On Friction

For as long as I’ve known about UX, friction has been somewhat of a taboo.

“Good design is actually a lot harder to notice than poor design, in part because good designs fit our needs so well that the design is invisible.”

— Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things

I don’t know what you thought the first time you read that quote. For me, although it was Don Norman’s words, I heard it in Morgan Freeman’s voice. Taken at face value, UX is about creating clarity and simplicity. Our job is around understanding and anticipating user needs; fulfilling them before they think to ask. Even the language we use to describe great design seems like extensions from that quote: “natural,” “intuitive,” “smooth.”

If those words are synonyms for design virtues, then “friction” implicitly must be the opposite — some sort of design sin. Friction is loud. Whether it’s grass burns from little league or watching your team’s Yasuo hit their 0/10 power spike, friction is something you notice. It demands your attention. A far, far cry from invisible. Frictious design is bad design. This is what I internalized and would only receive my first real lesson otherwise a couple years into my career.

Critical Friction in Games

It was 2018, I had recently transitioned from the Web Design team at Riot to the Competitive Systems team on League of Legends. At the time, we were working on the release of our much anticipated tournament system, Clash. During one of the conversations in the pit, we were brainstorming different ways we could expand Clash’s engagement with the playerbase and make the experience more accessible.

As the UX designer on the team, my training and tendencies led me to examine the player journey, identify the biggest sources of friction, and then advocate for eliminating them. Using that thought process, the biggest source of friction I found with Clash was bans. This was my thinking:

  1. A huge part of our playerbase mainly spends their time playing one champion (aka one-tricking), especially in a competitive context.
  2. The presence of bans means players have to invest outside time practicing alternatives because their favorite champion may be unavailable.
  3. Coordinating a team of 5 people to commit an afternoon is already hard enough. Why add any more friction to a high stakes situation that sets players up for potential failure?

Therefore, we should remove bans from Clash.

Bans in Clash take friction a step further with the snake draft format

On paper and in a vacuum, this line of thinking sounds reasonable. But as my at-the-time producer, Leanne Loombe, and game designer, Jon Moormann, told me — and as I will now tell you — this was not the best way to look at it. And I’ve come to think of it as a naïve and narrow perspective. “No friction, no problems” is a reductive way of breaking down experiences, especially for games. This is one of the biggest things I had to unlearn and relearn.

Leanne and Jon’s feedback reminded me that bans are a huge part in what makes Clash special. Scouting what your opponents play, adjusting your draft, pre-tournament preparation. All of these decision spaces are less rich in a world without bans. On top of that, the thematic fantasy of Clash is competing like the pros do, with bans representing an important part of that fantasy.

Chasing championships is inherently about adversity

Bans are a source of critical friction for Clash. They add value to the experience despite their frictional nature. Removing them would be akin to taking players who wanted to try diving in the deep end and putting them in the kiddie pool. Everyone might have an easier time keeping their head above water, but nobody really gets to swim.

Since then, I’ve continued to think more about friction as a designer. Compared to traditional web products or productivity applications, games are uniquely charged with friction. They’re only fun when choices feel like they have meaningful outcomes. And in order for outcomes to have meaningful consequences, they must be imbued with some amount of friction. Winning only means something if losing was a real possibility. What we gain too easily we esteem too lightly, and that’s all the more true in games. A Pentakill only carries weight because of how challenging and rare it is to pull off.

Actually Useful Math Problems

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say friction is always good. Things can always be harder, but that doesn’t mean they should. I could force players to solve a Calculus problem each time they tried to buy an item in League of Legends, but that just doesn’t sound fun. And while it wasn’t quite Calculus, we did create a different math-sized problem when we launched TFT: On launch, TFT had no UI to display the tier probabilities of units in the shop.

Examples of what we released at launch

Instead of keeping the actionable information and feedback loop tight, players were forced to look up this information online or rely on third-party apps. As a result, not having this information created significantly more friction in TFT, without servicing any positive or healthy outcomes.

In this case, not having this key piece of information created failure states that players were entirely unaware of. For example, players chasing 6 Nobles in Set 1 of TFT would spend all their gold chasing a unit that they only had a tiny chance of finding.

Players only had a 2% chance of finding any Tier 5 (Legendary) unit at Lv.7 and only a 0.4% chance of finding a specific unit like Kayle

We wanted players to build strategies around when they wanted to hit different units and to have rich choices around how they could plan to succeed with the team they chose. This is where the fun of the game was, so it was an easy decision to remove this particular piece of friction we launched with.

What we ended up adding shortly after to the UI

In summary, friction is something I would encourage anyone interested in game UX to explore broadly and without regard to the maxim of things like “invisible design.” It’s often in the process of learning to doubt what we first found most obvious and sacred that we find the unexpected.

Friction may be loud, but it is also intimate. Choosing to incorporate friction is picking which rough edges are especially worth keeping because they make the experience unique. Approaching games through this lens empowers you to discover and define what fun is, what play means, and ultimately the shape of your game as a whole.

Refactoring my relationship with friction has been one of the most worthwhile things I’ve struggled through as a designer, and my hope is that it will be for you as well.

- JZ



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