A Taxonomy of Friction
Categorizing Frictional Experiences
For anyone looking to create value by improving someone else's experience, identifying the frictions they encounter while pursuing a goal is a critical task. To help with this process, I'm providing a taxonomy that groups frictional experiences in eight categories. The premise is simple: If a person of interest (e.g., a customer, user, or patron) routinely encounters any of these experiences as a consequence of pursuing a personal or business goal, there is an opportunity to develop a solution (e.g., a product or a service) to systematically improve their experience.
If you're looking for a felt understanding of the frictional nature of some experiences, you can find it in Understanding Friction.
The unit of analysis for this framework is the set of activities and interactions that the person of interest has to go through on their way to reach their goal, including the ones they might encounter as a direct result of reaching the goal. The framework also assumes a desire from the person of interest to make efficient use of their time and resources. Remember these categories are a way to think about friction and not necessarily mutually exclusive or fully independent aspects of an experience.
1. Travel Friction
PEOPLE DON'T LIKE HAVING TO GO PLACES
Traveling is a resource-intensive activity that requires some level of physical exertion and usually takes up most of the traveler's attention. By traveling, people expose themselves to a dynamic external environment, making themselves vulnerable to the weather and liable to be affected by events along the path. As such, travel can increase the experiential costs of achieving a goal very quickly. Travel friction refers to experiences commonly thought of as “travel”. In particular, it refers to travel done by the person of interest in any mode of transportation to perform any diligence necessary to achieve their goal (e.g., to meet someone, to buy or deliver something). For example, when not delivered to the customer’s location, purchasing physical products will require some form of travel by the customer. Similarly, a customer may have to travel to a service provider's location to receive services.
Travel friction is mitigated by cutting required travel in terms of time or distance. Consider the following examples:
- Online retailers reduce travel friction for customers by having products delivered directly to their location.
- Banks reduce travel friction for customers by offering online banking services and by opening branches in locations convenient to them.
- Electric bikes reduce the physical exertion needed to ride your bike around the city.
- Streaming video on-demand services found success by making it unnecessary to go to a store and rent a movie on physical media (e.g., DVD).
2. Temporal Friction
PEOPLE DON'T LIKE HAVING TO WAIT
Waiting times are pure friction; they are rarely desired and only add to the overall time required for a person to reach a goal. The experience of waiting can be particularly taxing for a person if their attention is focused directly on the flow of time, in anticipation for the wait to end. Think, for example, of a patient that has to wait in a room to be seen by a health professional. Temporal friction refers to experiences thought of as “waiting”. In particular, it refers to situations where a person a person of interest has no option but to wait for an event to happen in order for them to continue pursuing their goal. Examples of experiences in this category are experienced delays or processing times, waiting in line, among others.
Temporal friction can be reduced by improving lead and delivery times, by providing waiting room amenities, by implementing scheduling systems, among others. A few examples:
- McDonald's reduces waiting times for customers by providing self-service ordering kiosks.
- Amazon reduces temporal friction by providing one- or two-day shipping on some orders.
- A pressure cooker reduces cooking time for users by operating at a higher pressure-temperature condition.
Note: The experience of waiting may be accompanied by negative emotions (e.g., if the waiting time is too long or uncertain) or by physical discomfort (e.g., if the person must wait in an uncomfortable environment). These additional negative aspects of the waiting experience are captured by other categories below.
3. Exchange Friction
PEOPLE DON'T LIKE HAVING COMPLICATED INTERACTIONS
Exchanges of information, money, materials or goods are often necessary to reach a goal in the desired way. Performing these exchanges requires interactions that can range from straightforward to very complicated. Exchange friction refers to interactions experienced by a person of interest to perform the exchanges relevant to their goal. These interactions may take place in a physical or digital context and can involve people (e.g., a bank teller, a delivery courier) and automated systems (e.g., an ATM, an online registration flow). Exchanges happen routinely, either to provide documentation; to share specifications; to place, confirm, or modify orders; to provide shipping and payment details; and to ship, receive, or exchange products. Examples of experiences in this category would be interacting with an automated voice system on the phone, filling out an online form, and placing an order on a digital kiosk.
