Design for Friction

Var City UW
Oct 22 · 8 min read
Photo by Joao Tzanno on Unsplash

This article is by Anna Schmitz. Anna is a Junior studying Human-Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington.

Rays of sunlight glint off of your kitchen light fixtures. Yellow sunrise floods your house and a stray draft twirls a stem of leaves on your countertop fern. You would have taken time to appreciate this remarkable weather on a Friday morning, but your calendar argues otherwise. Work and commitments seem to be unavoidable. You quietly make breakfast in your pajamas like a routine; you turn on the stove, cook, push the lever on the toaster, wait, and breakfast is ready.

Plenty of us are on autopilot until 9:00AM, blindly assembling meals and packing for the day without thinking. Hardly anyone reflects upon this because memories from routines are weak. If you’re a creature of habit, an essential part of a smooth morning is predictability. You know exactly what your alarm sounds like, how to shut it off, what each appliance does, what each of its buttons and knobs do. And that’s by design. The crux of modern design is to keep things as “simple as possible”. Designers are taught to only add what is necessary and neglect decoration. This applies to apps, phones, buildings, cars — perhaps any built system.

As per the design industry standard; the simpler, the better.

All the while, say you leave your house in the morning and head to work. You’re thrown into a meeting that derails — the team goes off-topic and it’s going much longer than expected. Or if you’re a student, you’re suddenly slammed with assignments and your bus home was late. For both, perhaps this Friday was a little bumpier than usual. You’re frustrated and exhausted, only wanting to return home and rest. Still, how do you react?

Setting simplicity as the standard for functionality teaches us that everything else should be simple. Due to a person’s reliable routine, they expect the day’s events to follow predictably as well. Although, for hardly any working person or student, that’s never the case. We are taught that challenges will be plenty in academia and industry. Somehow, that thought still isn’t very comforting. Instead we dive back into our smartphones to scroll through a predictable app that is comforting.

If the real world is so complex, why don’t our design standards reflect that?

Today, designers tend to assume the worst in users. Designers never design to challenge them. They assume that each person is a routine-loving robot, an emotionless and senseless existence. They assume that users don’t care about “emotional affordances” such as aesthetics, detail, and personality. Rather, everything is flat and white-washed with only as many functional affordances as the designer presumes your short attention span can handle — probably no more than two in total. Is that not a touch insulting?

To the designer’s point, it is true that friction is harmful the majority of the time. Friction occurs when a user encounters challenges between their current state and end goal. A prime example is a Norman Door; a door handle whose design language speaks “pull” while the written sign above it says “push”, confusing the user as to which action to take. No one today has encountered one of those doors and been happy about it.

However, consider every other life event as a form of friction. That derailed-train of a meeting is just one friction-filled meeting over the course of many meetings you’ll have in your future. That stressful day in class is a few hours of friction that help narrate your entire academic experience. Consider yourself in either situation. In the case of a businessperson, your manager would only say “That’s part of the job.” In the case of a student, your professor would say “That’s how college works.” Both the manager and professor understand that temporary friction means learning. You become more intelligent because of them. The next time you’re in a meeting, you’ll be smarter about keeping the group on-topic. The next time you’re in class, you’ll expect surprise assignments and handle them appropriately.

Friction, in the case of real life, means learning. But the benefits of learning go far beyond getting through one day.

A person’s ability to learn has shown to decrease risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. People who are accustomed to facing challenges have stronger memory, as their brain forms more complex connections to face those challenges again. The psychological benefits go on, developing a person’s capacity for empathy, higher intrinsic thought, mental resilience, independence, creativity, and adaptability.

Above all — learning takes time. The more time spent learning, the less time one has to devote to routines. Learning forces the body to physically move slower to focus on the task at hand. A person’s thought process deepens. And with enough effort, a person’s lifestyle slows down too. Needless to say, a slower pace of life is something nearly all citizens of industrialized nations have caught interest in today. The current norm assumes citizens follow routines to the minute and evaluate the worth of their lives only in terms of efficiency. However, many of us dream of the time and space to pursue activities that keep us feeling alive — hiking steep mountains, sailing to new places, learning a new language, immersing in a new culture, cultivating a small business — whatever gives a person purpose and flow.

With the degree of simplicity that designers enforce on citizens today, it’s clear to see that more efficiency and streamlining aren’t going to lead us to a more resilient and humanized lifestyle.

