"Friction" in physics refers to resistance between two or more things. In interface design, it refers to the resistance a user experiences when trying to accomplish a task. Companies often ask that a process or flow's friction be reduced -- what they call making the experience "seamless." However, seams have their uses, and reducing it too much in the interface can actually cause cognitive friction that makes the experience more confusing and less enjoyable. Though we typically interruption marketing on this blog, introducing interruption at key intervals in a user's experience can actually increase customer satisfaction and delight.
Why We Hate Interruptions
In the course of their day, American's are supposedly exposed to over 3,000 marketing messages, and most of them are irrelevant to their actual needs. Even with demographics research and the various things marketers do to "target" a customer, successfully communicating with large numbers of people requires a wide reach and heavy repetition.
John Wanamaker famously said, "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half." I think he was being optimistic.
We hate interruptions because they stop us from doing what we intended to do. Interruptions stop us from watching our favorite show. They stop us from reading the article we wanted to read (See ad below for an example of an interruption ad on USA Today's website -- I wanted to see the weather).
Advertising is not the only troublemaker. So is clever for clever's sake -- such as that 30 second Flash animation the user must sit through just to access the otherwise awesome site you built. Is it worth the wait (or the effort it takes to find the "skip intro" button, if you included one)?
You'd better hope so, but one way or the other, they'll make up their mind in just a few seconds, and they could be wrong.
Why not just build the site for people instead of for clever?
Why We Need Interruptions
It's often good to let people know when something has ended and when something else begins.
For instance, say you want to buy a pair of shoes from Zappos. You click on shoes, Oxfords (under Mens Shoes), and then finally the pair of shoes you want. You select a size and add it to your cart. What happens?
The system has to somehow inform you that what you wanted to do (add the item to your cart) actually occurred, so it takes you to your shopping cart and lets you decide what to do next.
(This isn't the only way to accomplish this, but it serves the example's purpose).
A system should always provide clear, concise, visual feedback about where the user is -- even if necessity demands interruption.
But Hey, Nobody's Perfect
Although I used Zappos as an example of how to correctly interrupt someone, I could have just as easily used them as an example of how not to do it. I'm not a big fan of their checkout process.
(It isn't terrible. It just could be better.)
If you wanted to purchase the shoes at Zappos, the system would give you a pretty strong example of what not to do: It forces you to either call or to create an account.
Except for a password, all of the information Zappos needs to create an account they also collect when they get your billing and contact information.
It makes good sense to give the user a very easy option to create an account, store the personal data and therefore reduce buying friction for future purchases. However, they ought not require the user create an account, since it is not as necessary to complete a purchase as it would be required for, say, a Netflix purchase (which is membership-based anyway).
Still, Zappos has been pretty successful. They scored higher in satisfaction and purchase intent (78) than the average for top 100 online apparel & accessories retailers (74), and their revenues from web sales ($850,000,000) placed them at #27 in the 2008 Edition Top 500 Guide for Internet Retailers.
This tells us two things:
- Don't let perfection be the enemy of good. You can still be successful even if you aren't perfect.
- Everyone is vulnerable. If a retailer were to come along to make shopping for books remarkably easier than it is at Amazon (literally: easily enough for people to make remarks about it), with enough time, they could take some chips at Amazon's market share.
Bear in mind, though, that everyone is watching, and it's a copycat Web. If you're successful, it won't be long before other retailers follow suit.
As the Amazon experience clearly shows, the more quickly you're able to reduce the buying friction for repeat customers and get them used to your system, the more difficult (and costly) it will be for competitors to break your customers from the systems to which they've become accustomed. Changing would just cause too much of the wrong kinds of friction.
So How is This Marketing, Exactly?
Whether you actually sell anything online or not, your website may be the first and only interaction your audience has with your company. You need to make a good impression by delivering something of value that makes sense according to your business strategy.
While there are many ways you can and should reduce friction in this process, there are going to be times that you will want to reintroduce it. Be courteous. Interrupt only when doing so will aid in the user's understanding of where they are. Those seams caused by judicious interruptions are useful. Don't neglect them. - Cam Beck