Digital Intent

How to Minimize Product Friction

What friction is, how to find it, and common mistakes to look out for.

By Sean Johnson

Entrepreneurs regularly overlook the role friction plays when getting users to change behavior. An idea can often make sense in the abstract, but when looked at through the lens of friction can quickly become untenable.

Friction is anything in your product that represents a barrier to adoption or growth. It can be micro, like a piece of interface copy that doesn’t make sense or a page where the CTA isn’t obvious. It can also be macro, like a marketplace business that lacks a clear plan for overcoming the chicken-and-egg problem.

At every step of the product and business development process, DI tries to identify friction and address it. We’ve learned that it takes way less friction than most entrepreneurs think before people bail.

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A framework for identifying friction

DI is not above using other people’s frameworks – we try to leverage the thinking of smart people whenever we can. And one of the best frameworks we’ve leveraged for thinking about friction is the Fogg Behavior Model.

BJ Fogg runs the Stanford Persuasion Lab and studies how to influence human behavior using technology. His simplified Fogg Behavior Model is one we reference often when talking with clients about how to compel users to change behavior.

On one axis you have a user’s motivation – how motivated are they to change their behavior? On the other, you have their ability – how easy or difficult is it to change their behavior? Finally you have a trigger – given sufficient motiviation and sufficient ability, all you have to do is place the appropriate trigger at the appropriate time, and the user will likely take action.

Sounds simple, but it’s actually pretty profound. Teams constantly over-estimate how much motivation their users have to adopt a new behavior, and usually simtaneously under-estimate how difficult it is for them to take action using the solution the team has created.

Identifying Motivation Friction

One form of friction comes from the user. Something about your offering is not sufficiently compelling to them – perhaps they don’t believe you can pull it off, or perhaps pulling it off, even if it works, wouldn’t represent a big enough gain in their life to warrant investing the time.

There are two disciplines involved in reducing motivation friction. The first is leveraging a customer develpment framework (we like to use the Jobs To Be Done framework) to better understand user needs. Often the team has failed to get out of the building and talk to customers to truly determine if the product solves a meaningful need. If they do get out, they try too hard to sell the idea rather than getting honest feedback. Very often teams will solve problems that customers don’t actually care about (or care about enough to pay for).

The other discipline is branding. Taking what you learn and encapsulating it in a brand promise, backed up by appropriate imagery and compelling copy, can take an underlying user need and create the necessary desire to actually take action to fulfill the need. Knowing how to take that brand promise and communicate it in a persuasive way to increase desire and drive action is essential.

Identifying Ability Friction

On the other side, ability friction is primarily about product functionality (what it does) and usability (how it does it).

If a user is motivated to take action but your product doesn’t provide the utility to facilitate that action, you’re in trouble. If you’ve done the requisite customer development, the risk of this is admittedly low.

Far more common is a poorly implemented solution. People are busy, and their exposure to your solution rarely is in a vacuum of uninterrupted attention. They’re looking at your product in one browser tab while 20 others stay open. They keep getting interrupted by colleagues at work and kids at home, and their phone buzzes with notifications every 10 minutes.

If your product isn’t painless to use and gets users to the “aha moment” when they internalize its benefits almost immediately, you’re going to have difficulty.

Usability testing can be a great tool in addressing issues with ability friction. If you have a huge bottleneck in a funnel your analytics can tell you the bottleneck exists but can’t tell you why. Bringing 5 people in and watching them use your site can uncover dozens of opportunities for reducing friction – opportunities your team is too close to see otherwise.

Heuristic analysis can help as well. Heuristics give you a series of “lenses” to look at your funnel through. We’re a fan of WiderFunnel’s LIFT model, which analyzes pages or flows through the following lenses:

  • Value Proposition – What is the promise you’re making?
  • Clarity – Is the value proposition being communicated clearly?
  • Relevance – Does the value proposition speak to the needs of the user?
  • Urgency – Are you leveraging internal urgency and/or creating external urgency to incite action?
  • Anxiety – Is there anything on the site that is giving users pause or forcing them to reconsider taking action?
  • Distraction – Are you inadvertently leading users away from the primary actions you’d like them to take?

Going through each page and looking at it through each lens can uncover many opportunities for improvement. Coupled with user tests, you can usually find plenty of ways to increase your user’s ability.

Common Friction Pitfalls

Over the years, some common pitfalls have emerged on a regular basis. These antipatterns are prevalent on the web, but usually represent friction for the user and barriers to adoption. If your product or service is using any of these patterns, strongly consider removing them.

Hard sell, with no plan B

Many sites don’t invest enough energy in considering the buyer lifecycle. They assume a user will have sufficient motivation to take action based on very little information (a single landing page, for example), and offer no secondary call to action.

Particularly for SaaS businesses or ones with high price points, creating content that more accurately maps to the buyer journey is wise. That usually means creating informational content to drive awareness, having secondary CTAs (white papers, etc.) to capture leads, and nurturing them through the consideration and buying process.

Most of your visitors won’t be sufficiently motivated to sign up yet. Make sure you have a mechanism for nurturing them.

Ghost towns

For marketplace businesses, the chicken and egg problem is very real. If you don’t have sufficient supply on both sides of the business (employers and candidates for a job site, both sides of a dating site, etc.) it can be extremely difficult to succeed. New users come in, see there are no jobs or apartments or whatever, and leave.

The answer in the very beginning is usually to “cheat” – to seed one side of the market with enough content to attract and retain the other side. There are a variety of ways to do this:

  • Paypal bought products on eBay, and asked to pay via Paypal
  • Grubhub loaded menus and sent orders for free to restaurants for months before converting them to paid customers.
  • Reddit seeded the site with their own content, making sure there was always a steady stream of new interesting content on the site.
  • Rentoid put products on the site for rent, and when someone rented one went to the store, bought it and shipped it themselves.

Homepage carousels.

Carousels are rotating panels on the top of a page, designed to surface multiple products or value propositions. They are usually a compromise between internal teams who all want to tell their story.

People rarely click on the second or third panels, and often ignore the first panel as well (if it looks too much like an advertisement.) Given that scrolling is not the evil it used to be, consider using your prime real estate to hammer your primary value proposition, discussing your secondary points further down the page.

Email confirmation.

When a user has agreed to sign up and take action, the last thing you want to do is force them to leave your site. If your product doesn’t capture sensitive data, consider removing email confirm entirely. Even if it does, you can usually send them the confirm email but still let users begin their onboarding process.

Blank slates.

When a user completes a registration process, never dump them into a blank screen and make them figure out how to use the product. Provide a demo of some kind, ideally an interactive one that assists in the creation of new content and increases the likelihood they get to that aha moment during first use.

Geni used to ask you for your father and mother’s name and get you immediately into building your family tree. Basecamp has a sample project to show you the features of the product that you can archive as soon as you understand the product. Quora has you select a couple topics to build an initial dashboard, and shows you the most interesting content from each (rather than the most recent, which would be a crapshoot.)

Perhaps my favorite example of nailing the onboarding experience is Pandora. Ask a user for an artist, play a song, explain how it’s related to the artist, done. I get what Pandora is in less than 5 minutes.

At DI we spend considerable time and effort iterating on onboarding and first time UX, and it’s money well spent. Whatever you do, avoid the blank slate at all costs.

Start attacking friction

Identifying and removing friction in a systematic way can dramatically improve your product and the underlying metrics you’re trying to move. If you see bottlenecks in conversion, activation, retention or referral, start by asking yourself whether you’ve sufficiently accounted for friction.

Any other patterns you’ve seen that lead to increased friction? I’d love to hear about them – send me a tweet at @intentionally.

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