Friction Isn’t Always a Drag

Does friction rub you the wrong way? (Sorry, I’ll show myself out.)

Friction represents a slowing of movement. Depending on our desired application, it can be good or bad. 

Good friction is desired. It’s what stops our cars from running into each other. It makes ice slippery for skaters, warms you when you rub your hands together on a cold day, and sparks fire when you strike a match. 

Bad (undesired) friction is when we skin our knee on the sidewalk or when tight shoes chafe our feet. 

Good friction, over time, leads to bad friction. The brakes on our cars wear out the more we use them. Ice becomes too watery the more we skate on it. Rub your hands together too long and you’ll blister. 

In business, we usually associate friction with bad things. Attempts to create a “frictionless” process almost always focus on removing poorly designed experiences that cause a hesitancy or delay in the customer’s journey. Long hold times, limited business hours, uninformed sales people, and badly designed or unresponsive websites are all examples of the types of friction businesses aim to remove.

But, sometimes, this designed friction is good for the business. There’s a reason you stand in line at Starbucks surrounded by delicious goodies. There’s a reason video game manufacturers make their products for an exclusive platform. There’s a reason enterprise solutions have a “call us for pricing” button on their websites. There are reasons you ask for seven data fields for registrations on your content resource center. The reason is simple: it’s good friction.

But today’s good friction may be leading straight into bad friction. 

Starbucks implemented mobile ordering, even though they’ll lose some incremental sales from impulse buys at the counter. Epic Games allows cross-platform, streamed play of the hit game Fortnite. A business-to-business technology company that I recently worked with removed the transactional registration for thought leadership content and now offers a simple “opt-in” subscription.

Each of these businesses decided to remove the friction in experiences that have protected value in favor of less friction and, perhaps, a better customer experience. Will it pay off? Maybe. But knowing when to remove good friction is exceedingly difficult, and it usually involves taking something that’s been valuable over time. 

Do the product and brand managers in charge of the sales of goodies in Starbucks think it was the right time to remove the friction that was good for their sales? Are Epic Games’ developer partners angry about the exclusive deals Epic is making with developers on the new cross-platform streaming platform? Will salespeople miss the content registration friction that brought them “leads?” 

The key to ensuring that good friction doesn’t turn bad is in the timing.

It’s knowing when to get the brakes changed, to resurface the ice, or to remove the gates from your content. Removing friction is always a tradeoff. Things will move faster in the short term. But you need to understand whether easing that movement is ultimately better in the long term.

One thing that can help is to be more aware. We can ask: “What good friction are we enjoying today that we may need to lose tomorrow?” Any change we make means movement, and all movement means friction. 

It’s up to us to choose when to preserve it or remove it. 

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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