Estimated Reading Time: 10 minutes
Welcome to the third part of my blog series on Friction. In Part I, I looked at what Friction is, highlighting that it can be both “good” and “bad”. In Part II covered examples of what Good Friction can achieve. This time, I want to explore what we can do about Friction that is undesirable yet unavoidable.
Key to the methods I will explore is this definition of the term that I featured in Part I:
Under this definition, unavoidable Friction occurs when the user’s perception (“the way things should be”) is at odds with reality (“the way things are”). Changing reality is often hard. However, changing perception is something that Behavioural Science (BeSci) is very good at. In this blog, I’ll look at some BeSci techniques that we can deploy to make this happen. Beginning with the simple idea that we don’t like being told what to do.
One way to make people more positively disposed to a particular situation is to increase their perceived level of agency or control. In her book The Influential Mind, neuroscientist Dr Tali Sharot explains that our brains have a natural desire to know what is going on around us and to exercise control over that:
“Our instinct when trying to influence others’ actions is to give orders. This approach often fails, because when people feel their independence has been limited, they get anxious and demotivated and are likely to retaliate. In contrast, expanding people’s sense of agency makes them happier, healthier, more productive, and more compliant.”
“For example, giving people an opportunity to advise how their taxes should be allocated increased the likelihood that they would pay them in full. To produce impact, we often need to overcome our instinct and instead offer a choice.”
As the cartoon suggests, the experiment she refers to took place in America. Note how she uses the word “advise”; the taxpayers weren’t given actual control over where their taxes would be spent. However, answering a question that suggested they were being listened to, gave them a sense of control. Readers with children can test this by instructing them to wear a coat. Even if they intend to wear one, the mere fact they have been told to do so by an adult can often ensure they no longer want to. A more effective method can be to give them a sense that they have an element of control; don’t tell them to wear a coat, just ask them which coat they would like to wear!
We’ve all been in situations where we’ve felt powerless precisely because we didn’t know, or felt we didn’t know, what was going on. There’s a reason small children (and adults) often ask “are we there yet?” when they’re on a long car journey. The same principle applies when we start reading a document.
You may have noticed that in common with many other blogs, this one includes an Estimated Reading Time (ERT) metric at the start. The reason I’ve included this is that telling readers how long something is likely to take them to read, gives them a sense of control and an appreciation of the level of time they will need to commit to the task. It also negates potential loss aversion associated with starting something that they won’t have time to finish.
In tests I’ve done with ERT, what’s remarkable is that a bigger number (eg. 15 minutes) doesn’t put off anywhere near the number of readers you might expect it to. No-one reads long articles nowadays, right? Wrong. Obviously some people are deterred, but for the vast majority, telling them how long the article will take them to read has precisely the opposite effect. They might not read it straight away, but because they know how long it takes, they’ll come back to it when they have the time available.
To see how powerful it can be, visit howlongtoreadthis.com, a website that calculates (surprise, surprise) a personalized version of how long it will take you to read a particular book. It does this by allowing users to time how long it takes them to read an actual page of the book in question. Here’s the calculation it did for me with Tali Sharot’s book:
If I know how long I’m going to have to spend doing something, then I can mentally prepare for it. Rory Sutherland cites an example of this in one of his TED talks:
“The single best thing the London Underground did in terms of improving passenger satisfaction per pound spent wasn’t faster, more frequent, later running trains, it was putting dot matrix display boards on the platform to tell you how long you were going to have to wait for your next train.”
If we know a train is coming in 10 minutes, then we’ll happily wait. Make us wait with no certainty that a train is coming and we won’t feel anywhere near as comfortable. Though, there are limits to how far this dynamic works. I didn’t feel much satisfaction a few years ago when I arrived on a platform at Victoria station and saw this:
Given I’d already committed to getting the train and I know these signs are generally reliable, I thought I’d wait 3 minutes and see if 53 wasn’t 3 in disguise. Fortunately, it was, illustrating quite how powerful these boards actually are; I’m so used to them being right, that I’ll even place a favourable interpretation on the information they give me, even if it’s patently unlikely to be true. Alternatively, it may well be that my knowledge of how long it takes to exit Victoria station told me that investing 3 minutes in finding out, was a worthwhile investment.
