Friction an elegy

Much of the modern world feels like a crusade against friction. It’s an evil to be removed and replaced with the smooth and seamless. On websites, in shops, and transport systems designers aim to reduce friction.

Take retail: “One Click”shopping eradicates the basket. Dash buttons take frictionless shopping another step further. Voice takes the friction of touch out altogether. Picture modern mobility: at the end of an Uber journey you leave the car without so much as a “thank you”. The painful fumble for the tip is gone. The app takes the friction out of taxis.

The commercial case to eradicate anything that might hinder our path to purchase, is obvious. Less friction means less drag. Less drag means more speed. More speed means less chance to change your mind.

The degree of friction in a transaction indexes its simplicity and efficiency.

But what might be at stake in our attempt to take friction out of interactions? What virtues does friction have? What value does friction provide?

Friction and the Urban swirl

The idea of friction has come to mind over the last few months. I’ve been exploring mobility in London, São Paulo and Ahmedabad. I’ve been thinking about the lofty rhetoric of videos extolling the merits of smart cities. I’ve been comparing the scenarios of future mobility from top tier consultancies, with the reality of life in these great cities. They are far from seamless.

From these consultancies we get a future in which personas like Ben don’t make journeys. They take “smooth rides” in environments where “digital infrastructures…offer ubiquitous, high-speed connectivity offering a smooth online experience”. Ben arrives at a grocery stores to find his pre-ordered shopping in a locker ready for pick-up. The final stage of his frictionless journey sees him in an autonomous pod. When ride-sharing Ben doesn’t chat with others. Instead, “he catches up on his favourite teams’ win on the car’s screen”.

Ben breezes through sensor-filled cityscapes without so much as pausing to interact with anything as troublesome as a physical artefact. For Ben, another human being is an obstacle. Friction.

We can say Ben’s journey is efficient. It’s a frictionless glide over the density and difference that makes up the urban swirl. Like Florentino and her husband in Love in the Time of Cholera, Ben “floats above the pitfalls of reality”. Delight and distraction are divorced from this vision of the city.

What is at stake when the pursuit of efficiency through the eradication of friction is at the heart of design, urban or otherwise?

Friction as the dynamo of cities

In thinking about these questions two writers come to mind. Both suggest that friction – impedance, interruption and interaction – are central to cities.

In The Life and Death of Great American Cities Jane Jacobs wrote about the distractions and the diversions that given urban environments their character. The vignettes of life in Greenwich Village in couldn’t be further from the bland visions of Top Tier Technocrats.

In Cultural Complexity, anthropologist Ulf Hannerz explores what made Vienna, San Francisco and Calcutta dynamos of culture and hubs of artistic and literary creativity at different periods over the last 150 years.

His answer was not seamless interactions, frictionless transactions and smoothness. Mahler, Freud, Klimt hung out and shared essays and ideas in tea shops because housing in the city was crowded, cold, uncomfortable. The density of Calcutta and San Francisco, and their ‘entanglement with wider systems’, drove serendipity: chance and fruitful encounters. Kerouac and the Beat Generation was not the result of frictionless living.

Faced with designing product or service interactions it’s easy to think that making things easy is the way to go. But we should also think about what friction adds to an interaction. There are risks involved in taking friction out. Friction is not always inefficiency – in fact it’s quite the opposite. Friction is the opportunity to interact, to relate to others, to make meaning and create value.

We dispense with friction at our peril.