In this case, friction might hold the key to helping people think more deliberately about their lives. It’s plain to see that humans have always been learners. We’re curious, strategic, observant, compassionate, and keen — why not use all of those qualities to our advantage? By re-introducing small pieces of friction in design, in a strategic time and place, we can teach people to problem-solve on the fly. We can teach people to pause for a moment and think. Even if such a barrier was a simple as solving a passcode or riddle, it at least introduces the idea of pausing — something that we might feel more inclined to do purposefully in the broader scale of our lives.

Using friction purposefully in design, we can induce mental resilience and cultivate “living in the present”.

An example might be a car with a deceiving security system. Suppose it unlocks with a click from your key, but every once in a while, it chooses something else. Perhaps it occasionally wants you to scan your fingerprint on the passenger side, and other times to enter a passcode near the driver’s handle. The conditions to enter the car can change, keeping you on your toes to try and outsmart the car. The car challenges you, and you expect that — you are emotionally more prepared to be challenged, and physically more prepared to act accordingly.

To be successful as a new design principle, an essential aspect of friction-on-purpose is approachability. As such, friction has taken a rather undesirable connotation today, being associated with user’s negative feelings. However, this mindset assumes that a user doesn’t enjoy a bit of challenge, presented in the right way. The strategy of friction-on-purpose is to introduce game-like or enticing features that imply how an extra step will pay off in their future. By introducing this concept slowly, from a variety of media including digital devices, transportation, built objects, and the built environment, we can introduce society to an entirely new possibility. They may glimpse into a world that is just as optimistic and productive, but more nurturing of the values that make it human.

Students in Human-Centered Design and Engineering all learn the same mantra that I have — create only what humans need, nothing more and nothing less.

The implication of this statement is to begin the design process as simply as possible. We begin with scoping questions: Who are we discussing here? What are they trying to do? What challenges do they face? How can we make that action easier? In thinking so simply, it can be easier to ignore the larger societal challenges at stake. For example, a commuter may state that they want an easier way to talk on the phone while sitting in traffic. The obvious challenge is to make phone calls easier. This sounds like a simple design prompt, where the likely result from a designer is a shiny new gadget or app. But in reality, this user isn’t just looking to talk on the phone more — they’re lonely. In truth, sitting in traffic keeps them starved for human attention and contact.

Friction-on-purpose can lend a hand here. Rather than make the experience smoother, we can create such a device that makes it more difficult to talk on the phone, such as a feature that locks the phone while driving. This way, the person has to bring another person in the car for company. Then, the two people can engage in a face-to-face conversation during the bleakness of traffic, and perhaps invite other passengers along. In resolution, no one is lonely and everyone has gleefully forgotten about phone calls.

In the classroom, we can introduce philosophical problem-solving in the early stages of the design process. After the initial challenge of a user group is identified, students should be encouraged to keep digging and look beyond the context of the original problem. They should be encouraged to lean into other fields for expertise — perhaps the nuance of psychology or technicalities of computer science — based on knowledge gaps respective of the topic. Design is a fluid field that impacts society on an extremely large scale, blending into disciplines designers rarely interact with. By finding the grand roots of an issue and taking large-scale action by inducing friction where normally wouldn’t think to, we can develop techniques that mitigate the existence of the original challenge in the first place. Put into practice, a new design standard may instead prioritize the needs of human curiosity, community, creativity, resilience, emotion, and patience above efficiency and profit.

If friction-on-purpose doesn’t catch on, so be it. In the broader scheme, it’s challenging to develop widely-accepted design principles, and this novel idea is sure to pick up resistance. Instead, this technique may be used as a form of critique, as a curiosity that is approachable for the average person. It would describe an alternate reality where societies’ goals are entirely different, to invite more creative minds to think about adding experiential value back into the average person’s lifestyle.

It’s an excellent time to be thinking about this. Younger generations will soon head into industry with the opportunity to carry free-thinking ideas. Planting the seed about inducing friction to change the speed and depth of how people think could be entirely possible.

Now is a better time than ever to think critically about futures that we want to live in.

In summary, it’s difficult to break from routine. How you rise from bed in the morning, silence your alarm, and begin making breakfast can undoubtedly provide comfort. As with so many other daily routines, we can be critical about whether or not they have to remain routines. Challenges that we face in work and personal lives will certainly come, but we can use our built worlds to prepare us. Small points of challenges, friction, and intentionally slower processes can help people reflect, enjoy, and remain resilient. We can use friction to induce growth that will last long into the future and cultivate the minds of many generations.

Var City UW

Empowering the University of Washington’s Computer Science, Informatics and Human-Centered Design community

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