How the brain sees friction

Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy

May 27, 2019

Friction on the rise

Two notable and almost simultaneous news about friction arrived in my news feeds. On the one hand, Roger Dooley got his book "Friction" out recently, and I am looking forward to reading it. I had the pleasure of being a part of his own podcast recently, he told me briefly about the then-forthcoming book. After digging a bit, I soon realized that friction was a virtual goldmine of insights and actions.

Roger has also just aired on the Behavioral Grooves podcast, where he explains a bit more in detail what he does in his book, and a bit beyond. It is more than worth the time (and I'm a great fan of the BG podcast already).

The second piece comes from Facebook IQ, who just published a report on the zero-friction future. So friction is definitely a huge thing coming, and staying as part of our behavioral change vocabulary.

What is friction?

So what is meant by "friction" in the context of consumers, workers, and more?

As Facebook writes on their zero-friction page:

"Every new step or delay is a chance for customers to abandon their journey."

Indeed, friction is an obstacle to customer success -- the more numerous obstacles you provide for seeing, obtaining, securing, purchasing, and iterating purchase for your product, the less likely it is to be chosen. Friction is all about those obstacles for a smooth behavior from A to B, where B is your solution being chosen.

Guides for reducing friction abound and include elements such as shortening the path to purchase and removing obstacles to purchase. The most critical element as I see it, is that a zero-friction-based strategy has a very different focus than other strategies: it focuses on taking away negative elements, rather than making things that boost positive emotions. This in itself is interesting, since it is all about taking away, rather than adding or editing things.

So how does friction work in the brain? Can we see how friction engages or even "kills" good brain activity? We sure can! Some things friction lead to include:

  • an increase in cognitive demand -- friction is more demanding, or disrupts an otherwise fluent process, forcing the customer to keep more information in mind while navigating her way to product purchase
  • a cognitive load based drop in emotional response -- anything that is more mentally demanding typically leads to a drop in emotional positivity, or even the deevelopment of negative emotions
  • an emotional drop due to uncertainty -- the brain hates uncertainty and ambiguity -- friction leads to a temporary lack of prediction, leading the brain to show negative emotions

Some examples are shown in the following

Case 1: obstacles to vision

When running fieldwork in a store in Canada, a part of the task for participants was to find products to complete a shopping list task. The store was bright and easy to navigate, but we soon realized that something was wrong. Participants spent way too much time on finding the products. It didn't make any sense -- there were navigation signs in the ceilings and numbered aisles. But when we looked at the eye-tracking results, we discovered that participants rarely looked up towards the signs.

This was a clue: perhaps they did not see the signs in the first place. Indeed, when we analyzed the position of the signs using NeuroVision we saw that the signs really didn't get any automatic attention at all. They were not visually salient. After all, the signs were positioned amid a busy shelf environment, they did not receive direct light, and they even had some annoying extra signs hanging underneath them advertising for the store website (quite meaningless IMO).

All in all, customers in the store did not see the signs automatically and thereby did not use them for navigating the store. We saw that their (spatial) working memory was on overload while their emotional responses went sour. The store experience went from smooth to a disruptive disaster.

Case 2: the waiting game is like a horror movie

A couple of years ago we tested the effects of mobile phone delay on consumer responses for Ericsson and Vodafone. The first study was performed in Denmark, and a follow-up cultural comparison study was then performed in Germany and Indonesia. During the study, participants were exposed to different lengths of delay while browsing web pages and looking at videos.

What we found was astounding: the experience of delays led to a dramatic increase in cognitive load, while emotional responses plummeted. Their responses were similar to watching a horror movie! Participants reported annoyance and lower enjoyment of the content. Even the service provider brand took a hit when assessed after the test!

Interestingly, we also found cultural differences: Denmark showed a delay tolerance of 3 seconds, Germany 1 second, and Indonesia 9 seconds... But the response to friction during mobile usage was the same: a horrific drop in content enjoyment. Friction is indeed like horror!

Case 3: holding information while comparing products

In a third example we tested how a change in shelf layout could ease the process of finding products in the shelf. The product customers were asked to find was replacement light-bulbs, by finding the best and cheapest that they would prefer. In one version of the shelf layout the products were stacked according to the brand, while in a second they were stacked according to the product type.

What we found was that the time spent in the shelf was much lower in the second type of aisle. As customers tried to find the suitable replacement light-bulb they could stay within the same area of the shelf and try out different versions and look at their prices. By contrast, in the first type of shelf design, customers had to walk back and forth between shelf areas (brands) to find comparable bulbs, and then compare the prices.

It was no surprise that customers in the first shelf design type spent more time, had a much higher cognitive load score, and a lower emotional response. They even reported being less satisfied with their choice, and rated their store experience overall as less enjoyable than participants that were exposed to the second shelf design type.

The bigger picture

Friction has always been something we have known something about, but still we are in a way positively surprised now that it resurfaces in new powerful narratives. Moreover, as we see above, friction can now be positioned in a better understanding of why friction is so bad for customers.

As we will see in the coming time, zero-friction strategies need to be developed and implemented. Not that we have not done that earlier, such as in the book “The Design of Everyday Things” by Don Norman (PDF) – but with the novel perspective, we will probably see a renewed focus of friction as something to avoid, as a powerful supplement to strategies that only focus on breaking through the cacophony of the competitive marketplace.

How the brain sees friction

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