4. The value of friction

The people who design the apps and websites we use on our smartphones just want to make our lives easier.

In the language of user-centred design, this means they seek to eliminate ‘pain points’ and give us a ‘frictionless’ experience, removing any elements of the software or user interface that may slow us down or require us to make too much effort. They don’t want to lose customers or users.

As smartphone users we expect this – and if we do encounter friction we tend to get annoyed. This creates a feedback loop that is difficult to break, pushing designers to create an ever easier experience for us.

But is an easier experience always better? Not necessarily – especially not over the longer term.

Digital designers are as constrained by the limitations of the smartphone as we are. Because it is so much harder to put information into our phones than to get it out, designers reduce the need for us to do so.  

Where it’s unavoidable, we are given pre-sets, suggested options or autofilled forms. These reduce friction but they also limit our choices.

Greater ease is often at the expense of richness or complexity. For some of the ways we use our phones – to tell the time, or using maps, for example – the less friction we encounter, the better. But never experiencing friction means we miss out. Sometimes friction can have benefits.

Without friction, people tend to fall into what is often described as a ‘System 1’ mindset, which favours automatic, less conscious decision-making. A moment of friction can provide an opportunity for reflection – a literal pause for thought – and this can prompt a more active and reasoned choice about what we’re doing or how we spend our time.

Sometimes, a jolt of friction offers a moment of serendipity, a gateway to a path we might otherwise not encounter.

There can also be a trade-off between short-term effort and long-term reward. Doing something that feels difficult in the moment can bring gratification later. If we strip away challenge, we also rob ourselves of the opportunity to feel productive – a vital element of wellbeing.

And if we don’t stretch ourselves or practise activities that are difficult, we are unable to develop our skills. We may also become less skilled at certain things if we stop doing them.

If we don’t have to put as much effort ‘in’, we may ultimately get less reward ‘out’.

This concept is widely accepted in other aspects of life. It may be easier to use the lift to get to the second floor of your office every day, but it will improve your health if you use the stairs.

When it comes to smartphones, we have generally accepted – even welcomed – their evolution. But would it be better for us to have a bit more friction?