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Make Technology--and the World--Frictionless

Make buying, voting and losing weight easier by blasting away unnecessary steps



Illustration by Harry Campbell

A few months back I was at the main Apple Store in New York City. I wanted to buy a case for my son’s iPod touch—but it was December 23. The crowds were so thick, I envied sardines.

Fortunately, I knew something that most of these people didn’t: I could grab an item off the shelf, scan it with my iPhone and walk right out. Thanks to the free Apple Store app, I didn’t have to wait in line or even find an employee. The purchase was instantly billed to my Apple account. I was in and out of there in two minutes.

Apple, in other words, has reached new heights in reducing friction—which benefits it as much as its customers.

Friction is a hassle. Steps. Process. And in this increasingly tech­ni­fied world, there is still a surprising amount of red tape—and few examples of push back. We stress about things like price, storage and processor speed, instead of beauty, elegance and low friction.

Why do some stores still make us sign credit-card slips? There is no legal or bank requirement to collect signatures. That bit of friction was originally intended as a security measure—but when is the last time you saw a clerk compare your signature with one on the back of the card?

Why, in this day and age, are we still typing in our address and credit-card details into Web forms, over and over again? Companies like Apple and Amazon have figured it out. Low friction means more sales. Apple has its app; Amazon has its 1-Click Buy button. You don’t have to enter any extra information. You see something you want, you click, and you’ve just bought it.

Every Web site that makes you fill in a form, or wait for a confirmation e-mail, or take some test to prove that you are human is adding friction—and losing sales. All of us, sooner or later, will wind up sitting there with a comment to make or a product to buy, see how many hoops we have to jump through and then back out: “Oh, forget it—not worth it.”

Actually, low friction doesn’t just mean more sales. It means more of any behavior you’re trying to encourage. Take, for example, the right to vote.

The formula for predicting someone’s likelihood to vote is something like PB + D > C, where P is the probability that your vote will make a difference, B is the benefit to you if your candidate wins, D is the gratification you get from voting, and C is friction—the hassle of registering to vote, then getting to the polling place, standing in line, and so on. Clearly, lowering the friction would increase turnout.

Imagine if we could register and vote online—or vote by making a few taps in a phone app. Voter turnout would likely skyrocket. And that would make for a real democracy. (Fear of manipulation is supposedly the reason we’re not there yet. But we could get there if we really wanted to.)

Or what about the obesity epidemic? We’ve tried almost every solution under the sun—except reducing friction. You can buy coffee with a tap on a Starbucks app, so why not healthy foods? Why can’t you get an apple, banana or bag of baby carrots in more vending machines or from a market with an app tap? Eating right still takes more effort than eating junk. Change the friction coefficient, and you change the game.

Next time you’re shopping for a digital camera, don’t ask how many megapixels it has. Ask how many steps it takes to turn on the manual focus. When you buy a laptop, don’t just care about its screen size; care about how many touch tones are required to get you to tech support. When you buy a phone, see how many taps it takes to e-mail a photo.

And if you’re on the other side of the table—if you’re the vendor—don’t just figure out how to attract customers. Figure out how to eliminate the friction you present to them. 

This article was published in print as "Technology's Friction Problem."

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