How ‘positive friction’ can create better experiences

Businesses have strived to eradicate friction from customer experience, but have they gone too far?

Illustration: Sara Gelfgren

When it comes to customer experience, friction is as frowned upon as confusing web design and poorly trained staff. It annoys consumers and can cost sales. At least that’s been the prevailing view of businesses in recent years. But what if they’re wrong? What if some friction is (whisper it) a good thing?

“Businesses have the current mindset that the pinnacle of great customer experience is a frictionless transaction,” says Amir Nooriala, chief commercial officer at Callsign, which provides identity authorisation and authentication solutions. “Instead, customer experience is increasingly about creating a personalised journey that delights the customer.” 

Up to now, businesses have focused on using technology purely to minimise friction and create seamless customer journeys. “However, it’s time to change that mentality because it’s not always about eliminating the friction out of identification altogether, it’s about putting it in the right place and at the right level for each individual,” says Nooriala.

It could be argued that banks and merchants have only been trying to give customers what they want: smooth, hassle-free experiences that don’t require them to re-enter a password or retrieve an SMS code from their phone. But it’s increasingly hard for businesses to strike the right balance between eliminating fraud and managing friction, says Gus Tomlinson, general manager at GBG, an identity management and fraud prevention company. 

“Why? Because the competition is huge and consumer attention is short lived. Businesses know they need to deliver a seamless customer experience to attract and retain customers, but as the world speeds up businesses should be careful not to go too far,” she cautions.

In ecommerce, cutting five seconds from the average transaction can reduce cart abandonment and ensure the transaction is completed, says Nooriala. But if account information is compromised, the consumer will have to work with their bank to address the problem, wait for a new card to be issued and manage a whole new authentication process, which is the very opposite of a friction-free experience.

Taking a personal approach to friction

Businesses that are prioritising frictionless experiences above all else also risk alienating some customers, particularly when it comes to onboarding processes or large financial transactions. 

“A quick process or transaction isn’t necessarily one that’s trusted by the customer,” says Tomlinson. Research carried out by GBG in December found less than a sixth (15 per cent) of customers think it’s important for account opening processes to be quick and less than a quarter (23 per cent) think simplicity is important. More than half (52 per cent) believe security should be the main priority.

However, Tomlinson points out there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. The research also found younger customers, aged between 18 and 34, were less interested in the sign-up process being secure and more concerned about speed and ease of use.

Likewise, some consumers will prefer biometric login processes and others the more traditional password method. Preferences can also vary across companies, with customers welcoming less friction from well-known or regularly used companies and more from new or unknown ones. 

Some organisations adopt the concept of a “soft login” from consumers’ known devices, says James Squires, lead consultant of tech strategy at agency Wunderman Thompson Technology. This might mean, for example, that initially registering or entering login credentials would enable features such as personalised content or the ability to add items to wish lists or a shopping basket without re-entering details. Login credentials would only be needed again at the point of making a purchase.

Ocado is a good example of a company that has got this right: users can choose products and arrange deliveries, and only have to submit their credentials when placing an order. Amazon goes a step further by offering their customers the option to switch on one-click purchasing, although this is only for delivery to an address that already has a payment method paired with it, Squires points out. 

Harnessing positive friction

Even when friction does trigger some negative emotions in the consumer, these are often counterbalanced by the sense that the company is taking sufficient care with their personal information. 

“Trying to eliminate, rather than harness, negative emotions like friction can be a mistake,” says Joana de Quintanilha, principal analyst at Forrester. 

For example, when Fidelity Investments examined the journey customers take to grant others permission to trade on their accounts, they found that making this process completely frictionless was not something their customers appreciated.

“They didn’t mind the extra hurdles and time it took if it meant Fidelity was performing background checks and taking other security precautions to keep their accounts safe,” Quintanilha explains. “A little bit of friction in that particular context actually created confidence in Fidelity and the safety of their data and accounts.”

The way customers respond to friction often relates to the value of the information that could be compromised. “Customers will naturally expect and tolerate more friction for high-value targets like large monetary transfers and medical records than they would for their digital magazine subscription,” says Jenn Markey, director for identity solutions at Entrust, which enables trusted identities, payments and data protection.

Friction and security aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. Biometrics and secure tokens matched to a verified ID on file can reduce friction without compromising security. Smartphone scans of driving licences and passports for remote identity verification, as well as proof of “liveness” via short video recordings, also scratch the consumer itch for both secure and relatively fuss-free account-opening processes.

“New technologies that enable businesses to reduce friction provide better security than before,” says Nick Caley, vice president, UK, Ireland, Middle East and Africa, at ForgeRock, an identity and access management software company. “This is because traditional usernames and passwords are huge security risks.”

The World Economic Forum found four out of five data breaches are caused by weak or stolen passwords, usually because people recycle the same credentials across accounts in an effort to remember them.

Digital security education

The Investing and Saving Alliance (TISA) is spearheading development of a digital identity scheme for UK financial services that will allow consumers to set up a reusable digital identity. It aims to reduce friction for a range of different transactions, such as opening an account, that should increase conversion rates while delivering a better customer experience.

The project team has undertaken research that found consumers want both security and ease of access. “The critical issue is to explain how their personal data is going to be used and that different checks can happen in the background, such as anti-impersonation checks,” says Harry Weber-Brown, digital innovation director at TISA.

As such, the digital identity scheme is developing a consumer pledge to help users understand the safety principles and protections in place and what recourse is available should there be a breach of their data. This will be coupled with a trust mark that can only be displayed by organisations that are accredited to the scheme, which Weber-Brown says will foster trust within a low-friction customer journey.

Technology is also getting better at working out whether it’s really you trying to log in or instigate a transaction, based on a series of clues that determine an overall risk score. If necessary, additional layers of security can be triggered to verify your identity, but most users will enjoy a frictionless experience. 

“It will take a bit of education,” says Steven Rees-Pullman, senior vice president, international, at Auth0, an identity management platform for app builders and developers. “But what’s exciting is adaptive innovations represent a turning point where technology will do more of the work for us with the same, and very often better, security.”