Good friction, bad friction, and customer experience

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
June 16 . 3min read

We’ve been thinking a lot about friction in recent weeks. 

We have a number of clients in the retail space. And for retailers as a category, ‘customer experience’ has been a key battleground for a while, as they battle with the incursion of e-commerce, m-commerce and s-commerce, rising rents and falling consumer confidence. 

Unusually, C-19 isn’t driving a massive wave of innovation in retail - instead it’s just giving the whole industry a gentle nudge in the direction it was already going, with businesses accelerating plans rather than inventing new ones. Bunnings for example has – since the start of C-19 – famously accelerated implementation of its click-and-collect, local delivery and drive-and-collect services, as well as launching an app to help customers navigate stores to find products more easily, and an online service that allows customers to pre-order paint tints to avoid queueing at the paint counter.

What’s all of this got to do with friction?

Well, way before C-19 hit, lots of brands turned to human centred design (HCD) in the pursuit of the ultimate experience. HCD teaches us to remove friction from the customer experience. It teaches us to get out of the consumers way. To reduce then number of clicks a transaction requires. To minimise the time it takes. To reduce consumers' cognitive load and let their system one thinking have its instinctive way. This removal of friction seems logical, and loads of brands were banging its drum before C-19. Interestingly though, we’ve seen a bunch of examples of brands who had up to now resisted HCD beginning to embrace it as C-19 hit.

Dan Murphy’s, for example, launched its 'direct to boot’ service as an innovative way to tackle social distancing - with booze being carried directly to people’s boots without them needing to lift a finger. Punters seemed to like it so much that they’re making it permanent. Ikea – which resisted e-commerce completely until recently, and even then charged astronomical fees for both click and collect and home delivery to deter consumers from using the service  – waived its click and collect fees and introduced a contactless pick up area in the car park. 

Good friction is when you go to Ikea to buy a set of Billy shelves and come out with not only your shelf kit, but new towels, an iPhone charger, a desk lamp, some storage boxes, a cactus and some coat hangers

Why is this important? Well, whilst this has made it easier for consumers to keep shopping, it’s also removed some 'good friction' from the experience. Good friction is when you go into Bunnings for a packet of screws and come out with a patio heater as well. When you go to Ikea to buy a set of Billy shelves and come out with not only your shelf kit, but new towels, an iPhone charger, a desk lamp, some storage boxes, a cactus and some coat hangers. When you go into Dan Murphy's to pick up a bottle of wine and come out with a case of beer and and a bottle of bourbon too. Good friction is good for businesses because average basket value is pushed up. And weirdly, it’s also good for consumers – who not only don’t resent Ikea and Bunnings for this, but seem to actively enjoy the experience. For example, the difficulty of finding the product you want in Bunnings - as well as meaning you walk all over the store and get distracted by hundreds of products you didn’t come in for - means that when you do find your product you feel rewarded for the effort you've put in.

So we think it’s important that retailers don’t throw out the good friction with the bad. 

How do we differentiate the good stuff from the bad stuff? Well, good friction is that which should be built into the experience. It is usually about enhancing the experience in a way that gets people to spend more time with the product, service and ultimately brand. It helps to build stickier relationships. Think The Athlete’s Foot’s ‘MyFit’, for example. Bad friction on the other hand, is that which should be removed from the experience. It’s usually something that is annoying for the consumer and doesn’t really help the brand. Think delivery and logistics (having ordered a piece of furniture in store, I don’t want to wait 2 months for it to be delivered, and then on the day its due to arrive be given an 8 hour delivery slot so I have to wait in all day). Think about simple replacement purchases that could be subscription-based. Think commodity purchases that don’t signal your status, taste or personality – these should be super-easy to order. Eliminating bad friction is all about getting things to people faster and more conveniently.

So, if you’re thinking about customer experience, a really simple watchword is to balance the good friction and the bad friction. Recognise and maximise the good. Identify and eliminate the bad. Couldn’t be simpler.

Richard Parker

Richard Parker
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