Instinctive Friction vs Reward
How I am an Early Adopting Idiot

Jul 9, 2020 · 5 min read
Image for post
Image for post

This article was originally published September 3rd, 2018

Today’s blog is a sneak preview extract from my forthcoming new book Friction/Reward. Due later this year from Pearson. Follow me on LinkedIN for news

The adoption curve for technology offers a clear example of how customers, en masse, instinctively react to friction versus reward. Take books; there was a moment when paper books looked doomed in favour of ebooks. At first the early adopters piled in but then the great unwashed were buying Kindles and enthusiastically trading in whole paper libraries. For a while it looked like paper publishing and physical bookshops might die.

But that moment has passed. We’re now a handful of years into falling ebook sales, surging paper book sales and even a renaissance in book shops (more have opened in the UK and Europe since 2015 than have closed). Kindles are still loved and used by some but the devices have settled back into more niche than mainstream use: reading on holiday or on the commute.

I have another personal example of this technology curve, one that I know many of you will share, in the shape of note-taking. I am a gadget freak and much of that tech-purchasing has been in service of finding the perfect solution to ad-hoc note-taking. For that idea you get in the shower, or the thought you mustn’t lose that leaps in when you’re wandering off to the pub… those notes; finding the best way of capturing them has been a constant search, until now. Now I have an electronic solution that I know is permanent because the friction involved in accessing it is finally well below both the paper alternative the reward derived from using it. Let’s look at the progression of my obsession, and really each of these is a series of curves shaped:

Adopt — live with — reject.


  1. PalmPilot Personal — a PDA with a stylus. I loved it at first but after a while it felt like too much effort scratching out notes letter-by-letter. I went back to scraps of paper and a pen.
  2. Handspring launched a colour version called the Visor, so I bought that. Ahh, colour would make it easier. And it did for a while and then I returned to paper because, really, it didn’t.
  3. I upgraded again to a Palm Tungsten T3 because this one was both colour and faster and, erm, made of metal. Life was good, I made loads of notes with the excellent stylus but then… I didn’t anymore as I realised the process actually got in the way of the ideas.
  4. On to my first ever smartphone, a Windows CE device that had a keyboard you could slide out as well as a stylus. Now we’d be in business. Except it was Earth-shatteringly awful. I mean just the very worst operating system I have ever used. But I did use it; I took so many slow and painfully formatted notes with it. Then would lose the files in the demented inner world of CE.
Image for post
Image for post
  1. My first iPhone. The on-screen keyboard here was a revelation, amazing. Surely this was now tomorrow today. But within a year I was back to where I started.
  2. Android arrives, the first one I had was dog-slow, a real git of a device but the onscreen keyboard was easier to use than the iPhone so it felt like progress. For a very short while.
  3. Modern Android phones came and went in various HTC and OnePlus and Samsung guises and all were great phones and pretty good for notes in a pinch but one by one, including a brief dalliance with Windows Phone again, albeit in vastly better form, they all turned out to be more trouble than they were worth for notes.
  4. Pen and paper, even with the problems of remembering to carry a notepad and pen and the potential to lose scraps of paper, was still so low friction, that rewards in the shape of electronic storage, automatic back-up, using a device that is always with me and being able to share notes with other people easily; all these things still weren’t enough to beat pen and paper.
  5. And then came Samsung’s Note 8. This line of phones has included a stylus throughout and a great note-taking app that recreates the paradigm of paper notebooks really well. It’s easy and it makes sense but even as a user of the Note line since number 3, I still found myself reaching for paper pads. That is until the 8. With this version, Samsung set things up so that you just pull out the pen and start writing on the screen.
  6. That’s it. Pen out, write stuff, put pen back. Even better, the bloody thing is waterproof and writes just as well in the shower as sat at a desk. No saving, no unlocking, no anything. Hold pen, write. Stop writing. All done.


I’ve used this form of note-taking for a year and finally know that I’m not going back to pen and paper for ad hoc notes. Finally, the friction bar is lower than it was for pen and paper and the reward gain is significant. I’ve written many of the notes for this book on either a Note 8 or a Note 9. For the 9, the major innovation by the way is that the pen now writes on the black screen in yellow instead of white. Whoo, technology.

Yes, this is the wasteful journey of a tech-nerd desperate to find an easier way to do a simple thing but it is also a terrific illustration of the fundamental influence of our innate instinct to compare friction and reward. We might deliberately fight that instinct, not because the instinct is inconsistent but because the information on which we calculate our response to that instinct cannot always be trusted. We make flawed calculations because we believe that Palm or, god help us, Microsoft in the days of Windows CE, can be trusted to deliver on the promise of the things they say about what they have created for us. For what it’s worth; Palm, went bust, Microsoft got better. This specific idea is so directly illustrative of the opportunity we have as vendors, brands and retailers — customers are basing their choices on friction versus reward and need us to be the best combinations of those two things and to get better at telling them that we are.

Exactly these same curves — running from adoption to use, to rejection — are common in customer-vendor relationships too. Your job is to improve/adjust the customer experience, using what you learn from indexing your friction vs reward, to maximise the length of time that you are able to keep customers in the ‘use’ stage, and to tailor your messaging to potential customers such that they are sufficiently attracted in order to at least trial your service, store or product.

The Uncrowd

After the customer analytics herd there is the…

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store