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How Friction Can Be Good For Customer Experience

by Colin Shaw on August 14, 2019

I might have misled you in recent weeks. I have been talking about frictionless experiences and how vital it is to have a smooth Customer Experience. However, some of my reading lately has exposed some nuances about the friction in an experience that we haven’t addressed.

Many organizations are talking about how to make their Customer Experience easy, which is the right thing to do. You want your experience to be friction-less or easy.

However, I read a great article on the subject by Jess Weaver regarding the value of inconsistent design, and one of the things I read that I think is true was some friction in an experience can be worthwhile. For example, consider the furniture you put together yourself at Ikea. If you got two identical boxes, but one of the boxes you built yourself, you value that box more because of the labor you put into it.

It’s a great point. Some friction creates value.

We discussed the subject of when friction is good and when it isn’t in a recent podcast. We also define which kinds of resistance you want built-in your experience that can create an experience that keeps customers coming back for more.

Consider the ordering process at Starbucks. There are these bizarre foreign-sounding names and sizes. Plus, you had all these combinations of coffees. It is not easy, particularly if, when it comes to your drink, you are…particular.

There was an education component for ordering Starbucks, and that introduced friction. It was challenging at first, but once you have buy-in from the customers—and Starbucks has been successful at getting customers to buy-in—it is part of the experience that your customers appreciate.

Some other examples of friction that are beneficial to the experience are:

  • Seeing a line outside a club and thinking you might want to go there since it appears to be the hottest ticket in town
  • Buying a classic Disney film on VHS or DVD (remember those?) even though it was old-fashioned and you had seen it before because it was “out of the vault,” and you wouldn’t have access to it again for ten years
  • Waiting months to get an appointment with a medical specialist because you want to see “the best,” and he or she must be the best since they are so unavailable

Each of the examples above is a demonstration of the demand that is inspired by the idea of Scarcity. Scarcity is the concept that we value things more when they are harder to get. Feeling that you might not be able to get it when you want it produces artificial demand.

Scarcity is an example where a little bit of friction can be a good thing for your experience. After all, you could open another club in the same style as the velvet-rope version that is hot right now or buy the 20th Century Fox version of Cinderella or hire another specialist at the clinic to alleviate the wait. You will eliminate the friction, but you will also reduce the demand.

I have mentioned before that I had a milkman way after it was the normal thing to do to get your milk. I said as much to my wife Lorraine, but she pooh-poohed me saying that she liked how the milkman came ‘round on a Friday to collect the milk money and chat.

Eventually, Lorraine’s milkman left, and a new one took his place. The new milkman decided instead of coming around to collect the money in person, he would leave the bill under the bottle and pick up the check the following day from under the mat. The new milkman eliminated the friction in the milk delivery experience, aka the Friday night chat. To be fair, it was easier for us.

However, he also eliminated the part of the experience that Lorraine valued. After two weeks, we canceled and bought our milk at the store like everyone else.

Why We Want it Easy Until We Don’t

From an evolutionary standpoint, people want things to be easy is because you know things that take effort means you burn energy. Early humans didn’t have the abundance of food we have today, so they tried to conserve energy whenever possible. So, anything easy was preferable to our energy-miser ancestors.

We have developed heuristics, which are short-cuts in thinking that help us make decisions without using a lot of energy. You might remember from previous discussions the Availability or Representative heuristics, or the Anchoring Effect, among others. These short-cuts help us reduce the amount of effort it takes to decide things.

However, if everyone makes their experience easy, it commoditizes things. When things are commoditized, it destroys competitive differentiation.

Now, you could argue that your Customer Experience and your brand would differentiate you, and it would. However, having some effort in there also can create value, too.

All theories of human behavior have boundaries or limits on them. In other words, one human behavior theory explains things really well under specific conditions, but if you change the circumstances, then the argument doesn’t explain things as well anymore.

For example, the theory that says things should be easy, that people are cognitive misers who don’t like to make an effort with their thinking, is a sound human behavior theory and it applies in many instances but not all the time. Sometimes self-perception serves to describe your behavior even better than the decision-making thing. So, when you put together the Ikea bookcase (which isn’t easy), you value it more because you worked so hard to have it.

So, you can see that your willingness to order a coffee at Starbucks using specific coffee jargon is evidence that you like it. You go through that extra effort and wait in line rather than having a smoother experience in plain English at the local coffee shop down the street. In this case, it is the friction introduced into the process that shows you how much you value that thing.

But Pointless or Unintentional Friction is Still Bad

All friction is not created equal. We are not arguing you should intentionally make things harder for customers. Pointless or unintentional resistance caused by obliviousness or poor understanding of the friction concept is still terrible Customer Experience Strategy.

Favorable types of friction involve two key descriptors:

  1. Valuable: There is an added benefit of the friction, and that can include the advantage of being a part of an exclusive club that is “in the know” for this experience.
  2. Deliberate: There should be a strategy behind the friction to create the value in the experience rather than friction caused by incompetence or worse, apathy.

Introducing friction is risky in the best of circumstances and intentions. However, when added to further some specific goal, like self-identity or some other perception of the increased value from increased effort, you can intensify the demand for your experience by adding some friction.

So, to summarize the complex discussion on friction, you should take every opportunity to make things easy on your customer. Reducing unnecessary or invaluable friction is your default. Then, recognize what sources of value are for customers in the Customer Experience that you bring to the table as a brand and how does it make customers want your product or service. Next, look for ways to increase that value, which may or may not be introducing a deliberate and strategic benefit through friction.

If everything is easy, how are you going to differentiate yourself? The answer is not making things complicated for no reason, but it might mean making things a little bit more complicated deliberately toward a specific Customer Experience goal.


To hear more about Why Some Friction is Good in more detail, listen to the complete podcast here. 

If you want to benchmark your organization’s performance in the new world of behavioral economics against other companies, take our short questionnaire.  Once you submit, we compare your answers against what we know about the market and send you a free personalized report about where your organization is today. 

Hear the rest of the conversation on Why Some Friction is Good on The Intuitive Customer Podcast. These informative podcasts are designed to expand on the psychological ideas behind understanding customer behavior. To listen in, please click here.

Colin Shaw is the founder and CEO of Beyond Philosophy, one of the world’s leading Customer experience consultancy & training organizations. Colin is an international author of six bestselling books and an engaging keynote speaker.

Follow Colin Shaw on Twitter @ColinShaw_CX



Colin ShawHow Friction Can Be Good For Customer Experience