In Products, as in Life, Not All Friction Is Bad

When you think about the value proposition of many new products or companies, one of the major priorities is nearly always around “removing friction.” For example:

  • Control your smart home by just speaking to your Amazon Echo or Google Home
  • Install magical software by just adding one line of code
  • Book a hotel room at a great price with just two taps
  • Etc. etc.

The typical assumption behind all this is that friction = bad, and that removing friction = good.

In most cases, this is right — but not always.

Second-Order Effects of Removing Friction

In a recent conversation with Ricardo Vice Santos, we talked about the unintended consequences of removing friction. We batted around questions like, what are the downstream effects of removing friction? Can friction be used positively by product designers? And how does this evolve over time as companies and products mature?

Take Slack as an example. Slack is a wonderfully simple and popular communication platform for businesses. Many of our portfolio companies use it every day, and some of our portfolio companies are building services directly on top of Slack. We are bullish about the company.

But, something interesting has happened with Slack that I’ve heard echoed by multiple people. At first, the beauty of Slack is that it enabled frictionless communication without the noise and distraction of email. That’s part of what made it work and spread so quickly in businesses.

But something happened when everyone in the company started using it. It became really noisy in a different way. The frictionlessness of the communication meant that messages were being sent more and more frivolously. What was left was kind of like the noise of email, only with even more volume. Many of the people I’ve discussed this problem with are still big fans of Slack, but the early luster of the product has worn off.

Another example of this is news. In a high-friction publishing world, news was created by journalists who often would do real investigative reporting and adhered to certain standards and ethics. If you didn’t do this, you probably couldn’t write for a major publication that controlled most of the distribution, and your stuff would never get read. This meant that news and journalism was in no way democratized.

The internet changed this in a big way. Anyone can report news, build a following, and potentially have their message amplified to hundreds of millions of people.

The friction has been reduced massively, and that has been largely positive. But the flip side is the rise and power of fake news to tilt public opinion as well as a broad existential threat to important journalistic institutions.

The second-order effects of reducing friction in news and publishing have been non-trivial to say the least.

When Can Added Friction Be Good?

So, there are some interesting second-order effects of removing friction. But would you ever design products that intentionally introduce friction?

Friction enables virality.

A couple examples of this are Snapchat and Musical.ly, both products that are immensely popular but have fairly friction-full products. As Josh Elman argued over a year ago, the genius of these services was that they were optimizing for shareable design over intuitive design.

In other words, instead of reducing friction, some friction was intentionally inserted to create opportunities for users to show and teach other users how to use the product.

This friction made the product harder to use, but the payoff would be worth it. Plus, it would have a multiplicative impact when other users wondered how a particular effect was achieved and talked to other users to figure out how to replicate it.

Friction brings new business models.

Some companies create one form of friction while removing another, thus creating new business models as a result.

NextView portfolio company MealPal, a subscription service for lunch, is a good example of this. The service creates quite a bit of friction for their customers, including:

  • Paying and selecting your meals up-front
  • Choosing from dozens of restaurants in your area, but being limited to only one option per restaurant
  • Needing to pick up the food yourself

Sounds like a lot of friction, especially compared to food delivery startups, right? But adding those points of friction actually removes a bunch of others:

  • Cost for the customer (MealPal meals are always a significant discount to the retail price of the meal, plus no delivery fee.)
  • Cost for the restaurants (They can anticipate orders, order in bulk, and increase worker utilization and throughput.)
  • Time waiting in line or deliberating where to go or deciding what to order.

Essentially, the service time-shifts demand. Consumers accept narrower selection and plan ahead in exchange for jaw-dropping value and convenience at the point of sale. Also, it creates great shareable moments because of the communal ritual of going out to grab lunch with your teammates or bringing lunch back to the office.

Friction creates safety.

The last set of examples this brings to mind are around security. Often, removing friction creates security vulnerabilities that weren’t there before.

I was chatting with David Frankel at Founder Collective about this the other day, and he was discussing his observation of a rise in phishing attacks from docsend links and more recently, Docusign. Docusign in particular is a wonderful product that makes my life much much easier, but that removal of friction created a new and serious vulnerability.

In the past, it would be fairly tough to fool someone into signing a form accidentally. It is possible, but there would be multiple steps involved and would take long enough for the individual to question whether they were being scammed. But the popularity of Docusign and the ease of using the service to agree to contracts makes this sort of fraud much more possible.

Should You Remove or Add Friction?

The bottom line I think is that while removing friction is often a good North Star for product designers, it isn’t always so cut and dry.

Sometimes, some friction improves the performance of a product.

Sometimes, reducing friction has huge second-order effects.

And sometimes, adding friction in exchange for something else is a completely valid trade-off, and one that great products and services can be built around.


Enjoy this article? Click the 💚 below to help others find it.