Another way of making unavoidable Friction feel less onerous is to break it up so that the user doesn’t perceive the full impact in one go. Anyone who has tried to lose weight will know that crash diets don’t generally work. What does work is to break down big tasks into lots of manageable smaller ones; whether that’s getting into running by doing a “couch to 5k” program that gradually introduces the discipline of running or de-cluttering your home by following Netflix star Marie Kondo’s step-by-step methods.
Here’s how Facebook use chunking when you first sign up for their service. It is critical for them to ensure that new users quickly connect with existing users; otherwise, there won’t be a network for them to interact with. So to make this easy, they chunk the process of profile building:
It would also be entirely feasible for Facebook to put all of the steps on one page. Instead, they chunk the process to make it feel much less onerous.
Tech designers also use chunking when they deploy something called progressive disclosure. You’ll recognise it from menus on phones or computer screens. At each stage, you’re given just enough information to help you navigate something far more complex. Like this example from Apple’s mobile operating system:
turning on Wi-Fi on an iOS device is simple. Firstly the Settings screen focuses the customers on finding the right feature. The word Wi-Fi becomes the minimum amount of data needed. Even on the Wi-Fi screen available networks aren’t displayed until Wi-Fi is switched on. Why show customers available networks if their Wi-Fi isn’t even switched on?
The journey moves from an abstract location (Settings) to somewhere specific (Wi-Fi). It requires a few extra taps to get to the feature, but it reduces the amount of thinking needed in each step.
Progressive Disclosure can also be used to ensure that users only have to make more complex choices if they want to. For example, if we’re going to print a document, we can just hit the Print icon and accept the standard settings for things like colour, balance, and page layout. Or we can avail ourselves of a broader range of options if, and only if, we really want to. As a result, most users can proceed with relative ease, while those who want the additional optionality can easily find it.
If a task can’t be split up, then we can give the user a sense of progression as they work their way through something. It’s why Progress Bars like this one are often seen on websites and apps:
It’s particularly powerful where the task is something the user is doing for the first time or doesn’t do that frequently. A lack of familiarity will naturally increase anxiety on the part of the user. Telling them where they are in a process helps deal with that.
Another technique we can deploy with unavoidable Friction is to try to shift it to another point in the process where the user might have a different perception of it. The basic principle here is that Friction that is present in one part of a process might feel entirely different if placed in another. To see this in action, I want to visit the Golden Arches.
Defer or front load friction
In recent years McDonald’s has been introducing digital kiosks like these to its restaurants to allow customers to place their order via a touchscreen:
There are many advantages to this from a customer perspective. You can discretely order large quantities of food(!), you are given options to customise your meal in a way that you are unlikely to get when ordering from a person and it’s a quicker process. But it also helps McDonald’s to manage Friction.
Firstly it breaks up the lines that would usually form in front of a counter. As a result, it is difficult for customers to see how many other people are waiting in front of them, thereby removing a potential source of Friction at times when the line might appear to be long.
Secondly, the kiosks remove the anxiety that customers often feel when they are required to pick a line to stand in. We’re all familiar with being forced to choose a line and then watching to assess whether or not we’ve made the right decision. The kiosk eliminates the long lines at the counter and guarantees a much shorter average wait time.
Thirdly, at times when it is busy, the kiosks help remove the pressure that people often feel when there is a long line behind them, and they need to make what feels like a quick decision as to what to order. Even at the busiest times, there is unlikely to be a lengthy line at each kiosk. Hence people feel more relaxed and are able to fully assess the choices available to them.
