5. About frictionlessness
There are different aspects that are constitutive of the frictionless cult, different divinities in the Pantheon. My research brought me to 5 main ones that I will introduce here:
- Simplicity, the mother god
- Ease of use, the favourite daughter
- Efficiency & Speed, the millennial twins
- and Seamlessness, the promising little brother
An important part of what the adepts of frictionlessness aim to achieve is simplicity. I called it the mother divinity because that’s where everything started. It has been a goal for designers since the beginning of the discipline and was embodied by Mies van der Rohe’s famous motto « Less is more ». It’s about trying to convey the essential while removing the unnecessary. Focus on function rather than beauty because form follows function and because removing features adds in clarity. Another legend of design, Dieter Rams, when listing the principles of good design says that « Good design is as little design as possible ». In other words, doing less but doing it better. And making the design as invisible as possible in order to leave space for the user to interact with the product without being distracted. A good example in the digital world is the home page of google: as simple as it can be; only one thing to do and a lot of white space around it. Marissa Mayer, the former company’s director of consumer web product — now head of Yahoo — , compares the competitors to an open Swiss army knife: too many features and options « that can be intimidating and occasionally harmful. » (Tischler, 2005)
With the fast paced advancement of technology inevitably unfolds more and more complexity. We carry immensely complicated devices in our pocket or on our wrist. We often have to deal with systems that we don’t necessarily understand at home, at work, or at the automatic checkout of the supermarket. As a consequence, John Maeda, in his book on the laws of simplicity (2006), noticed that people tend to not only buy but actually love products and services that make their lives simpler. Hence the importance of focusing our design on simplicity, keeping disturbances to the minimum. Don Norman explains that people are great at making send of the world (1998). Our brains are built to from patters, to see conjoins between seemingly unrelated things: we are learning machines. But we need some help from the environment to be able to make the right conclusions on what actions to perform and what results to expect.
« We human beings are sense makers. But only if the there is some hints and clues to what is happening and why. » Don Norman
If the design helps us, we can understand very complex systems and successfully deal with difficult tasks. Norman continues his argument by making an important point: we shouldn’t need to be experts in the system we are dealing with; understand how every bit travels in the microprocessor to reach its destination. We shouldn’t need to be a computer scientist to use a computer, an engineer to use a phone. Especially when all we mean to accomplish are simple tasks like writing an email or printing a plane ticket. Instead, designers should communicate a simple story. What he calls a conceptual model. It shouldn’t show the actual mechanisms of the tasks but provide a coherent model to pull the actions together and allow the user to feel that he is in control (Norman, 1998). He knows what to expect from pushing this button or how to correct a mistake because he understands the conceptual model of the system.
To come back to google’s example, the algorithm behind its magic is far from simple but the experience we have as users couldn’t be simpler or easier.
Maeda predicts that this movement towards simplicity is only at its start. As complex technologies will keep on flooding our everyday lives, simplicity will be a growth and profitable industry over the next decades (Maeda, 2006).
Ease of use
Another key aspect of the idea of frictionlessness is the ease of use of a product. The goal is to let you pick up a device and use it (Norman, 1998). It can be regarded as either a consequence or a cause for simplicity in design. In a paper considering the history of button-pushing America, Peter Hall (2009)quotes Henry Dreyfuss talking about the subject:
« When the point of contact between the product and the people becomes a point of friction, then the industrial designer has failed. » Henry Dreyfuss
Indeed, frictions when they occur come in the way of people using the product or the service. And as a business consequence, come in the way of value creation. Choudari considers removing friction from an experience to be a core principle to attract customer and therefore ease of use as the right tool to avoid value loss (2015).
When it comes to web design, Daniel Burka (2010) brings forward that the reason for the fact that the imperative has always been ease of use is because the web is young and web apps are still hard for customers to use. Therefore designers need to put a lot of energy in making the web a better and easier place to use.
