Heuristics, misers and the reduction of friction in user experience…

As consumers, we’re wired to follow the path of least resistance as much as possible.

We’re inundated with so much information and marketing messaging each day, that when it comes to low level decision making, our intellectual laziness comes out.

We attempt to reduce any dissonance that may exist quickly and efficiently.

Essentially, we’re all ‘cognitive misers’.

Daniel Kahneman succinctly explains the importance of understanding this process for branding in the excellent ‘Thinking Fast & Slow’.  Kahneman, a renowned psychologist, explains how we use judgmental shortcuts that generally get us where we need to go called ‘heuristics’, thus speeding up the process of finding a satisfactory solution. These mental shortcuts ease the cognitive load of making a decision.

Similarly, Steve Krug’s seminal book on UX is aptly titled ‘Don’t make me think’. If you haven’t picked up a copy, you should, but basically Krug relays that people are good at ‘satisficing‘, or taking the first available solution to their problem, so design should take advantage of this.

Now, having read the above, do you still think user experience is an expendable, unnecessary expense in your company?

User Anxiety

As we start to become more regular web buyers, most of will have experienced the annoyance and anxiety that goes hand in hand with poor design.

A small aspect like a button in the wrong place, or an illogical path to purchase will subconsciously knaw at us, often creating a slow burning, implicit sense that this brand is unprofessional, doesn’t care about its consumers or is just plain lazy. It confuses and annoys us at our core purchasing level.

Think of it this way, if you went into a Tesco store that you frequent tomorrow and the store layout had changed, in the process becoming more confusing and illogical, you’d be pissed right? That’s exactly what happens when we encounter poor UX.

Bad user experience creates barriers to purchase and this anxiety is one of the greatest sources of friction and loss of revenue in e-commerce today. In the main because it impacts so negatively on our in built ‘cognitive miser’ style behaviour.

Smart brands are beginning to become aware of this.


Great user experience (UX) is seamless and intuitive. It is designed to reduce the ‘mental heavy lifting’ that’s required from an end user as much as possible. Smart designers are tacitly aware of this and build websites to embrace it.

Here’s a nice summation from KISS Metrics:

To reduce friction on your website and increase sales, KISS your visitors – ‘keep it simple stupid’ for them. Make it as effortless as possible for them to purchase from you. Building signs of trust and security on your homepage and checkout flow is essential.

This anxiety is often termed user ‘friction’ and it can take many forms, including confusing or elongated web copy, poor layout and attention/cognitive overload.

Most of these scenarios can be overcome with social proof or testimonials, by writing clear, concise copy and understanding the uniqueness of buyer personas.

Time Friction

Brands are also beginning to put an emphasis on reducing time friction and, if we’re all wired to go towards the path of least resistance, then this is likely a lucrative move.

Personally, I believe we’re at the beginning of an evolution in time friction reduction facilitation. In simple terms – brands are using technology to decrease conversion time considerably, and to facilitate their consumers. 

Both Facebook and Twitter are testing ‘buy buttons’. Other than the obvious monetary benefit of this, both brands also realise that users don’t want to be pushed off their favourite social network. So allowing them to purchase direct from their timeline or news stream with 1/2 clicks is an easy way to reduce that dissonance. You don’t have to go to a special site to do your buying; the products come to you. And you don’t have to click away to another site to consummate the purchase — once your payment details are on file with Twitter or Facebook, purchases are a tap or two away. Simple.

Amazon’s ‘one click purchase’ is another great example of time friction reduction, often cited by Krug as one of the best UX additions ever made. 

Similarly, smart e-commerce brands like Paddy Power and ASOS are constantly making it easier and more convenient for consumers to spend money with them – decreasing the number of steps path to purchase, offering highly optimised mobile apps, and generally understanding the need to keep things simple and logical.

Perhaps the best example of time friction reduction that I’ve seen recently is from payments app Stripe, which stores your credit card details, enabling a fluid, simple checkout process. While in a broader sense the trend is catching in the real world too – we’re on the cusp of Apple Pay taking hold and brands like Virgin Atlantic are using iBeacon to make the mind numbing airport check-in and boarding process much easier. Their app will automatically open your boarding card on your phone when you’re walking towards the boarding gate for example.

Quite simply, friction invokes frustration for consumers. Though it seems like common sense, it looks like many brands are just on the cusp of a true mass understanding of this. Often, user experience and design is marginalised within a company, but if you look at some of the best brands in the businesses, it’s the opposite – simplicity and smart design permeates everything.

It’s time to re-think how much you value UX within your company or agency, before the friction starts to burn your bottom line.

1 thought on “Heuristics, misers and the reduction of friction in user experience…

  1. In our work with clients in Near Future the challenges are 2 fold. Firstly the education process necessary to differentiate design from UX and UI. Secondly the lack of familiar methodologies for engaging with UX specialists and fitting them into the broader project management workflow and costs. This is a multi-year programme 🙂

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