Putting a break on behavior
Consider the following situation:
"You're in a bar with your friends. The ambiance is perfect. The lights and the music are just right. As you're looking around, you spot a beautiful person across the bar. You feel very drawn to them. You don't know why, but it's the kind of person you'd like to be with. Without your permission, your mind starts imagining a scenario where you approach them, you get along perfectly fine and you get their number. You want to do it but, before you do, you briefly think of how to remove yourself from the situation with your friends. Should you tell them before or after the fact? Now, your mind backtracks; it starts picturing a scenario where you approach this beautiful person and the moment becomes awkward. You imagine yourself being rejected and walking back to your friends and sharing your account of the interaction. You start thinking that it may be a bit too much trouble. After all, you're already having fun. Why bother? As you try to forget about it, your attention returns to the conversation you were having with your friends."
Do you think you would you have acted differently in this scenario? You might have. If you decided to approach the beautiful person, you would be voting with your behavior that the expected benefits of meeting them outweigh the potential trouble you may encounter. Conversely, if you acted like in the original situation, you'd be attesting the opposite. In this case, the experiential costs you anticipated were enough to stop you from engaging this person. In other words, these expected experiential costs acted as a "resistance" or "friction" of sorts, one you couldn't overcome to put yourself into action.
Experiential Costs have a frictional quality
I shared this hypothetical situation to illustrate the frictional quality of experiential costs. It is because of this frictional quality that people (usually in the design space) sometimes refer to experiential costs as frictions. In Experiential Costs, I discussed how people use metaphors to talk about burdensome situations:
"If you hadn’t heard the term experiential costs before, it is because we usually talk about them using metaphors. We don't go to a friend and say we went through an experientially costly situation. Instead, we describe situations as painful, irritating, or uncomfortable."
To be precise, I'm not saying that experiential costs feel like frictions, but that they have a friction-like effect on behavior: When people consider a course of action — a course of experience — their minds weigh and compare the experiential costs and rewards they expect to encounter along the way. The verdict reached by a person on the question of whether they consider the course of action worthwhile is observable in the behavior they elicit. If they push forward, they are manifesting that their assessment of value was positive; if they refrain from pursuing the course of action — either by outright rejecting it or by shelving it for future consideration — they are indicating the opposite. This logic applies equally to decisions on purchases, relationships, movements and every goal that may cross people's minds, either by choice or by duty.
Now, anticipating significant experiential costs in a course of action may act as a behavioral deterrent but, when you are actually living the experiential costs, they truly act as a brake on your behavior. This is because experiential costs are felt and are therefore compelling. Also from Experiential Costs:
"Because all experience is accompanied by an affective response and because this response is an embodied feeling of cost/reward, we are compelled to optimize our experience and keep it personally acceptable. We literally feel the consequences of not doing so in your own skins. The more intense our affective response is, the more we are motivated to engage or disengage the situation."
There’s no helping it, experiential costs bring our attention to them. When they are intense enough, they can make us reconsider if our current course of action is worth it, sometimes to the point of convincing us otherwise.
Making life frictionless
In 2010, ride-hailing service Uber officially launched in the city of San Francisco, making it possible to summon a car with a private driver to your doorstep with the tap of a button. If you could afford it, there was now no need to call a limo service on the phone and no need to stand by the curb waiting to hail a cab. The service also spared users the trouble of personally dealing with payment, which in cabs typically occurred at the end of the trip (and still does in traditional taxi service). By bringing convenience to local transportation, the service became an instant success.
As Uber expanded to other cities and started competing with traditional taxi services, the on-demand concept they pioneered spread like a wildfire through the startup world. The checkbooks of venture capital opened up and started funneling cash to dozens — if not hundreds — of new companies billing themselves as "the Uber for X". One smartphone app at a time, a world of goods and services became summonable directly from the screens of our personal devices. Peddling a modern lifestyle of convenience and sophistication, the on-demand economy took off.
That convenience is king shouldn't come as a surprise. For a course of action to be convenient means that it is favorable and unimpeded. For example, if you were back in the bar situation, engaging the beautiful person would've been way more convenient if you were both unaccompanied and you were sitting at the bar a couple of empty seats from each other. For something to be convenient means that the experiential costs associated with seeking that something are "conveniently low". Offering convenience, in other words, is all about reducing friction.
With a few caveats, people only willfully endure pain or expose themselves to the possibility of experiencing pain if they expect it to be worth it. You can see it all around you: People don't walk to the second-closest supermarket unless they can't find the items or the service they seek in the closest one. People don't assemble furniture unless the price advantage is worth it. People don't like waiting in line, but will do so if there's no other way. People don't stop at the gas station only for fun. In other words, people don't seek friction. That is why, for most products and services, reducing friction is a winning proposition; because if you were given the option to avoid the pains of a course of action, wouldn't you take it? People naturally seek to avoid friction because it's a way to optimize experience.
Not all friction is meaningless
Friction is not necessarily bad. In the physical world, friction holds things in place; it prevents us from slipping when we walk and helps our vehicles brake at the stop light. Something analogous happens in the world of experience: For better or worse, friction holds behavior in place; it keeps us from getting into trouble and from taking excessive risks.
As experiential costs, frictions give us moments of reflection on the behaviors we are pursuing. "Are you sure you want to permanently delete this file?" — a thoughtful designer makes sure to offer the user a moment of reflection before helping them accomplish an irreversible task; some frustration may be spared by giving them a second opportunity to think things through.
Contemplating a dystopian future where the city of San Francisco becomes a frictionless assisted-living community for the affluent young, product and design strategist Steve Selzer (formerly at Airbnb/Frog Design) warns against making life frictionless:
"By removing all friction, we remove moments for personal growth, serendipity, and self-reflection. At scale, these erode our social values and skew our lives towards intolerance and impatience, a lack of resilience and an inability to navigate change."
And he may be right. By eliminating the frictions of life we have become a society of consumers, people who create experiences for others but never create experiences for themselves. A world awash in convenience gives us the dangerous incentive of never doing things on our own, of never facing risk and never knowing what it takes. By depriving ourselves of friction, we forget the true value of things. It's easy to forget, but everyday we create the stories of our lives; and a life without toil never made a good story.
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