Friction at Your Website: Good or Bad?

Friction is a key concept in transportation, but it’s also an important idea in commerce. Economist Thomas Friedman describes human contact during commerce as “friction.”

You drive up to the gas pump, slide your card, pump your gas, take your receipt from the machine, and drive off. No human contact, just the essentials of the transaction. Compared with having someone come out to your car and ask what you want, fill your gas tank, clean your windshield, accept payment, take it inside to complete the transaction, bring your your change or a bill to sign, exchange some concluding pleasantries — well, the friction slows the transaction down, doesn’t it?

You can find the same contrast at websites. One e-commerce site may give you an opportunity to arrive signed in, select items from your past purchase list, and be out of there with a click or two. Another may tempt you with special offers, include a blog and tips and a community to chat in, and generally be a virtual hangout.

Do you want a smooth transaction at your website, or do you want some friction?

  • What are you selling? If you have a commodity for sale, something that people need and will buy anywhere they can get it cheaply and easily, then you don’t want friction. You want to get that car insurance, battery, or hotel reservation into the consumer’s virtual hands as fast and painlessly as possible. If you’re selling an experience, or something that people have to think about for awhile before committing to, then you need some friction.
  • Can you upsell? Maybe your customers arrive with something basic in mind — a packet of green tea — but could be persuaded to hang around. Offer some recipes and health information, and they might add some matcha and mochi bites to the order.
  • Don’t forget the basics. I visited the website of a local bookstore last night in the city where I’m visiting. There’s a lot at that website — book lists, history, events… I may go back and read it sometime. It made the store look interesting to me, and might be something that keeps the regulars coming back. However, I wanted to go to the bookstore. Hours. location, maybe a phone number would have been handy for me. In this case, the friction could have prevented me from visiting the bookstore, and I walked out (once I found the place) with a dozen books. Basic info above the fold would have been a smart choice.

As with so many other issues of web design and web content, it comes down to usability. Figure out what your customers want to be able to accomplish without friction: getting your contact information, making simple repeated purchases, checking their accounts. Make those things easy.

Then offer a bit of community, a bit of opportunity for play or learning — a bit of friction.


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