Frictionless digital services


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A client was recently obsessed with the idea of delivering a “frictionless” service. They were a start-up in an exciting (and therefore fast-moving) technology domain. As well as having a great product, they had to move fast and acquire customers quickly. Their investors were very keen on the idea of a “frictionless” installation and first use experience in order to capture every one of the customers that tried their product.

It’s not just start-ups that need to think about the idea of ‘friction’. It’s well known that consumers have become more demanding of their digital services. We used to expect computers to require some effort to become useful but there is a strong and slow trend towards things that ‘just work’. We used to sit and wait for a program to load via a cassette tape (well you did if you are as old as I am) whereas now our apps start in seconds. Installation of a new program used to be a long process using CDs and installation wizards, whereas now we get our software by an immediate download or even use it directly via the web. Waiting too long, or undertaking a long process is now quite frustrating for many users (even for new services). 

There are still some examples of the old world that you can encounter today. Take for example my recent experience installing Microsoft Office.

Frictionless experiences example 1

There’s so much wrong with the experience it can’t all be detailed here. This can only happen because the software has already been purchased, it’s an essential piece of kit and the competition is not on equal terms. As it is, the convenience of the provider company is coming before the experience of the user; a brand new download requires inexplicable inconvenience to get started; it’s like buying a brand new car and getting a phone call as you drive home that the model was recalled last year and you should book in to get the necessary work done. It doesn’t make any sense to the customer. I’m sure there are sound process and engineering reasons for this situation, but many companies wouldn’t let this happen. The process needs to be redesigned.

I was recently comparing online video conferencing options – a market thick with competition. Looking at two different offerings, one was frictionless and one was not. Let’s first look at Fuze, which we have found to have awesome video and sound quality (and is in fact our chosen solution) – but the first-use is not frictionless; you (unexpectedly) have to verify your email and provide your name, company name and a password. Compare this to super-frictionless where you press ‘start a meeting’ and after a quick download a meeting starts, no questions asked. To exceed the expectations, the meeting starts automatically and your first meeting is upgraded to pro features.

Frictionless experiences example 2

You can see that has sacrificed lots of useful information gathering in order to make their process awesome in the hope that someone who tries just doesn’t ever try another vendor. Fuze forces you to commit to an account and handing over your identity which is a different sales strategy. Both may be valid strategies, but from an end user perspective ‘just works’ – it is frictionless.

This idea of friction can also be used to critique QR codes. There’s some resistance to QR codes despite their obvious potential. The point of friction is the (current) requirement to download a QR reader app of some sort – either a generic one or an app with another purpose that can use QR codes (like the AusPost app that can track parcels by scanning the ID tab). The friction to using QR codes would be massively reduced if the camera on your smartphone recognized them in the same way they recognize faces. This would replace the QR app step with the highly optimized and familiar native camera function.

It would be expected that the requirement to be as frictionless as possible will only become more important in more domains with better and better examples of good design. Expectations from users will continue to rise – the responsibility for setting up a service is moving continuously from the consumer to the provider.

The design challenge now is to re-think, re-design and re-engineer the way you provide your service to new customers so that every point of friction is challenged and preferably removed. In the example of they have sacrificed knowing who you are until later in the journey so that the initial customer acquisition is frictionless. Many business requirements are now secondary to the customer experience – only in the context of a good customer experience can you find ways to meet your other business goals.

Here are some common pitfalls to avoid in order to deliver a frictionless service:

1.  Actions with a hidden step: If there is a button that says ‘Download Now’ then a download should start when it is pressed. If you require an email address first, put the email address field with the button; be upfront, and don’t hide extra steps behind tempting actions.

2.  Secondary downloads: It can be frustrating if a user thinks they have downloaded the application but when it ‘opens’ another download process begins (however, a small installer which immediately downloads a larger bundle is OK).

3.  Asking for too much information: Whilst somebody in your project team will say some piece of information is useful, collecting information straight away can be a risk for conversion rates. Restrict the required information to a bare minimum and use different tactics to collect more data later. Restricting access to your service based on personal details is increasingly a risk; first logon should be fast.

4.  Providing all your awesome functions at once: On the first use an application should focus the user’s attention on the core value and the main reason for use. Whilst your differentiating features and extra power may be cool later on, they are a problem for new users, who just need to know the main controls.

Good designers will always find a way to meet competing business objectives in creative ways. The importance of a fast and frictionless first use experience must now be understood and communicated in those business objectives.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Jon Duhig
Jon Duhig is a Senior Manager at The Customer Experience Company. He is is a user experience and usability designer with a wide range of experience from user research and analysis, website and application design, mobile service design and future user experience design. Jon has 15 years of industry experience consulting in various industries and brings strong analysis and creative skills to his projects and teams.


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