The Fiction of No Friction

Thoughts on the future of human-centered design

Categories: Perspectives — Steve Selzer

Last year saw the continued rise of the “on-demand economy”, and with it the promise of convenience, ease, and a life free of friction. In the decade ahead we’ll witness the growth of automation – from Amazon’s warehouses to Uber’s self-driving vehicles – and for many of us this life of convenience will increasingly become the norm.

But this article isn’t about removing friction; I’m here to urge us all to design it back in.

I’m not suggesting we add extraneous steps to streamlined processes or make our products unusable. I’m talking about intentionally adding the kinds of friction that lead to self-reflection, self-discovery, and personal growth.


The Cost of Convenience

With ease and convenience come many benefits, but what about the tradeoffs?

Last year, I urged designers to consider that when we remove friction, we also remove moments for serendipity and self-reflection. At scale, this can erode our social values and increase our tendency toward intolerance and impatience, leaving us with a lack of resilience and an inability to navigate change.

If you need a reminder of what that dystopian future looks like, just ask Wall-E.

The good news is that there’s something we can do about it.

At Airbnb, we’re reducing the friction for Hosts to list and manage their spaces as well as for Guests to book them. By creating a frictionless online experience, we’re enabling people to experience a different kind of friction that offers something much more meaningful— the friction inherent to travel.

The struggles we experience when we travel are some of the same things that make it so exciting, and they’re rooted in the feeling of being out of our element. We’ve all experienced it in some form, whether it’s a language barrier, meeting new people, or simply navigating an unfamiliar locale.

What turns that friction into a meaningful experience is how we work through it, and that’s where our incredible community of Airbnb hosts, locals, and fellow like-minded travelers come in — all it takes is a single authentic connection to spark that sense of belonging.

And it is at this intersection – between belonging and feeling out of your element – that the conditions are ripe for self-reflection, self-discovery and personal growth.

I experienced this when I traveled solo for five weeks through Scandinavia and Iceland. At times I felt self-sufficient and content in my solitude, and at others I found myself desperate for human connection. In the end, experiencing this friction, and overcoming it, had a tremendous impact on my personal growth in ways I’ll never forget. I might even go as far as to say that the people I met and the self-discoveries I made were more memorable than the places themselves.

So why don’t we run into more experiences like this in our daily lives? This friction that leads to self-discovery and personal growth is out there, it may just be that our life of convenience and ease is quickly displacing it.

But if this friction is something we can learn to value, then it’s also something we can learn to work back in.


Designing the Friction Back In

Which friction is the good friction – the kind that leads to self-discovery and personal growth – and which is the kind that detracts from those discoveries? Below are four strategies for designing friction back into our products and our lives. By keeping these in mind, it’s possible to design an experience that retains its humanity and encourages people to reflect, discover, and grow.


Design for Skill-Building

Skill-building is an act of self-discovery. Whether it’s a new ability or an old hobby, the skills we pursue and maintain are reflections of our values— both who we are, and who we want to become.

Services like Blue Apron and Purple Carrot help people develop their culinary skills by removing the logistical friction of cooking. They deliver pre-portioned, high-quality ingredients along with recipes and instructional videos but leave the final step – the friction of making the meal – to you. By intentionally leaving in this friction, they create space for people to discover their culinary talents, or simply enjoy the act of cooking.


Design for Self-Reflection

While self-reflection can be considered a skill in and of itself, it’s worth calling out as a separate strategy because it’s a more overt path to self-discovery and personal growth.

Take Unstuck app, for example, which helps people understand why they’re feeling “stuck” through a series of exercises designed to make the friction of self-reflection less daunting. Inspired by cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness, the product helps people toward self-discovery in a non-judgmental way by showing them the archetypes that reflect their current attitudes and behaviors. Armed with this understanding, a person can begin to unravel the steps they need to take to feel “unstuck”..


Design for Collisions

Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh, introduced the idea of encouraging “collisions” between people with the launch of his Downtown Project in Las Vegas. Hsieh believes that most innovation happens as a result of random conversations and ideas that arise when people serendipitously collide. He and his team of private investors have gone so far as to develop a business metric so they can be held accountable for how effective they are at creating these collisions.

UberPool and Lyft Line are other examples where logistical friction has been removed to allow for more enriching offline interactions. These carpooling services are not only more affordable and better for the environment, they also create opportunities for people to interact with others in their community.


Design for Confrontation

The last strategy I’ll propose for designing the friction back in is to “design for confrontation.” While confrontation might sound like a bad thing, it can also be a positive catalyst in the sense that growth is often the result of confronting something uncomfortable or challenging, and working through it.

Let’s look at an example from Airbnb.

Last fall, our team ran an experiment to change the “Contact” page for Guests with upcoming or current reservations. We wanted to understand whether Guests could get solid, timely support from their Hosts, and understand how those Hosts would feel about answering questions from their Guests.

The results were generally positive.

We found that Guests were just as satisfied with the support they received from their Hosts as the support they received from our Customer Service team. We also found that Hosts felt just as satisfied with the interactions they had with Guests who reached out for support as with those who didn’t. But one finding really stood out among the rest: Guests who received help directly from their Host reported higher overall trip satisfaction than those who didn’t.

While it may seem like more friction to confront your Host when you have an issue, overcoming this friction seems to lead to higher satisfaction, and maybe even a strengthened sense of community.

So if you’re a designer, engineer, product manager or CEO and your product doesn’t naturally lend itself to this type of friction, try this thought exercise and let me know what you come up with:

Imagine a world entirely free of friction. Things aren’t just easy, they’re effortless. They’re not just on-demand, they’re instant.

What’s the one thing you would bring back?

The friction you choose may be key to maintaining our collective values and sense of self in the not-so-distant, otherwise frictionless future.

Steve Selzer is an Experience Design Manager at Airbnb. He is also an amateur magician, avid traveler, and aspiring astronaut.

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