A recent leader in The Economist raised my interest in the little discussed area of ‘facile externality’.
The Economist summed up the concept as follows:
“Efficiency is at the heart of progress. Yet just as too much of a good thing (travel, say) can yield a bad (congestion), so excessive ease in transactions can generate costs, known in the jargon as a “facile externality”, such that less efficiency would actually be more efficient. In academic circles…. the notion is well established that innovations which eliminate too much hassle could do society harm.”
The article continues, stating that “a few companies have recognised the benefits of restoring friction. Research into “the Ikea effect”, named in honour of those happy hours spent with an Allen key, a Billy bookcase and a rising hatred of Sweden, shows that people put extra value on things when they devote their own labour to them.”
It is important to mention at this point, that the above Economist article came out on 1st April and the mention of the UN’s “Don’t Nudge—Tell” office (DoNuT) rather gave the game away, with regards to the article’s seriousness. Although the idea of a tax on efficiency is good fun and makes for a great April Fool, this piece got me thinking. I see a grain of truth here, whether intended or not, and you will see below examples that support this view.
In the pursuit of efficiency, the purchasing process is being made progressively easier. Amazon’s 1-click ordering makes it easier for people to buy stuff. But not easy enough for some organisations – witness the advent of ‘zero-click’ ordering. Dominos have pioneered “zero-click” pizza-buying, simply open the app and, after ten seconds, it automatically places a pre-set order.
Dangerously for brands, a focus on efficiency threatens to short circuit the importance of branding, and brand values, with the customer. The nature of speed is utilitarian and is therefore unreliable and indefensible as a brand USP. Fine if you are the fastest but not so good if you get overtaken.
Let’s consider how overt speed, efficiency and ease of access, can be a problem within specific categories.
As content providers increasingly distribute via major technology platforms, the value of the brand and the content becomes reduced. Stories are taken out of context, often edited down and sometimes re-distributed unbranded. Established media brands may have few other options to reach their audience, but it does their brand equity no good in the long term.
Location based taxi Apps
On a recent trip to Austin, despite the lack of Uber in the city, I found there were five or six different location based taxi apps to choose from. The differences between them were marginal, apart from the odd technical glitch, and it was easy to register and swap between services. In this instance, the efficiency of the delivery mechanisms and the resultant commoditisation of the products, worked against the opportunity for brand differentiation.
Online food order and delivery services
As with the taxi apps, brands such as Deliveroo, Just Eat and HungryHouse are similar in terms of product and delivery. Therefore, a major consideration becomes that of velocity – who can deliver sustenance the fastest.
To counter this, companies like these are seeking to build personalities in order to forge connections with consumers. As with soft drinks, beer and online betting, there is little differentiation in this market so the relative importance of brand equity becomes greater.
On the other side of the coin, there are instances where deliberate friction can have a positive effect. A good example in the banking sector is Monzo. Monzo’s ‘positive friction’ design approach includes options such as late-night spending reviews, and spending and top-up limits.
In the healthcare category, an example of positive friction is the redesign of Tylenol (pain reliever) pill packaging. By switching from bottles to blister packaging, Tylenol related suicides declined 43%, with accidental poisonings significantly shrinking too. The reason for this was simple, in the original bottle packaging, a person could open the cap and ingest more than enough pills to overdose in one swift movement.
In the new blister packaging, by decreasing the number of pills in the pack and forcing the person to individually pop each one out of its casing, enough minor friction was created to drastically bring down suicide numbers. This was all achieved without hindering the experience for those using the pills for medical reasons.
Positive friction is being utilised across a range of business categories and environments. Even the most transactional businesses, for example travel and ticketing sites, employ techniques to encourage users to stay connected longer. Ticket booking sites such as Viagogo engineer deliberately delayed loading pages (artificial friction) to indicate the ‘popularity’ of an event and increase anticipation, pressure to purchase. Airlines encourage app downloads, which can then be used to surface additional information, such as flight updates or upcoming travel offers.
Major digital channels encourage users to stay on their sites as long as possible. Facebook could make the process of posting quicker, but that would do them no favours as they encourage longer dwell time for users to interact with advertising.
In the workplace
Positive friction is increasingly used in workplace design to encourage interaction and the modern equivalent of the ‘water cooler moment’. Google’s latest London offices are a good example. This from The Evening Standard:
‘Google’s sparkling new £1 billion headquarters in King’s Cross will have a climbing wall, rooftop pool and indoor football pitch but it’s short of one thing — offices. This is because Google wants to encourage something called positive friction — that’s bumping into your colleagues, but not the ones you know. Think Big Bang theory for working. Great things come from collisions.’
Bots and automation
On the negative side, technology is having an effect as well. Technology is bringing greater efficiency which, alongside the introduction of automation and bots in the decision-making process, raises serious ethical questions.
In a recent article on trust, I discussed the relationship between brand and consumer, and the transparency with which it is conducted, which risks being further confused by the growing influence of bots. ‘Choice architecture’ is changing with the rise of automation, robotics and AI. Bots will refine choices presented, and even make choices on behalf of consumers. Some argue that the intervention of bots will mean that matters of ethics, which are nuanced and not binary decisions, will get side-lined.
‘In any event, the reality is that this will place even more responsibility on the brand to uphold ethics. Bots may ignore these in the moment of choice, but ultimately, any brand that cannot meet the requirement for transparent ethics, will risk a consumer backlash.’
Venturebeat.com strikes a more serious note on the negative effects of efficiency than The Economist, quoting Airbnb’s Steve Selzer and his view that immediacy and the absence of friction are creating a less tolerant, less self-aware world. ‘This is why designers of intelligent, immersive experiences need to build in meaningful friction, encouraging reflection and awareness of the actions themselves as well as their consequences.’
A separate article from Chatbots Magazine does hint at an upside to chatbots though, saying that people seem to say ‘thank you’, although there is no logical reaason to do so, which may mean some technology is promoting good behaviour.
The advent of other realities, augmented and virtual, in tandem with reduced friction, may also cause problems. This also from Venturebeat – ‘…reflection is even more important in immersive environments, where you don’t so much “watch” or “use” experiences as really “live” through them. VR experiences are perceived by the brain as actually happening to the user, so their transformative potential — toward self-development or rapture — is quite powerful.’
For brands, the question of how to provide the right amount of friction to unlock reflection but not to hamper experience is critical in building a world that, in addition to doing things, thinks about what it is doing.