Exchange friction can be reduced by simplifying the interactions required to make the exchanges successful (e.g., by standardizing them, automating them, intermediating them) or by reducing the number of exchanges (e.g., by collecting up-front any information, money or materials relevant to the goal). You may find these examples familiar:
- Credit cards and digital wallets (e.g., Apple Pay, PayPal) simplify in-person and online payments by saving payment information and streamlining payment into a few steps.
- Web browsers like Chrome and Firefox reduce process friction for users by remembering personal information and filling out forms automatically.
- Online exchanges/marketplaces like Ebay and Airbnb streamline the interactions between suppliers and customers to facilitate commerce.
4. Discovery Friction
PEOPLE DON'T LIKE STRUGGLING TO FIND THINGS
Every time a person has to procure something to achieve their goal (e.g., a material, a service provider, a product), they first have to find available options to choose from. When these options are hard to find, the experience of discovering them can become resource intensive and taxing. Discovery friction refers to the experiences that a person of interest undergoes as they search for, look up, and discover available options for anything they deem necessary to reach their goal. In general, people experience higher discovery friction when it is not clear where or how to start looking for options, when the available supply is hard to find, or when the offering is unstructured or hard to understand. For example, searching for suitable job candidates and looking for available dates to schedule interviews with them would be two different instances of discovery experiences that a hiring manager has to go through to hire a new recruit.
Discovery friction can be reduced by collecting, structuring, or curating the options relevant to a goal (e.g, by creating menus, maps, calendars, directories, listings). In digital products, discovery friction can be reduced by making options searchable or by using recommendation algorithms and algorithmic feeds. Some illustrative examples:
- Real estate agents help clients find options for a new home by taking the search effort off their hands.
- Streaming video and music services (e.g., Netflix, Spotify) help users find content they like with their recommendation engines (Spotify more successfully).
- Department stores make it easier for shoppers to find items grouping them by category or "department".
- Google reduces discovery friction by crawling the web and making it searchable by keywords.
Note: Search/discovery experiences can also be thought of in terms of process friction and cognitive friction, described below.
5. Process Friction
PEOPLE DON'T LIKE HAVING TO DO EXTRA-WORK
Reaching a goal often necessitates some degree of manual labor. Like travel, manual work is resource and attention intensive; it usually involves physical exertion that can be tiring and risky as well as repetitive tasks that can be equally tiring and tedious. Process friction refers to experiences that can be thought of as “manual labor”. In particular, process friction refers to the experiences of transforming, preparing, working on, or otherwise changing the state of objects (physical and digital). For example, sorting, mixing, cooking, installing, cleaning, mounting, packing, lifting, refilling, replacing, maintaining, or disposing of anything are examples of experienced processes applicable to physical objects. Similarly, clicking, dragging, sliding, pressing, pinching and any other action used to manipulate digital objects can be thought of as process friction, including actions used to navigate digital environments.
Process friction can be reduced by providing tools that reduce physical exertion (e.g., home appliances), by streamlining workflows in digital products, by automating tasks, or by reducing the frequency of tasks (e.g., requiring less frequent maintenance in cars). Some examples:
- Keurig coffee machines take the work out of brewing by simplifying the process to inserting a pod and pressing a button (they also reduce waiting times).
- Social media photo filters make it easy for people to enhance their photos without manual manipulation on photo editing software.
- Non-ironing shirts and clothing reduce the amount of work people have to do to keep them wearable.
Note: The experience of transporting an item to a different location can also be thought of in terms of travel friction.