Finally, it locks in the customer’s purchasing decision in very quickly; they are committed to making the purchase very soon after entering the restaurant and the Friction involved in As with the London Underground example, people are happy to wait for something, if they know that something is happening.
Front-loading friction is also a technique commonly used by subscription services which offer a free trial. However, to activate the trial, users are required to give their credit card details which then allows the service provider to start the paying subscription without having to pester the user who might then choose to walk away. This is so prevalent that Mastercard recently announced it would be banning the practice for certain transactions.
Of course, the risk with using kiosks or front-loading a requirement to enter credit card details is that it might put off potential customers. Either those who don’t like the idea of entering payment details in the context of something that is supposed to be free, or those who find the idea of placing an order via a kiosk to be intimidating or unacceptable. Which is where the next form of Friction reduction comes in.
Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt
A common form of Friction comes from the user’s perception of a particular process or product. Especially when that process or product is new to them. We can see a good example of this where elderly people are scared of new technology, perhaps insisting that they don’t “need” to understand it when in reality, they’re intimidated by it.
Designers have cottoned on to this and factored it into their thinking. What results is something called a Skeuomorph, which Don Norman explains in his highly recommended book The Design of Everyday Things :
“Skeuomorphic is the technical term for incorporating old, familiar ideas into new technologies, even though they no longer play a functional role. Skeuomorphic designs are often comfortable for traditionalists, and indeed the history of technology shows that new technologies and materials often slavishly imitate the old for no apparent reason except that is what people know how to do.”
An excellent example of this, are the icons we see on computer screens, smartphones and even Apple watches:
On the black Watch, we can see what Apple calls the “digital crown” (the round red button on the side). It’s a design they’ve borrowed from analogue watches (where it serves the purpose of winding up or setting the time).
On the rose gold Watch, the icons used to give us the option of taking or rejecting Kathy Chen’s call are images of a traditional landline phone.
Given this is a brand new digital product, Apple could have chosen entirely new designs for those features. But they opted not to because one of the benefits of skeuomorphic design is that it gives users a sense of familiarity which means they feel more comfortable using the product. What might seem like an unnecessary appropriation of retro design, actually does something rather smart that’s highly relevant to the topic we’re looking at; it reduces Cognitive Friction on the part of the user. Changing to a new device or technology requires effort. By making something resemble something we’re familiar with, it significantly reduces the Friction associated with the transition.
In a blog on their website, 99Designs highlights a skeuomorph from Ancient Greece:
“Notice the repetitive cubes which ornament the seams of this Greek structure. These cubes (known as dentils) were placed there to create the illusion of wooden rafters that were used to support the roof in old buildings.”
Because buildings in Greece were made out of wood before marble, we can speculate that architects may have been trying to contain or emulate a shape that was familiar. Imitating wood in marble structures may have helped invite people to use a new technology.
This makes perfect sense. After all, if you’re not used to seeing a marble structure, then the one thing you’ll probably be most concerned about is whether the roof is secure.
As Don Norman points out, the inclusion of skeuomorphs can have a downside in that it sometimes serves to simply perpetuate existing friction. Take the humble QWERTY keyboard. The reason the keys are in this order has nothing to do with it being the most efficient way to enter data, yet we persist with it because it would take a brave manufacturer to take the step of designing something with no backward compatibility from a human perspective. Even Apple hasn’t dared to do so…yet!
The next method I want to cover uses a straightforward premise; if we can’t remove or reduce Friction, then let’s hide it.
The technique of disguising Friction is known as masking. It’s been around for a long time; restaurants that are incredibly busy and not able to deliver food as quickly as customers might expect will provide snacks or drinks “on the house” to keep people occupied while they wait. Or, in the case of Topa, a restaurant in San Sebastian in Spain, they serve an Ikea style guacamole which somehow manages to make the idea of “prepare it yourself’ seem attractive and worth paying regular restaurant prices for. I know, because I did!
