Why we need friction in user experience


Ease, speed and the removal of friction are the rallying cries of user experience and service designers the world over. And though this may be a powerful method for making easy to use products, the relentless focus has come at a price to the ecosystems it serves.

Too easy
The problem with treating this narrow doctrine as gospel is that it diminishes our own individual agency – our ability to make informed choices and see their effects beyond the interface.

We have automated our attention, reducing our experiences down to a set of industrialized metrics that fit neatly under the banner of ‘engagement’. Like a production line in the 1950s, our products and services treat customers and employees as assets that need to be ironed out, measured and streamlined. They are user-friendly in only the shallowest sense.

Take Facebook for example. It’s too easy to get angry at an inflammatory post, to accept cookies without consideration, to use log in info for other apps without giving a second thought to the value of personal data. And Cambridge Analytica have shown recently just how dangerous it can be when we mindlessly consume, engage and click.

Beyond needs
User needs alone can no longer be the holy grail. Experience design should instead embrace moments of ‘purposeful friction’ that slow us down and give us space to think.

Appropriately embedded in the experience, they should provoke us to step back and decide how we want to engage with products and services beyond just using them. They should give us reason to pause and contemplate our actions, provide us with the tools to make conscious choices, and leave room for un-designed and un-engineered emotions.

Take a look at Skylar Jessen’s thinking, who in his exploration in ‘products for human beings’ embraces friction to allow for messier, more complex digital interactions. His ‘exploration mapping’ application, for instance, lets the user set modes on their GPS according to how they’d like to travel. They can select a route with inspiration or surprise, rather than simply working within the parameters of A to B.

Opened an Incognito window on Google Chrome recently? Its opening page describes what it actually does and doesn’t hide before you start browsing. And Insta is trialling a feature that tells users how long they’ve spent in the app. These are examples of purposeful friction, clearly showing the details and implications of a behavior before and whilst enabling it.

Ultimately, friction helps us move away from knee-jerk reactions doused in the dopamine hits of notification loops. It encourages a relationship with our technology based on reflection and better conceptual understanding.

A new philosophy
Coming back to Facebook, this means not just ‘making the world more open and connected’ at the cost of privacy and agency. It should become more open and considered by inserting an extra click in an action. Could it report on what’s happened to data in a way that engages users? Could it proactively invite users to dictate the kind of algorithm that determines their timeline content? We’ll see.

It could learn a lot from a brand like Vero, the rising star in social media, too. It’s subscription-based, meaning its customers are its users as opposed to advertisers. It imbeds friction into its user experience by asking people to categorise connections, which means they’re more considered about which content reaches which eyes.

If we can start to identify and design moments (visual or otherwise) that allow a user greater control and space to reflect, purposeful friction can become a philosophy. It can make people more aware, more responsible and less passive about their interactions in our increasingly digitized world. Let’s face it, we desperately need it.

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