Friction isn’t always bad

Friction is a popular word in conversion optimization. On any site, we’re trying to make the process as friction-free as possible to make sure users have a great experience. We want them to get on the site, stay on the site, and take action.

But can friction actually be a good thing?

I think it can.

Friction is a momentary hesitation to get you out of auto-pilot. Being on auto-pilot can cause us to do things without thinking. A point of friction can actually get you to realize what you’re doing and get you to stop and think.

One example is driving. If you drive the same route all the time you can really get into the flow of driving. You don’t pay attention to the route too much since you know it so well. You’ve driven it hundreds of times without any trouble.

But if a dog ran out in front of you, you’d stop and snap out of your flow. This point of friction would cause you to become more aware of your surroundings while driving and really start paying attention. On your next commute, you’d be so aware that you’d realize when the car next to you was drifting into your lane and be able to take quick action to avoid them.

Having added friction can make you be more deliberate.

The other day my laptop was running so slow! Slow enough that I didn’t want to be on it anymore. But I had some work to do.

Instead of clicking around 10 tabs like normal, I stayed on one tab and actually focused on the most important task rather than moving to another. If my laptop had been fast, I would have been going from tab to tab without hesitation. But because I knew that opening a new tab would also be extremely slow, I didn’t bother.

For eCommerce sites, we want people to have a friction-free experience. Conversion optimizers cringe at points of friction like a bug, an error message, or a piece of information that is hard to find. These can make visitors question their intent to purchase and they might leave the site.

In my view, if something that small stops you from purchasing, then it probably wasn’t something you needed to buy.

I have had instances on sites where I put in my credit card 3 times, had to go to PayPal, and had to eventually use another payment method to finally make my purchase. Did any of those stop me? Nope. Unless I literally couldn’t add the item to my basket or complete my purchase, I was going to buy it because it was something I really wanted and from a site with the best deal. It was a frustrating shopping experience and I wouldn’t ever purchase from them again if I could avoid it, but I did make the purchase.

Friction-free shopping is great for keeping and retaining customers. Nobody wants to be a loyal customer to a site that makes it hard to buy.

But for those one-off purchasers or someone who isn’t really sure, friction can sometimes help that person make a better decision which may end up being that they don’t purchase.