6. The Idea of Productive Friction

Benefits of frictions


« I would build frictions as moments of contemplation » Anders Arnqvist

Introducing frictions in a product or service can create an important opportunity for people to think about what they are doing. As Steve Krug (2005) explains, most of the time we don’t actually choose the option that is best for us. We unconsciously use a strategy known as ‘satisficing’. It is about choosing the first reasonable option. Remember the idea behind the old saying ‘a bird in the hand is worth 2 in the bush’, that idea drives many of our decisions. However, Daniel Sjöblom, VP Digital Transformation at Veryday, points out that although effortless is key when exploring a system, when comes the moment to take action, friction is needed. Because of the effort necessary to overcome the friction, the process has to pause for a while, allowing people to stop and reflect. Getting out of auto-pilot mode. Was this really what I wanted to do? Thus, frictions can prevent mistakes by asking for confirmation. Something like: « Are you sure that you want to close this file that you have been working on for three hours without saving it? »

Lennart Andersson illustrated this thought with an example from a project he did for Swedavia. His team worked on a re-design, for air traffic controllers at Arlanda airport, of the system that allows them to control which flight depart from which runway, or when the snowploughs have time to clean the piste. In order to find the best solution, controllers need to probe and experiment potential ones. Trying different orders and layouts on different runways. A frictionless system would have automatically executed the orders. But Lennart’s team has built into the system the need for confirmation. The order of the planes on each runway is executed only once the controller validates the chosen scenario. In this situation, frictions allow for exploration and thinking and reduce the risk of mistakes.

Launch Key inserted in the Crew Commander’s Console. Titan Missile Museum

Another strong example of frictions increasing safety comes precisely within safety protocols. Whether it is accessing your bank account or launching a nuclear bomb, the complicated process one has to go through is the warranty that it is actually you and not another person having power on your money, or that you have given some thoughts before you decide to destroy the world with an H bomb. In that sense, friction can also act as feedback and give reassurance on the action you just performed as Stefan Moritz, Service Design Lead at Veryday, notes (2016).

The future of financial technologies looks like the ultimate frictionless experience. As Gravitytank explains in a trend report for the Service Design Network (2015), paying will become invisible, an activity that happens in the background, automatically. We can see this already happening with the newly release google hands free system that allow you to pay just by saying « I’ll pay with google ».

When looking into cognitive psychology, there is something called the cashless effect. Dilip Soman researched on the effect of payment transparency (2003) and found out that the perceived transparency of payment is significantly coupled with the perceived pain of payment. In other words, you will more willingly pay a certain amount for a new computer by card than if you did it in cash. Precisely because you can’t see the money. Gravitytank continues its reflection by talking about the responsibility that designers will have to share with their clients in order to protect people from self destructive spending: « With frictionless design, comes great responsibilities ».

The idea that friction can promote reflection and critical thinking is expressed by Ratto in his article on the ethics of seamless infrastructure (2007). He sees the seams in a system as necessary to encourage a certain level of engagement from the user. It can be used as a transition between reflexive and unreflexive modes of use. This point is evoked by Lennart Andersson also. He suggests to use friction to notify the user when he is passing the border of a too complicated system:

« Now you need to think »

To help designers in their attempt to enable critical thinking from the user, I will make a bold reference to the Maieutics of Socrates. Maybe we need to inspire ourselves from the dialogue method he was using to teach it to his students. Maieutics means giving birth, in this case the philosopher prompts his interlocutor to be an active participant in the dialogue and this way gives him the skills and thinking he needs to critically evaluate a view or a situation (Leigh, 2007). He will then « give birth » to his own opinion.
What if designers could act in that way, using frictions to give enough information and empower the user to reflect and think about what he is presently doing? A metaphoric ‘dialogue’ would then take place between the device and the user, making sure the latter takes an informed decision and not act as if in auto pilot mode.

Credits: UsTwo. Monument Valley.


We saw that friction can usefully prevent mistakes when it comes to safety but it is important to note that not all mistakes are bad. As designers we are confronted to thousands of articles praising failure. I went to Hyper Island which is famous for their promotion of mistakes as learning experiences and growing factor. Tom and David Kelley in their book, Creative Confidence (2013), encourage the reader to establish her « failure resumé » because we learn much more from failure than from success. A frictionless product will lead the user by the hand at each step preventing him to stumble and fall. But what we preach for ourselves, why do we deny it to our users? If trust and forgiveness are built into the system, frictions can allow for mistakes, thus leading to moments of personal growth and serendipity (Selzer, 2015).

