When creating frictionless experiences isn’t the best option

 Mat Skitt photo
Mat Skitt Lead Designer
4min read

Making a user's experience seamless is the goal of every designer, but with real life implications for customer financial health, is it time we rethink our approach?

The rise of digital products has opened the world of investing to ‘normal people’, and begun to level out the playing field of opportunity for those seeking to make their money go further.

Following the increased uptake of digital financial services, people are more comfortable interacting with their money through smartphones, leading many to utilise opportunities that may not have been available before now.

Fancy owning a fraction of Tesla? No problem! Heard of bitcoin? Here, take a bit!

This is an area that has seen significant growth in recent years. As technology and regulation have made it relatively easy for anyone to ‘have a piece of the pie’, there is an abundance of opportunity to make your money grow. However, with the potential of greater funds, come the increased chances of making a loss.

For designers, this has accelerated the challenge of crafting experiences that allow users to confidently step into a world where, every second, masses of data are processed and near-instantaneous decisions are being made. The challenge of educating whilst empowering is not an easy one to overcome and should be carefully considered at every point.

A designer's relationship with friction

“Good design is frictionless design.”

Statements like this are often seen in product design. Friction in a user journey is seen as slowing down user interactions and ultimately reducing conversion. In the current metric-driven world of measuring how performant the smallest element of a digital product is, this means that friction often gets a bad reputation.

For designers, friction should be seen as a tool that, in the right context, can create better experiences. In one product a designer may want to turn up or down friction depending on the part of the experience they are crafting.

Let’s think about how a Formula 1 car is designed for racing. To complete a lap quicker than rivals, a design team will shape the car’s aerodynamics to reduce air friction so it can build speed quicker whilst ensuring there is maximum grip in the tyres for carrying the gain speed into corners.

In a digital product, designers typically look to reduce friction where possible in lead-generation and onboarding parts of the experience, optimising them as much as possible. After all, acquisition performance is a strong prerequisite for the success of a product. But once through the funnel, a shift in approach occurs.

For designers, friction should be seen as a tool that, in the right context, can create better experiences.

Good and bad friction

Sometimes friction is explicitly designed into an experience, and sometimes it’s a result of bad decisions by different parties - just think how many times you click to open an article and are welcomed by a cookie banner, some adverts, an invite to join a mailing list, and then are told the article is behind a paywall. It is not the result of your interaction - opening the article - that you wanted.

Friction can knock users out of ‘autopilot’. We expect a ‘thing’ to happen, so pay more attention when it doesn’t, or in the instance of the former scenario, have a minor rage episode.

Leaving ‘autopilot’ often happens when there is an extra step in the process - are you sure you want to empty the trash? It’ll permanently delete those 23695 screenshots.

Queries like the one above are clear examples of where friction has a strong value. Asking us to confirm our choice and reminding us of the consequences allows us to contemplate our decision.

There are times, though, where friction is more implicit and can be to the benefit of a service’s perceived value by users.

Twitter’s original 140 character limit was a key differentiating factor from blogging platforms making users shift approach when sharing content, doing so in bitesize quantities and more often than before, helping to increase traffic and conversion.

Ikea’s flatpack business model means that it is not only cheaper for production and distribution, but by also having to self-assemble their products, customers place more value on them. This is known as the Ikea Effect and helps to build an implicit brand relationship between the Swedish company and its customers.

Possibly the best example of implicit friction is from Houston Airport. During the 90s, there were often complaints about waiting times at luggage collection being too long. Despite best efforts to reduce the waiting times such as using more staff, travellers were still unhappy with the service and complaint numbers weren’t going down.

So they tried something different. To reduce waiting times, instead of further optimising the luggage process the airport increased the friction for travellers to collect their luggage. How so? By making them walk further to baggage claim! The idea was simple: if people are busy during the waiting time they’ll be less likely to complain. By creating friction, staff were able to change the perception of that part of the airport experience.

Fintech’s friction responsibility

New fintech propositions have thrived on the premise of reducing friction versus incumbents - open a bank account in minutes, transfer money internationally without fees, own a fraction of a share. These promises have enticed users and set new expectation levels of experience that designers must create solutions for.

As we strive to reach user expectations, it is imperative that we consider the real-world implications of our product decisions and embrace the responsibility of educating users on the potential risks of their choices.

The classic line of “your capital is at risk” as part of a sign up flow may not be enough to knock users out of ‘autopilot’. As designers, we should ask ourselves how we can correctly apply friction throughout the whole product.

In everyday investment products, there are multiple opportunities to apply implicit and explicit forms of friction into the user experience, such as:

  • Place initial limits on the portfolio size for new users to reduce the risk of losing too much early on

  • For less experienced users, make discovering more volatile opportunities more difficult. Similar to how Google cleverly hid unhealthy snacks from their staff

  • Before completing a transaction, show the user how their recent trades are performing to influence their decision to commit

  • Give users a short time window to reverse their decisions, similar to how emails can be ‘unsent’

Utilising different forms of interaction can also apply friction. A finger swipe is a much more considered interaction against a quick tap of a button. Use extra authentication such as a smartphone's facial and fingerprint scanning capabilities to add extra levels of security.

Rethinking friction

As we learn more about users' understanding of and behaviours towards new financial services, we must embrace the responsibility of guiding them through decisions. We should continue to use our expertise to reduce unwanted frictions in the experiences that we design. But we should also recognise the value of friction - that can help users have more control over their money, when applied correctly.