept is similar. In an article describing the ways that friction can improve User Experiences, Dina Chaiffetz defines it as an interaction that makes it harder for, or even prevent people from, achieving their goal without any pain or effort — remember pushing the broken car — whether the action takes place within a digital interface or a service. Frictions may be the result of anything that stands in the way of the user for using the product (Choudari, 2013). Sometimes they are intentional and designed into the system, like a password; sometimes it occurs by accident, like bad navigability.

When explaining the need for frictionlessness in a website Steve Krugs (2005) ironically talks about the importance of friction very well. He affirms that it is not the number of clicks to go through a website that counts, but rather how hard each of the clicks is.

Frictions & Seams

There is a precision that I find important to make in order to keep clarity. In this chapter I will talk both about frictions and seams. Lennart Andersson, Director of Interaction Design at Veryday, makes a distinction between the two: A seam is a kind of friction that can be experienced only between devices, between products or apps. For example when, as I click on a link on Facebook from my phone, the internet browser opens up, I experience a seam. Or when somebody calls me on FaceTime and my computer keeps ringing although I already answered on my phone.

Seams are often talked about in ubiquitous computing (an application of which is the now famous Internet of Things). Karin Andersson, in an article on seamful design, defines it in this context as a mismatch between expectation and reality. For example, the battery life of your Iphone 6S is a seam, so is an inaccurate GPS position. They are often caused by technological limitations.

To sum up simply, an experience can be seamless and still contain frictions. But on the other hand, if the experience is frictionless, there will be no seams involved.


Andersson, K. (2007) Seamful design in a Seamful society o. Available at: http://www.cse.chalmers.se/research/group/idc/studentpapers/pdf/karin_andersson.pdf (Accessed: 21 March 2016).

Choudary, S.P. (2013) How startups compete with friction in product design — platform strategy Blog. Available at: http://platformed.info/traction-friction-matrix/ (Accessed: 21 March 2016).

Hsu, S., Ying, C. and Zhao, F. (2013) ‘The nature of friction: A critical assessment’, Friction, 2(1), pp. 1–26. doi: 10.1007/s40544–013–0033-z.

InVisionApp (2015) 3 ways friction can improve your UX. Available at: https://medium.com/@InVisionApp/3-ways-friction-can-improve-your-ux-4c7acbcb1996#.yyfmb3tm3 (Accessed: 21 March 2016).

Krug, S. (2005) Don’t make me think!: A common sense approach to web usability. 2nd edn. Berkeley, CA: New Riders Publishing.


Andersson L. (2016) Director of Interaction Design & Design Strategist at Veryday. [26 January, 2016]