Games are good examples. In games, frictions are used to foster learning. What we like in a game is precisely the fact that the princess is hidden at the top of the highest tower, guarded by a three-headed monster. There would be absolutely no fun — and actually no point — in a frictionless game: A Tetris where all the pieces have the same shape or a labyrinth with only one road, etc.

The line is thin between something challenging and something frustrating but game designers have learnt to master that. As Daniel Burka talks about in an article for UX mag (2010), most of the fun in a game involves solving enigmas and learning how to achieve harder and harder objectives. Daniel Sjöblom explains that we, designers, then have to be the motivators, the ones who supports and pushes the users to go one level up. A bit like the teacher in spinning class. An important thing to keep in mind to succeed was raised by Andrea De Angelis, Design Strategist: if we put steps in the way of our users, they either have to be low enough so that they are able to walk past it or we need to provide them with the right tools to overcome the step.

Daniel Cook assures that users are learning machines (2010). That, as humans, we have an immense potential to learn and master news skills. Games allow us to go from beginner to expert while actually having fun. He is the one who turned Microsoft office into a game, the Ribbon Hero, transforming frictions from moments of pain into exciting challenges. His point with this project, and that of Daniel Burka, is that we could look at regular UX design the way we look at game design. Maybe introducing game ideas into applications in a subtle way. Burka takes the example of filling a form: what if we presented it as a quest? what if the user was rewarded by game style feedbacks « Yay, you’re on the right track! »?

It is important to raise a point that Don Norman makes in his book, The Invisible Computer (1998), he explains that the notion design making things intuitive is false. « Intuitive tasks are skills that we have practiced for so many years that we no longer recall how difficult it was to learn them in the first place ». Let’s take walking for example. Who remember having to learn that? But watch the babies, it doesn’t look that intuitive to them. For something to become intuitive, we need to learn it and frictions are a great tool for that.

Credits: Ikea

Effort and Satisfaction

Maybe it is a product of our capitalist societies who achieved to slave the masses or maybe it is just inherent to human condition, but research, as Norton, Mochon and Ariely (2012) note, has shown the central place that labor occupies in our well being. The feeling of productivity is an important goal in our lives. It answers and fulfill a fundamental desire we have for effectance. In other words: successfully finishing what we have started, whether it is a coloring picture as kids or a new level of candy crush as serious professionals in the public transport. It helps us feel competent and in control. In their fascinating article, the authors talk about what they call the Ikea effect. It is the idea that the more effort people put into something, the more they will value it. The connexion to the Swedish furniture company is obvious, no need to recall the last time you successfully built up your Billy shelf by yourself. In an article about how frictions can improve your UX, Dina Chaiffetz (2015) explains the feeling we have by a boost in our sense of pride and competence that the extra effort provides, ultimately building our self-esteem. « I can do that: I can climb this mountain, I can write this thesis. » In their research, Norton, Mochon and Ariely asked participants, beginners and experts, to build origamis and, after completion, to set a price on their creation. The results showed that the builders saw their beginners « chefs d’oeuvre » as equally good as experts’ creations. And even expected others to think the same:

Labor leads to love

An interesting consequence for designers is what Arkes and Catherine Blumer (1985) call the sunk cost effect. It is the fact that we become unwilling to pull out of something we have put time and effort into. On the contrary, we are highly motivated to make it work and it makes it really hard to give up on — look back at your relationships history for great examples — The meaning for designers is that frictions — time and effort — can make your product or service more sticky to users. They will value it more for the feeling of accomplishment it brought and be less willing to change.

Delle Fave and Massimini (2005) talk about the tendency humans have towards achieving increasing levels of complexity. He considers this as an invaluable resource to create meaningful evolution and enable what he calls « collective empowerment ». It is difficult to get better at something without putting any effort in it. This is true about learning tennis as well as about the evolution of societies. Not only do they allow evolution, but also, in the right proportion, frictions can lead us into what Csikszentmihalyi (1999) calls the flow. He describes it as a psychological state in which we feel simultaneously « cognitively efficient, motivated and happy. » And this flow is attained when the perceived challenges — effort, frictions — are rightly proportional to the perceived skills. Too much challenge lead to stress and too little to apathy. A difficulty for designers is to find the right amount of frictions. The amount leading to the state of flow. Enough to make it exciting and little enough not to paralyse the user. Because it is important to note that Norton, Mochon and Ariely emphasise that labor leads to love only if the result is a successful completion of the task at hand. Nobody loves the Billy shelf when it’s lying in the corridor as a blatant symbol of our failure.

Credit: Paul E.