It’s widely deployed in the digital world as well. Websites use graphics like this:
This isn’t just a distraction, it gives the impression that something is going on behind the scenes. Masking can also work by changing the form Friction takes. Here’s how one media company is doing it.
UK radio broadcaster Chris Evans has just moved from BBC Radio 2 to Virgin Radio which, unlike the commercial-free BBC, is paid for by advertisements. To attract Evan’s old listeners to his new station, Viring has struck a deal with Pay TV provider Sky to provide sponsorship which would mean that the show didn’t need to have ad breaks.
In an interview with Campaign magazine, Scott Taunton, the CEO of the Wireless Group that owns Virgin Radio explained that:
“The genesis of the deal [with Sky] is this isn’t vastly different from what Chris was doing on his Radio 2 show.
“When you listened to his [Radio 2] programme, it didn’t have traditional 30-second commercial spots, but there were many promotions for BBC content.”
Taunton pointed out how the BBC has more than 50% share of all UK radio listening and although it carries no ads, it does use its own airtime to carry frequent BBC promos “to extend the brand of their products and the content that they produce”.
He stressed that neither Virgin Radio nor Sky wanted the promotional content for Sky to be “onerous” for listeners.
“Many guests [who are planned for his new show] aren’t involved in Sky in any shape or form,” Taunton said.
Having no ad breaks should help to persuade some of Evans’ nine million Radio 2 listeners to move to Virgin, according to Taunton.
“The ad breaks may have been a barrier to them coming to us,” he explained.
In other words, the ad breaks were a form of Friction. By replacing the advertising with sponsorship, Virgin have effectively masked it.
The other thing Taunton does in the interview is to seek to position the “promotional content” Evans will need to deliver for Sky as being on a par with that which he used to do for the BBC. This is a technique called Re-Framing and helpfully, is the next method I want to look at.
Re-framing works by presenting information differently, to highlight alternative aspects of the situation or decision. By literally changing the user’s frame of reference, their perspective on a particular matter can be altered. This letter to The Times newspaper illustrates it beautifully:
Risks can be re-framed to give a completely different perspective: saying that something risks losing 10 out of 100 lives is likely to be interpreted differently than something that offers the opportunity to save 90 out of 100 lives. Even though the underlying facts remain the same. We feel differently about meat that is 95% lean and meat that is 5% fat, although they are exactly the same thing. Offering someone a £10 reward for doing the right thing or a £10 penalty for doing the wrong thing, feel different even though the underlying economics are the same.
Here’s another interesting example from Rory Sutherland about how re-framing was used on him by an airline:
I was on a plane taxiing to the airport recently when the pilot said something I’d never heard before. “I’ve got some bad news and some good news,” he said. “The bad news is that we haven’t been able to get an air bridge, but the good news is that the bus will take you straight to passport control, so you won’t have far to walk.”
It suddenly occurred to me that this previously unspoken upside of bus transfer was always true; sadly, no-one had told us before. We churlish passengers just assumed that we were supposed to resent the bus. Now, as I had two heavy bags, I suddenly felt grateful for the bus transfer. The pilot was a genius.
Re-framing can also be used to change the user’s perception of whose fault the Friction is. This can be seen in a clever (devious?) trick deployed by Facebook, which also demonstrates the lengths tech companies will go to, to influence us. The images below show two different designs for icons which the iPhone version of the Facebook App would display if it were having difficulty loading:
As tech blogger Rusty Mitchell explains in this blog, what Facebook discovered was that:
when their users were presented with a custom loading animation in the Facebook iOS app (left) they blamed the app for the delay. But when users were shown the iOS system spinner (right), they were more likely to blame the system itself.
By replicating the icon that Apple uses to signal a delay, Facebook is trying to give the impression that it’s not their fault, but rather the fault of Apple. It may be a 21st-century approach, but the technique it uses isn’t. Blaming someone else when something goes wrong is one of the oldest tricks in the book.
If you like this topic then I thoroughly recommend reading Friction by Roger Dooley: