In the last decade digital has transformed from something cool and curious to simply becoming a ubiquitous part of our everyday lives. This transformation has happened so fast and so invisibly that we haven’t had time to stop and reflect on how our digital interactions link to our physical lives. Many concepts we use to describe our interactions in the digital realm – like ownership, privacy, sharing, liking, etc. – have been hastily somewhat carelessly adopted from the language we use in our physical experiences. Yet, these terms are rarely able to preserve the accuracy of meaning they hold in the physical realm. There is a loss of meaning and a level of superficiality in our digital lives.
One of the main problems in the digital space is that it lacks friction, the very promise of the early web’s “frictionless transactions” and huge increases in ease and efficiency. However, it turns out that friction gives meaning to actions. Friction means you’re willing to make an effort. It shows that you really mean what you are doing and that you really care. If you take friction out of the equation, each action becomes effortless, equal, undifferentiated and superficial.
Let’s take the concept of sharing as an example. The term sharing is applied to a wide variety of different activities with different motivations. Sharing can be about broadcasting, about promoting one’s own online identity, about transferring knowledge or connections… but none of these match the meaning and intensity of what we mean by sharing physically. Sharing in the physical world entails sacrifice. When I share a bar of chocolate with you, this means that I am giving away to you part of what I have. It requires a sacrifice. And so there is a deep social meaning embedded in the act of sharing. Whereas when we look at the concept of sharing in the digital space, it is just about clicking a button to replicate infinite resources in cyberspace that cost us nothing except social capital. There is no friction, no conflict with self-interest, no sacrifice in the conventional sense. (You could argue that there is a sacrifice involved in making yourself vulnerable through “sharing” your private information, but I’d call this self-broadcasting rather than sharing).
When digital was still new to our lives, this lack of friction was a positive value proposition. It was new and interesting and amazing to be able to do things with just one click. However, as the digital space has become saturated and we are all part of a zillion interactions everyday, we are missing that deep meaning that is embedded in physical actions. When someone shares a post with you or sends you a virtual teddy bear or likes a photograph you posted, it doesn’t mean so much. Most digital actions are so taken for granted that we don’t even pause to think before clicking a button.
At Claro Partners, in our recent investigations into people’s interactions with their personal data, we have talked to many people about their digital lives. One participant in London mentioned that he doesn’t know who all his friends on Facebook are or when he actually added them, but he does remember those that he has un-friended. I found this very interesting at the time ,and, it makes a lot of sense. Sending and accepting a friend request is what you are encouraged to do on Facebook. It is easy and frictionless; it is so typical that it is an almost unconscious act. Whereas deleting a friend is a deviant action. Have you ever seen a box pop-up when you’re viewing a friend’s page and suggest that you might want to un-friend the person? Of course not. Un-friending is an anti-social act that requires you to pause and deeply consider consequences.
This idea of friction, which might seem counter-intuitive when designing digital interactions, is a very interesting one to play with when designing meaningful user experiences. My point is not that digital interactions should be a hassle for users, but that the right amount of friction built in a service at the right time and in the right way can elevate a user-experience to something memorable and meaningful.
If we look at the landscape of services emerging today in the digital space, some are able to incorporate the element of friction in ways that enable users to engage in more personally relevant ways. One example of this is This is my jam, which allows users to share just a single song that is valid for 7 days. By putting this limit on your sharing, they make your choice much more meaningful. It is not just one of many, but one unique song that is significant to you and has heightend symbolic meaning to the receiver. Another example I like is hipstamatic, which attempts to move the digital photography experience closer to analogue by introducing micro-barriers to your interactions. For instance, you can’t see a photo instantly once you take it; you have to wait a few seconds as it “develops”. The service gives you the flexibility to change lenses, use different types of film or flashes, but you have to consciously make adjustments to get to the setting you want. Through all these micro-frictions built into the experience, hipstamatic gives the user the feeling of crafting a specific photograph that captures something special rather than just rotely pressing a button.
Despite our immersion in it, the digital space and our experiences within it are still relatively new. I think most of us are still trying to get accustomed to the fast pace of interactions. We may not consciously acknowledge this, but we are missing opportunities for deeper connection and moments of meaning. I think friction is a key element that is lacking from the digital experience that would enable this. Of course, I am writing this post as a person who was introduced to the Internet as a teenager; there was a life for me before the Internet. We know that Millenials look for serendipity and authenticity, so how might this situation evolve for digital natives… members of a generation that has only known the fast pace of the digital, and who have grown up playing with apps instead of toys?
Gunes Kocabag is an associate at Claro Partners
This post was originally posted on Disruptive Shifts – the blog of Claro Partners