Don’t confuse friction with process.

Published July 8, 2020.

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m not a fan of friction. Nobody is, really.

But when it comes to products, services, and experiences, what exactly do I mean by friction, and what does it truly mean to be a friction fixer? Is it about making things fast? If so, what about situations where we need to slow down and get things right?

That’s an important point, so to clear up any confusion, here’s a thought-provoking analogy involving a very serious topic:

If a country has nuclear weapons, should the act of launching those nukes be a low-friction experience or a high-friction experience?

First, let’s be clear: nuclear weapons are horrific, and the world would be a better place if they didn’t exist. But unfortunately, they do exist, so the real question is:

What’s the best way to limit their use and eliminate any chance of accidents or abuse?

Your immediate gut reaction is likely “a high-friction launch experience” because, with so many lives on the line, it’s important to slow things down and get it right (or prevent the launch altogether).

However, I argue the correct answer is “low-friction” because there’s a difference between friction and process.

Process is the series of steps required to properly complete an action (keyword: properly).

Some processes are short and sweet. Others (like launching nukes) inherently take longer and feel more burdensome because they require more steps. But that’s not friction — it’s the structure inherent in process, and it’s there for a damn good reason.

Friction, on the other hand, is when a process is influenced or altered in a way that makes it more confusing, difficult, or even dangerous to complete.

In our nukes example, the process is the system of steps we’ve all seen portrayed in movies: there’s a very particular chain of command and communication process, plus critical procedural safeguards (like matching keys or launch codes), all of which prevent accidents and abuse.

Meanwhile, friction is what would happen if the people executing the launch process were given insufficient or confusing training, thus causing them to accidentally skip a step and move us closer to nuclear war. Or if the communications network went down (or got hacked by a bad actor). Or if safeguards failed because of a mistake in the development of the keys and codes.

See the difference?

Process is the map that guides us to our destination. In other words, process is a defined journey.

Friction is an unwanted, negative influence that knocks us off course and can lead to disaster. In other words, friction is pain.

And let’s face it: Most of the time, people are the negative influence and the source of the pain. Yes, we’re awesome — but we’re also biased, impatient, and prone to mistakes.

Does that mean process is always perfect? No way. After all, processes are created by people, so biases, impatience, and mistakes can be baked in from the start. When this happens, processes and journeys absolutely must be redesigned or else they’ll yield friction 100% of the time.

But it’s important you can see the difference. Otherwise, you might be trying to fix the wrong problem, or fretting over something that isn’t a problem at all.

For example, it takes a lot more time to fly from San Diego to New York than it does from San Diego to San Francisco. Does that mean the journey to New York is flawed and needs to be fixed or eliminated? Of course not. It’s simply a longer journey and process, but the destination is just as sought after and meaningful nonetheless.

Bottom line: I believe the key to mastering process and fixing friction is to prioritize quality over quantity.

In other words, stop trying to judge your journeys, processes, and experiences as being short or long, fast or slow. Instead, ask yourself whether they’re correct. That means they are the exact number of steps they need to be — no more, no less.

Then, channel most of your energy into improving the quality of those steps. Four steps on a straight line with clear instructions are obviously superior to four steps in a zig-zag maze with no instructions.

So, if a certain task on your website requires five clicks, that’s OK! People are usually fine with whatever number of clicks it takes, as long as each click is obvious and helpful. What will drive them crazy is if they can’t figure out what to click next because of bad content strategy, or user interface elements that are poorly designed and written.

Or, if you own a restaurant and it takes 30 minutes to perfectly cook a certain meat, then do that! Your customers will be happy to wait for quality food — but what will anger them is the friction caused by burned meat cooked too long, or undercooked meat that leads to food poisoning.

Likewise, if you’re writing an educational blog post, it doesn’t matter whether it takes 500 words or 5,000 words to explain the concept. Use the exact number of words necessary — no more, no less.

Which is why this post ends… now.