Don't Be So Quick To Eliminate Friction

If you have the mind of an engineer, you hate friction. When you worship at the altar of optimization, friction is something to be ruthlessly eliminated – squeezed out of the equation.

Friction equals inefficiency. It saps the energy out of our efforts.  It’s what stands between reality and a perfect market, where commerce theoretically slides effortlessly between participants. Much of what we call tech today is optimized with the goal of eliminating friction.

But there’s another side to friction. And perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to eliminate it.  Without friction, there would be no traction, so you wouldn’t be able to walk. Your car would have no brakes. Nails, bolts, screws, glue and tape wouldn’t work. Without friction, there would be nothing to keep the world together.

And in society, it’s friction that slows us down and helps us smell the roses. That’s because another word for friction -- when we talk about our experiential selves -- is savoring.



Take conversations, for instance. A completely efficient, friction-free conversation would be pretty damn boring. It would get the required information from participant A to participant B -- and vice versa -- in the minimum number of words. There would be no embellishment, no nuance, no humanity. It would not be a conversation we would savor.

Savoring is all about slowing down. According to Maggie Pitts, a professor at the University of Arizona who studies how we savor conversations, “Savoring is prolonging, extending, and lingering in a positive or pleasant feeling.” And you can’t prolong anything without friction.

As I said before, the rule of thumb in tech is to eliminate as much friction as possible. But can the elimination of friction go too far? Product designer Jesse Weaver says yes. In an online essay, he says we friction-obsessed humans should pay more attention to the natural world, where friction is still very much alive and well, thank you: “Nature is the ultimate optimizer, having run an endless slate of A/B tests over billions of years at scale," he writes. "And in nature, friction and inconvenience have stood the test of time. Not only do they remain in abundance, but they’ve proven themselves critical. Nature understands the power of friction while we have become blind to it.”

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the Yerkes-Dodson law, which states that there can be too much of a good thing -- or, in this case, too little of a supposedly bad thing.

According to a 2012 study, when it comes to assigning value, we actually appreciate a little friction. It’s known as the IKEA effect. There is a sweet spot for optimal effort. Too much and we get frustrated. Too little and we feel it was too easy. When it’s just right, we have a crappy set of shelves that we love more than we should because we had to figure out how to put them together.

Weaver feels the same is true for tech.  As examples, he points to Amazon’s Dash smart button and Facebook’s Frictionless Sharing. In the first case, Amazon claims the need for the button has been eliminated by voice-activated shopping on Alexa. In the second case, we had legitimate privacy concern. But Weaver speculates that perhaps both things just moved a little too fast for our comfort, removing our sense of control. We need a little bit of friction in the system so we feel we can apply the brakes when required.

If we eliminate too much friction, we’ll slip over that hump into not valuing the tech-enabled experiences we’re having. Weaver cites the 2018 World Happiness Report, which has been tracking our satisfaction with life on a global basis for over a decade. In that time, despite our tech capabilities increasing exponentially, our happiness has flatlined.

I have issues with his statistical logic. There's a bushel basket full of confounding factors in the comparison he’s trying to make, but I generally agree with Weaver’s hypothesis. We do need some friction in our lives. It applies the brakes to our instincts. It forces us to appreciate the here and now that we’re rushing through. It opens the door to serendipity and makes allowances for savoring.

In the end, we may need a little friction in our lives to appreciate what it means to be human.

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