Can a little friction be a good thing?


A couple of years ago I posted on the issue of transaction costs. That post was focused on the many unseen and unaccounted for costs of enterprise purchases of new products. I think all those costs are still relevant today and B2B startups would do well to consider how to reduce transaction costs for their customers.

But what about transaction costs in the consumer market? I hadn’t given that any thought until reading the article in The New York Times by Kevin Roose entitled Is tech Too Easy to Use? My initial reaction was, absolutely not! Given the problems my wife and mother have in using new technology, and my occasional frustrations, especially over passwords, tech is still too hard in for many people.

Mr. Roose equates friction with with making a product more difficult or time-consuming to use.  He makes a good case that social media like Facebook and Twitter have enabled bad actors to spread disinformation because it’s both too easy to create accounts and too easy to post and share information, in both cases by design.

I rarely use YouTube but having finished the newspapers and perusing Flipboard, my go-to news aggregator, I  was looking for something else for a diversion. So I decided to see what might be of interest on YouTube. And there was a video interview with Brian Ferry, founder of Roxy Music, one of my favorite bands. It was well worth watching. But before I had a chance to give any thought to what else I might like to look at, YouTube took over the user controls and started playing another video! They claim this is a feature – it eliminates friction – but as far as I’m concerned it’s a bug. I don’t mind recommendations, such as those from Amazon and Netflix and occasionally they point me to an interesting book or video. But I do mind YouTube deciding not only what I should watch but auto-playing it before I have had time to think what else I’d like to view. Talk about friction – I have to stop the video that YouTube chose for me, go back to the home page, and choose another video. I’m sure their research shows most people are too lazy to do that – just like they are proven to be too lazy to change TV channels.

Mr. Roose has many other examples of the problems tech can generate when it makes things easier and faster to use.  After reading his article I agree with him that quick and easy is not always best, as he writes, “We wouldn’t trust a doctor who made speed a priority over safety. Why would we trust an app that does?”

But what was really striking to me was the last story in his article about the co-founder of Tulerie, who send out a Google survey which she thought would act as an invitation to join to hundreds of prospective members. Well long story short it failed – only one person filled out the survey! But like any good, persistent founder, Merri Smith tried again to acquire members. This time she took a completely different tack. Rather than the very easy to use survey this time anyone who wanted to join had to conduct a brief video call with a company employee first. This worked almost too well.

Logically, the new strategy should have failed. But it was a huge hit. Prospective members flooded the invite list, filling up the company’s interview schedule weeks in advance. By creating a more complex sign-up, Tulerie had signalled that its service was special and worth the effort. “It goes back to values,” Ms. Smith said. “People perceive it as harder to get into, and they want to be a part of it.”

So while I’m still a fan of making things quick and easy, as I’m a very impatient person, I can see the merit of doing just the opposite, when appropriate. When you are designing your next product give some thought to adding a little friction, or maybe not taking so much out, as your use case might parallel that of Tulerie, where users actually assign value to an on-boarding process that requires some effort. And perhaps even some thought!

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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