Long term thinking

We saw that the consequence of effort in our lives was a feeling of achievement. Csikszentmihalyi refers to the greek philosopher Epicurus, famous for his praise of happiness. According to him, happiness is based on our ability to defer gratification. « I will go and get a drink only after I write these 500 words ». After having hiked up a mountain, the pain magically fades in our memory and we can only see the pride of the achievement because the experience of the now is very different from the memory of the experience of the now. In other words, on the longterm, something that seemed hard and annoying can eventually have positive consequences. An extreme example that Larcon, Rauch and Willems (2015) describe, comes from the London tube, back in 2014, during a strike of the main tube lines. This unfortunate event forced travelers to take different routes than their usual. The researchers then discovered that a significant amount of users did not come back to their original travel pattern as they had found a more efficient route thanks to the strike. People tend to under-experiment, sticking to old habits by convenience. The strike acted here as a sort of forced experimentation that opened the door to efficiency. I will not go down the dangerous road of arguing for a greater good or a necessary evil; but rather raise awareness on the fact that a perceived short term unproductive friction — the effort necessary to bypass the strike — can reveal, on the longterm, to be productive. Who knew it but the French?

On the same subject of long term benefit, research has shown that too much of a good thing is never good, (Nelson, Meyvis and Galak, 2009) — remembering that overdose of chocolate every Easter will give you a good idea of what I refer to — And that, on the contrary, restricting pleasure increases pleasure:

We need « A state of permanent slight hunger » (Cognitive lode, 2015).

It is what Nelson, Meyvis and Galak called the Hedonic adaptation. We enjoy something more when it is given in small quantities and spread out in time. They realized, for example, during an experimentation that commercial breaks actually enhanced the enjoyment of a TV program. A friction as restriction can therefore be beneficial to the overall experience.

One important aspect in the success of the use of friction to defer gratification that should not be neglected is the reward. As Milkman, Minson & Volpp (2013) note, we are more likely to do what requires an effort from us when it is closely associated with something tempting, thus, changing behaviours for better. Anders Arnqvist, Senior Interaction Designer, also insists on the fact that, for a friction to be positive, the reward must be superior to the amount of effort the user had to produce. The difficult part is that each user has their own idea of what is a good enough reward. From there we can see the need to spend time, when designing, on reflecting and evaluating which kind of reward and in which quantity will be necessary for different types of users.

Delight and surprise

Frictions can be unexpected and delightful and, overall, bring very stimulating surprises in an experience. A good example is a Japanese tea house where the stones of the way are placed in a very thought through pattern. The idea is to make you slow down and look at your feet, focusing on the path to avoid an unfortunate fall. All of these spokes in your wheel have one ultimate goal, allowing you to discover the beautiful sight of the tea house at a very specific moment only. Not before. Not after. Anders Arnqvist gave a more digital example where friction was used to put the craft — and thus the fun — back into the online poker experience. By using a Kinect and movement detection instead of simple buttons — that would have been easier to use — the designers promoted the analog original gestures of the game, increasing the feeling of immersion of the players.

LittleBits module


The quest for seamlessness and frictionlessness comes with the simplification and eventually the hiding of the complexity of systems the user interact with. Seams and frictions showing parts of the working of systems are sometimes considered unwanted and useless.

When it comes to the need for the user to understand the system he interacts with, opinions vary. Some designers are strongly in favor of giving just enough information for the user to be able to reach his goal. On the contrary, others argue for a more transparent and more honest conceptual model. Indeed, Don Norman, in his book The Design of Everyday Things (1988), explains that a device becomes difficult to use when the user lacks a clear conceptual understanding of it. The more honest the mental model, the easier it is to get out of trouble or perform novel tasks. In some cases it is important to make sure the users really understand what they will enter. It is the case for the « terms and conditions » agreements when subscribing to a new product for example. Designers try to encourage the users to read before they accept by, for instance, putting the « I agree » button right at the bottom of all the agreement, forcing people to scroll down all the way. It doesn’t always make us read the agreements but at least forces us to realise that we are entering a new system, with its own rules.

In a larger philosophical picture, understanding how things work is an important mean of apprehending the world around us. In his very interesting article Designing for Transparency and the Myth of the Modern Interface, Thomas Wendt (2013) refers designers to the theories of Heidegger, who states that we only interact with objects in order to accomplish a goal. For that reason, knowing that a hammer is made of wood and metal is not really as meaningful as knowing how to use a hammer. The philosopher argues that:

We come to understand the world only through the manipulation of the objects that are surrounding us.

I fully understand the concept of hammer by actively manipulating it, hitting the nail a couple times and my finger some others. In doing so, I establish a meaningful relationship with the hammer. Meaning that I have grasped the essence of the hammer’s workings and functions.