6. Cognitive Friction
PEOPLE DON'T LIKE HAVING TO OVER-THINK
Cognition is the mental equivalent of manual labor. Although the physical exertion is absent, cognitive tasks hold your attention and can be complex and demanding. Thinking too much about a problem or decision without arriving at a satisfactory solution can also be confusing and frustrating. For example, comparing and selecting products (e.g., food items, clothing, electronics) in stores with wide assortments would be a situation where customers may experience considerable cognitive friction. In general, cognitive friction refers to experiences that demand mental effort from a person of interest. Experiences like learning, comparing, evaluating, and making decisions are examples of cognitively demanding activities. Situations in which a user has to install, assemble, or operate a product can also be cognitively demanding when it is not clear how to do it and clear instructions are not provided. If a product or service can be customized, offering too much customization can make it hard for a customer to make a choice.
Cognitive friction can be reduced by providing clear instructions, providing intuitive products and interfaces, providing aids for decision-making (e.g., reviews, ratings, unit-prices), by offering some degree of customization, and by allowing decisions to be reversible. Some examples:
- Clothing retailers remove cognitive barriers in their customer’s purchasing decisions by offering dressing rooms and allowing returns.
- Some supermarkets help their customers compare the value of similar products by displaying the price-per-pound of price-per-kilogram.
- These examples (hopefully) are making it easier to understand the concept of cognitive friction.
Note: "Cognitive friction" was introduced by Alan Cooper in his popular 1998 book "The Inmates Are Running the Asylum", a seminal text on UX. You can read more about his treatment of cognitive friction here.
7. Somatic Friction
PEOPLE DON'T LIKE HAVING PAIN OR DISCOMFORT
Reaching a goal sometimes requires subjecting oneself to physically uncomfortable experiences. Doing intense or repeated tasks can lead to pain and discomfort. Loud noises hurt our ears. Bright lights blind us. Our legs hurt after extended periods of sitting or standing. Somatic friction refers to experiences that involve bodily discomfort. Feeling pain, experiencing side effects (e.g., drowsiness, nausea), being exposed to environmental conditions (e.g., sun, heat, cold, rain, noise), and feeling tired after physical exertion are all experiences that could be thought of as somatic friction. Perceiving bad tastes or smells are also physically uncomfortable experiences fit this category. Somatic friction is very common when dealing with health-related situations.
Somatic friction can be reduced by providing comfortable facilities, by developing non-invasive treatments, by using pleasant scents and flavors, by providing protection from environmental conditions, among others. Some examples:
- Pharmaceutical companies reduce the unpleasant taste of cough syrup by adding sugar and flavorings.
- Products like umbrellas and sunglasses reduce somatic friction by protecting users from environmental conditions.
- Airlines, notably, choose to make air-travel less comfortable for most passengers, expressing the leverage they have over their customers.
8. Emotional Friction
PEOPLE DON'T LIKE HAVING NEGATIVE FEELINGS
When people find themselves in an experientially costly situation, they are liable to feel negative emotions. People feel disappointed when their expectations are not met; they feel nervous when their belongings are inspected at the airport; they feel frustration when they cannot accomplish a task. Emotional friction refers to the negative emotions a person may feel while pursuing their goal, usually as a result of intense experiences involving any of the frictions above. In this sense, negotiation processes, expectation mismatches, difficult decision-making processes, inspections of a customer’s person or belongings, and unwanted interactions (social and otherwise) could be sources of emotional friction.
Emotional friction can be mitigated by setting expectations correctly (e.g., through marketing), by offering information that reduces the uncertainty in a situation (e.g., transparent policies and processes), by providing channels for customer feedback, among others.
- Ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber try to give their users a sensation of safety and control by letting them see their route and location on a map and giving them an estimated time of arrival.
- Amazon's policy of accepting free returns on most items saves customers the frustration of being stuck with a product they don't like.
- The online retailer Jet.com (acquired by Walmart in 2016) used to compensate their customers if they received a damaged item by issuing a refund and sending them a free replacement.
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