UX designers spend many hours doing usability tests to assess the ease of use of their product. Carvajal, Moreno Sanchez-Segura and Seffah (2013) define usability as « the capability of a software to be understood, learnt, used and attractive to the user, when used under specified conditions ». Essentially it is about knowing how easily the user can operate a system. The easier, the more usable, the better. But when is something easy to use? Don Norman (1998) talks about the idea of knowledge in the world. It is when the environment gives you clues on what you should do. When no instruction, manual or courses are necessary for you to understand. When you pick up something and start using it. Then, it is considered as easy to use. We can take his famous door example. If you have to add a sign on it that says « push » or « pull », you failed. The door is faulty. Thanks to the knowledge in the world — and some in our heads too — that designers have put there, the most difficult things can become easy. We can acquire understanding of the system we are manipulating. Users need to feel that they are in control, that « they know what to do, when to do it and what to expect from the device » (Norman, 1998).
Fredrik Lindersson, UX designer and Co-founder at Äventyret, emphasizes the importance of this by saying that too much friction or too little knowledge can deteriorate the ease of use and eventually lead the user to inaction: they don’t dare to use a product because they feel too stupid to use it or scared to make mistakes.
As discussed earlier, a seam is a friction that is experienced between devices, products or app. Karin Andersson notes in her article, Seamful design in a seamful society, that there has been a long tradition of seamlessness in ubiquitous computing (2013). She quotes Weiser who said:
« The most profound technology is the one that disappears »
allowing the user to focus on the task at hand, not the tool. Seamlessness is about ironing out the bumps that lye in between devices. For example connecting your phone to the system of your car when you start driving, allowing you to call or listen to music. Focusing on driving rather than on finding your earplugs that are hiding somewhere in the back seat. It connects so instantly that it is almost unnoticeable.
Designers have been hiding complexity at all cost like John Maeda recommends. He admits that hiding is a form of deception (2006) but argues that if it feels like magic, it is acceptable. It becomes more of a treat than a nuisance. Your car automatically unlocking when you get close to it with the keys in your pocket seams like a magic trick. It feels great, seamless and frictionless. Thomas Wendt (2013) actually explains that concealment is the common technological more. Because of the rising complexity, if we want products to remain usable, we necessarily need to hide its mechanisms to a certain extent. The idea behind these arguments is that, as we saw earlier with Norman, a user doesn’t need to understand a system more than what helps him to go through the experience. The rest is concealed, becoming magic.
Speed and efficiency
In the physical world as well as in the digital one, we need energy to overcome the resistance created by an obstacle. Too much friction demand an excess of energy to perform a task, leading to inefficiency (Hsu, Ying and Zhao, 2014). Frictionlessness is therefore a good ally of efficiency. Removing the frictions is removing the resistance, and doing so, enabling the user to perform a task more efficiently. A good example of friction that comes in the way of effectiveness is the pop up windows that request things from us, like login information, before we can even access any content. They slow us down or prevent us completely from accomplishing our goals. Whether it is a pop up window or standing in line, no one likes to be delayed in the performing of their tasks. Therefore, when any interaction with a product or a service happens quickly, the feeling of efficiency and simplicity is greatly satisfying (Maeda, 2006). Reducing the time that we spend waiting allows us to spend that time doing something else, more meaningful, more urgent or simply more important.
We live in a society where we constantly need to make decisions: yes or no. left or right. red pill or blue pill. croissant or yoghurt, etc. The paradox of choice has the same effect on us than waiting, our brains are occupied by things that are unimportant. So any system that alleviate us from the burden of insignificant choices will be considered beneficial and will be happily used by many people. Maeda takes the example of the recommendation by Amazon. The fact that the algorithm chooses for us what we might want to read avoids us the heavy duty of browsing through their immense catalogue, hoping to find some inspiration.
To conclude, I will let Marissa Mayer explain the success of google’s home page again, but the sentence is true for any efficient frictionless system:
« It gives you what you want when you want it, rather than everything you could ever want, even when you don’t. »
Limits of Frictionlessness
On consumers and apathy
As on an iced lake, a frictionless design forces the user to be comfortably passive, pushed from A to B. With B being often decided by the designer rather than by the user.