In her article, the Used Future Manifesto, Kate Mew praises the makers movement as a reaction to streamlined digital world where oversimplified interfaces hide ever more complex systems that we don’t understand. She talks about celebrating how things work, about depth over surface. It could require some effort from the designer to explain a system and from the user to understand it. But isn’t the reward worth the energy spent? When talking about his project for Swedavia, Lennart Andersson explained that the flights used to be stacked as a list with no distinction between them. Because the system was built around different runways, the team of designers decided to show part of it in the interface and organized the flights on the screen depending on their runways. The air traffic controllers hadn’t asked for this feature but loved to be able to grasp the overview so easily. Understanding the computer system they worked with better, allowed them to be more efficient in their work.

Karin Andersson, in a research on seamful design, argues that it is a utopia to think we can iron out all the bumps and seams of systems. On the contrary, leaving some seams visible can improve a system’s functionalities. When understood by the users, the seams become a resource for interaction and eventually, lead to what the author calls « appropriation ». Appropriation happens when the user, by interacting with the seams of a product or service, develop new patterns that hadn’t even been considered by the design team. Don Norman (1998) explains that this is precisely the mark of a successful conceptual model.

It is true that most people only use half of the functions of a system but is it a reason to remove the rest and prevent the more expert users or the ones eager to learn to use the potentiality of a product? As Timo Arnall, in his ode against NoUI, points out, despite their apparent simplicity, the new invisible interfaces like sensors are not simpler by essence. They also need to be learnt and understood by the users. We cannot make everything disappear behind the curtains of seamlessness. Frictions are needed, at least at the start, in order to teach the users how to meaningfully interact with the systems. A solution evoked by Daniel Sjöblom, would be to have “a friction mode”, letting the user choose between complexity and simplicity when it is important for him. Instead of imposing one or the other, leaving the opportunity open into the system instead of most of the time, having companies set the rules on how we will interact with their product. When we understand, we have the opportunity to be in control, going from simple consumers to active producers and thus growing our trust in the systems that we are using.


After having ardently defended the benefits of introducing frictions in design, I have to share some limits in their use that makes them unproductive or even counter-productive for both users and designers. As Daniel Burka (2010) says, there is a very fine line between what is challenging and what is frustrating. We run the risk of discouraging the user to utilize a system at all. When the focus is put, because of frictions, on other things than the task at hand, they can prevent good decision making as Anders Arnqvist remarks. For example, when buying a book online, people are not interested to know everything about the supply chain and logistics of the delivery. They want their book delivered in the correct time at the correct address. Not more. Essentially the decision to use frictions or not depends on the goal you are trying to achieve with your design: If it is making a markle slide from A to B, frictionless is recommended. However do not try to build a house of cards on a frictionless surface, it will fall apart.

Each friction must be carefully introduced and evaluated, making sure it provides additional value (Choudary, 2015). A bad friction is usually an unintentional one. Hence the importance of spending some time analyzing and spotting frictions in the experience you are designing.


The trend for frictionless design finds its roots in the quest for simplicity that was already aimed for by renown designers like Dieter Rams and Don Norman. It is about removing all obstacles standing between the user and its goal, whether it is waiting time, a button to push or a mountain to climb. Overall, we want more stuffs, faster and with less hassle and frictionless design gives us that. I can’t help but wonder where this logic is leading us on the long run and on a larger scale. There is a tension in this model because we want everything instantaneously but not everything can be. As our mothers told us, good things take time and as science confirmed, the ability to defer gratification is key to happiness (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). Moreover, we saw earlier in this chapter that effort can lead to a sense of achievement and pride if the result is successful. There is value in frictions because they allow us to understand the systems that we are dealing with everyday and learn what we need in order to master new skills.

By uberizing our societies, namely, by making everything as easy, effortless and simple than calling a Uber, are we creating a desirable utopia or an assisted living community (Selzer, 2015)? It is a real question that I would like to ask designers. From this research we can observe that some frictions are necessary to our development and our well-being; that there is such a thing as a productive friction. You know this if you have ever tried to walk on an iced lake. Physical frictions are minimal there and while it’s easy and effortless to slide from one point to another, you will have no control whatsoever on either speed or direction. And don’t attempt to stop on the way, running the risk of miserably falling flat on your face. This is what I mean by productive friction, something that allows you to stay up on your feet and go in the right direction or at least the one that you find right for yourself.


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Moritz S. (2015) Service Design Lead at Veryday [14 April, 2015]
Arnqvist A. (2016) Senior Interaction Designer at Veryday [1 February, 2016]
Andersson L. (2016) Director of Interaction Design & Design Strategist at Veryday. [26 January, 2016]
Sjöblom D. (2016) VP Digital Transformation at Veryday [6 March, 2016]
De Angelis A. (2016) Senior Design Strategist at Veryday [1 March, 2016]