Improve Customer Experience by Introducing Friction


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It sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it? How can you optimise a journey with friction when for many it is considered the nemesis of growth and success? It is annihilated at every opportunity in the digital world for fear the customer might abandon a purchase or fail to sign up for a newsletter. This is not necessarily the case in physical locations like stores, restaurants and service centres. Sometimes a little friction can be a good thing.

When Friction Makes Service Quicker

The reason friction is so feared online is the opportunity it creates for distraction. A customer might have ten other tabs open while they’re on your checkout page. If you move them through your page efficiently, there’s a good chance they will complete the purchase. If, on the other hand, you get greedy and ask for more information than you really need, they might just decide one of the options on another tab was less hassle. Sale lost!

The dynamic can be very different in the physical world. The right amount of friction and/or distraction at the right time can improve customer experience (CX) significantly.

A great example of how friction improves CX outside of bits and pixels is the use of mirrors in elevators. Nearly every elevator in the world has a mirror on one or more of the walls. I always assumed this was to combat claustrophobia and make the elevator seem more spacious, but that was not the original motivation.

man in a elevator
Photo Credit: Beatrice Murch —

The original reason to include mirrors in lifts dates back to mid 20th century when buildings were getting taller but elevators weren’t getting any faster. The technology simply didn’t exist to propel elevators up and down a lift shaft at great speed while maintaining a high level of safety. The brilliant solution was to distract people during the journey between floors. There are very few of us who can resist a little self-admiration when the opportunity arises. Tests found that lift users stopped thinking about how long the elevator was taking and started thinking about how great they looked. Perceived journey times dropped and CX improved significantly, simply because of the distraction.

How Friction Improves CX in Different Locations

This mirror principle can be applied to lots of store and restaurant scenarios, such as the following:

Friction at the Checkout Queue

This tactic is already employed at millions of checkout tills across the world. The primary intention of displaying sweet treats on the shelves beside the checkout queue is to tempt you to part with that extra bit of cash. But it also serves to distract you from the fact that you’re waiting in line to hand money to that business. Instead of thinking that you’re never coming back to the store again, you’re thinking about how many points a bar of chocolate knocks off your diet plan for the day.

Friction when Paying for a Meal in a Restaurant

One of the most frustrating parts of table service in a restaurant is when the bill has been delivered and you’re ready to go, but the server doesn’t return with the credit card machine or with your change. This is the perfect time to create some friction. You could do lots of things, but I would recommend asking customers to fill out a quick feedback survey (full disclosure: I am the founder of ServiceDock, which is a customer experience management platform for multi-site businesses). This creates a win-win in terms of CX because you have distracted the customer, while also acquiring useful data to enhance CX.

When Friction is Expected

Sometimes making customers wait is expected and if you’re not making them wait you may be damaging CX. You may also be removing some of the high points of the customer’s experience by reducing the impact of emotions such as excitement and expectation. Such feelings play a central role in creating lasting memories.

For example, getting your food order delivered to your table instantly is a worse experience than getting it later than expected. Getting it instantly conjures up images of a dish being reheated in a microwave or worse; a dish that has already been delivered to another table and been rejected.

On the other hand, the 10 minutes waiting for a dish creates a heightened sense of anticipation and gives the diner an opportunity to get their juices flowing.


Even in the most customer-centric businesses, there are going to be times when demands on staff or facilities cause the customer journey to slow or even come to a standstill. Mapping out those journies so you learn where the bottle necks occur most frequently is the first step on the path to addressing them. The next step most businesses will focus on is how to eradicate the delay to prevent customer frustration building. That can be expensive because it will typically mean more staff, more overheads and less profit.

If you are prepared to think outside the box, you can achieve more than simply remove the negative experience with a little friction; you can actually improve the overall customer experience with it!

Oisin Ryan
Special Advisor at SeeGap which is all-in-one customer interaction management platform designed for Consumer Packaged Goods & FMCG Brands. Through a single QR Code or NFC tag on product packaging, the SeeGap platform enables consumers to Provide Feedback, Access Customer Service, View Product Info and Enter Promotions. Consumers can do all this through their preferred medium of messaging, which drives engagement, captures more data & boosts customer loyalty.


  1. Too often businesses forget they’re dealing with real people that have emotions and senses. Anticipating customer srress and negating that without customers knowing it is an art and craft.

  2. I think you hit the nail on the head. In fact this is exactly how customer journeys should be analyzed. The aim should not be to eliminate all friction, the aim should be to have the best final result! Which could very well be helped by adding some extra friction along the journey.

  3. Hi Oisin: after reading your article, I was unclear how distraction related to friction – or at least my interpretation of friction. I looked up the online definition: “friction can be defined as psychological resistance to a given element of your sales process that causes aggravation, fatigue or confusion.” Distracting customers carries certain risks, but I don’t see it necessarily causing aggravation, fatigue or confusion. If anything, I find your examples as good ways to improve customer experience, since they relieve boredom.

    By the way, where I live in the US, many grocery stores offer candy-free check out lanes, and they are prominently marked. The rationale, as it has been explained to me, is to help parents with young children have an easier time paying for groceries.

  4. Hi Andrew and thanks for your comments. The most basic definition of friction is a “force that makes it difficult for one object to slide along the surface of another” and as far as the workings of the mind are concerned, distraction could be considered such a force. But rather than getting too pedantic, I think Remco and Ed understood my intention. Far too many CX initiatives are driven by metrics rather than really trying to understand how the customer’s mind is working at any given time.

  5. Creating and delivering positive touchpoints in experiences and memories is always desirable. If this thesis to improve CX processes is really about positive, proactive distraction that, presumably, the customer will enjoy as part of the experience – think of watching a magic show – then it is a good principle to follow.

  6. In all these examples i cant help but think removing the friction is best. For example, check out lines suck. Having ‘sweet treats’ is especially aggrevating for shoppers with young children. True a bill too soon maybe be unwelcomed. A bill at the right time is not. Putting obsctacles into customers lives most definitely does not improve the experience. It seems that this is the advice that is tendered here. If so, i believe it is misguided. Aim to remove obsctacles and improve what is fun. If it is not feasible due to business constraints, that’s a business issue not one customers should or do care about.

  7. This all sounds like the magical technique of misdirection, the source of great joy. I am not seeing it as friction or distraction. My bank has a TV that plays CNN while I wait in the teller line. Disney World has characters entertaining me while I am in the queue for an attraction. A ballpark has players signing autographs while patrons wait in the ticket line. My doctor has health-related videos playing in the the reception area (or gives me a coupon for a free Starbucks and one of those restaurant flashy things so I can go two doors and enjoy a latte and work on my laptop if the wait is going to be longer than a few minutes). The hotel directs my attention away from the renovation area under construction. The list is endless. But, I find it magical, not distracting.

  8. Thanks for all your comments. Great to get such a diverse range of opinions on this topic and from some great CX minds. If I was to rewrite the piece, I would be tempted to entitle it “Improve CX through the use of Magical Misdirection”. That is a better description than introducing friction (thanks Chip!). I agree that checkout lanes are unpleasant and I believe Amazon and others will soon eliminate them. The sooner the better! The intention is not to put obstacles in the way of the customer but rather entertain them while your service catches up so they are not focusing on a negative. If you put the right thing in front of a customer at the right time, not only do you distract them, you can actually create a memory that adds to their overall experience. My examples could be improved, but the mirror in the lift holds true.


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