We let Facebook remind us of memories from 5 years ago, even if those memories were not ones that we necessarily wanted to remember. We wait for google search to tell us what it is that we were looking for, even if its suggestions are sometimes on the verge of what is politically correct.
As Csikszentmihalyi (1999) notes:
« Societies are usually structured so that the majority is led to believe that their well-being depends on being passive and contented. »
The current cult of frictionlessness faces the risk to go in that direction and confirm people as consumers rather than producers. And because it removes all obstacles, it may also remove opportunities for challenges. In his theory of flow, Csikszentmihalyi (1999), explains that a person experiences flow when the challenges she faces are perceived to be equal to her skills. On the contrary, when both challenges and skills are low, she experiences apathy. It is a very negative state that we as individuals tend to escape and characterized by a lack of attention and engagement (Delle Fave, Massimini, 2005). So why are we thriving to create the conditions for such experience?
Lack of understanding and loss of control
The goal of frictionless experiences is to simplify our lives. Freeing up brain space and time for us to be better individuals and engage in things we really care about. It is a very noble idea but the systems we are dealing with are more and more complex and the idea of a simple, seamless interaction doesn’t allow us to apprehend their complexity. In a very interesting article, the Used Future Manifesto, Kate Mew (2014) says that by extreme simplification « we took our eyes off the workings of the worlds around us ». We are hiding hugely complex things behind overly simple interfaces. We don’t understand the systems that rule our lives and that we use everyday.
This lack of understanding leads us to feel uncomfortable because, as Don Norman notes (1998), we consequently feel out of control and we do not know how to respond, how to deal with an unexpected result or a mistake. We are not able to decide consciously when and how to engage with a system. According to Marc Ratto (2007) this is dangerous to our critical thinking because we don’t have the resources to object and critique a system we don’t comprehend, neither can we interact meaningfully with it.
« Does my refrigerator light really goes off? »
« Why was my car unlocked this morning? » (Arnall, 2013).
The automation paradox
« As automation makes our lives easier and safer, it also creates more complex systems, and fewer humans who understand those systems. Which means when problems do arise — people can be left unable to deal with them. » (Roman, 2015)
A good example is touched upon by the 99% invisible podcast on automation. The author explains that we are in a circle where we need more and more automated things around us. Automation eventually leads to the erosion of skills, that leads to even more automation. It is a cycle that raises one important question: If we lose the ability to do something ourselves, are we losing something of ourselves?
Myth of immateriality and infallibility
Moreover, in the quest for seamlessness, the mechanics of the systems become invisible. It relays a myth of immateriality that Timo Arnall denounces in his famous article No to NoUI (2013). For him this myth leads to « uncertainty and folk theories » that prevent us from meaningful use of the systems around us. He takes the example of the Cloud. A word that sounds so poetic and evanescent that « it surely has nothing to do with windowless bunkers stacked to the gills with hard drives and defended with barbed wire. » (Mew, 2014) The image of the cloud relays a myth of infallibility: Our datas are floating in the hyperspace they will therefore never disappear or be hacked by anyone. The mental model delivered by the company is not honest and prevents the users from grasping the risks related to the system.
The essential problem with hiding complexity is that it turns technology into magic and users into spectators.
If we take a step back and try to envision the promises of a totally frictionless society:
Ratto (2007) sees it clean, orderly and homogenous. Nothing stands out, nothing looks different. It is about comfortably sliding through life, no major event requiring attention or effort. Eventually leading, as Selzer (2015) foresees, to an erosion of our social values towards intolerance and a lack of resilience. Because we will feel entitled and will expect everything to be easy and delivered to us. Kate Mew (2014) compares this vision to the Empire in Star Wars: “a smooth, shiny, sleek, depersonalised, modular and inscrutable design”
Wall-E has probably nailed the best the image of the ultimate frictionless society: Humans sliding in chairs, talking to each other through screens, pushing buttons as their main activity. Having lost their bones in the evolution because, who needs bones in a frictionless world?
Read next — 6. The Idea of Productive Friction
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Lindersson F. (2015) User Experience Designer and Co-Founder at Äventyret [6 Nobember, 2015]