Seven years ago, a younger and more carefree Mark Zuckerberg went onstage at Facebook’s annual developer conference and announced a major change to the social network’s design.
Until then, apps connected to Facebook would regularly ask users if they wanted to publish their latest activity to their feed on the social network. Those pop-up messages — from apps like Spotify, Netflix and the Washington Post — were annoying, Zuckerberg said, so the company had created a new category of apps that could post directly to users’ feeds, without asking for permission every time.
“From here on out, it’s a frictionless experience,” Zuckerberg said.
Of all the buzzwords in tech, perhaps none has been deployed with as much philosophical conviction as “frictionless.” Over the past decade or so, eliminating “friction” — the name given to any quality that makes a product more difficult or time-consuming to use — has become an obsession of the tech industry, accepted as gospel by many of the world’s largest companies.
Airbnb, Uber and hundreds of other startups have made billions of dollars by reducing the effort needed to rent rooms, hail taxis and complete other annoying tasks. And when a company fails, excessive friction is often cited as the reason.
“If you’re making the customer do any extra amount of work, no matter what industry you call home, you’re now a target for disruption,” Aaron Levie, chief executive of Redwood City cloud storage company Box, wrote in a 2012 essay.
There is nothing wrong with making things easier, in most cases, and the history of technology is filled with examples of amazing advances brought about by reducing complexity. Not even the most hardened Luddite, I suspect, wants to go back to the days of horse-drawn carriages and hand-crank radios.
But it’s worth asking: Could some of our biggest technological challenges be solved by making things slightly less simple?
After all, the frictionless design of social media services like Facebook and Twitter, which makes it trivially easy to broadcast messages to huge audiences, has been the source of innumerable problems, including foreign influence campaigns, viral misinformation and ethnic violence abroad. YouTube’s most famous frictionless feature — the auto-playing function that starts another video as soon as the previous one has finished — has created a rabbit-hole effect that often leads viewers down a path to increasingly extreme content.
And many major security breaches, like the one that recently exposed the data of as many as 500 million Marriott guests, might have been more easily contained if these systems had been more compartmentalized and less tailored for seamless operation.
“The internet’s lack of friction made it great, but now our devotion to minimizing friction is perhaps the internet’s weakest link for security,” Justin Kosslyn, a product manager at Jigsaw, a part of Alphabet that focuses on digital security, wrote last month in an essay for the technology site Motherboard.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve spoken to more than a dozen designers, product managers and tech executives about the principles of frictionless design. Many said that while making products easier to use was usually good, there were cases where friction could be useful in preventing harm, and steering users toward healthier behavior.
Bobby Goodlatte, a former Facebook designer who is now an angel investor, told me that the tech industry’s culture of optimization “presumes that reducing friction is virtuous unto itself.”
“It leads us to ask, ‘Can we?’ — never ‘Should we?’” he said.
Several people praised the Time Well Spent movement spearheaded by Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, as a kind of pro-friction cohort within the tech industry. Among other things, the group has successfully pressured companies like Facebook and Apple to take steps to curb tech addiction by including features that encourage users to limit their screen time.
And a few lamented that in the tech industry’s race for convenience, something important had been lost.
“We wanted to juice engagement and therefore made things as frictionless as possible,” said Jenna Bilotta, a design manager who has worked at Google. “We made a whole world of the literal ‘least you could do’ apps, and it’s trashing people’s mental health.”
Often, invoking the concept of friction is a useful way to obscure some larger, less savory goal. For Facebook, “frictionless sharing” was a thinly veiled cover for the company’s true goal of getting users to post more often, and increasing the amount of data available for ad targeting. For YouTube, auto-playing videos have sharply increased view time, thereby increasing the company’s profitability. And for Amazon, tools like one-click ordering have created a stunningly efficient machine for commerce and consumption.
“Our current application of tech has been to take something hard and make it easy,” said Harper Reed, an engineer and the chief technology officer for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.
When tech companies do make their products harder to use, it’s generally to secure them from hackers, spammers or other malicious actors. (Think of the security Captchas that require users to solve math problems or pick out photos of traffic lights, or the way YouTube requires new users to verify their phone numbers before uploading videos longer than 15 minutes.)
There are signs that some tech companies are beginning to appreciate the benefits of friction. WhatsApp limited message forwarding in India this year after reports that viral threads containing misinformation had led to riots. And YouTube tightened its rules governing how channels can earn ad revenue, to make it harder for spammers and extremists to abuse the service.
More of these kinds of changes would be welcome, even if they led to a short-term hit to engagement. And there are plenty of possibilities.
What if Facebook made it harder for viral misinformation to spread by adding algorithmic “speed bumps” that would delay the spread of a controversial post above a certain threshold until fact checkers evaluated it?
Or if YouTube gave users a choice between two videos when their video finished, instead of auto-playing the next recommendation?
Or if Twitter discouraged abusive pile-ons by making it harder for people who haven’t followed an account for a set number of days to reply to that account’s tweets?
This approach might seem overly paternalistic. But the alternative — a tech infrastructure optimized to ask as little of us as possible, with few circuit breakers to limit the impact of abuse and addiction — is frightening. After all, “friction” is just another word for “effort,” and it’s what makes us capable of critical thought and self-reflection. Without it, we would be the blob people from “WALL-E,” sucking down Soylent while watching Netflix on our self-driving recliners.
“Imagine you run a social network and you’re trying to aggregate all the trending stories based on what all users are clicking,” Harris, the Time Well Spent founder, told me recently. “Would you prefer to jack the plug into each person’s reptilian brain to aggregate those stories, or would you prefer to jack the plug into their calm, reflective brain that is considering the consequences downstream?”
There may even be a business case for complexity.
Consider what happened to Tulerie, a New York startup that that helps to allow women to share designer clothing.
Tulerie’s co-founder Merri Smith told me a fascinating story from the company’s early days. In the beginning, Smith said, the company invited women to join via a brief Google survey, which it emailed to hundreds of prospective members.
“We wanted to create as little friction as possible, while still having to vet these people,” she said.
But only one person filled out the survey. So Smith and her co-founder decided to try a more complicated approach. Anyone who wanted to join had to conduct a brief video call with a company employee first.
Logically, the new strategy should have failed. But it was a huge hit. Prospective members flooded the invite list, filling up the company’s interview schedule weeks in advance. By creating a more complex signup, Tulerie signaled that its service was special and worth the effort.
“It goes back to values,” Smith said. “People perceive it as harder to get into, and they want to be a part of it.”
I don’t want to romanticize the slow, often frustrating processes of the past. There is nothing inherently good about complexity, and the tech industry could still do a lot of good by reducing the friction in systems like health care, education and financial services.
But there are both philosophical and practical reasons to ask whether certain technologies should be a little less optimized for convenience. We wouldn’t trust a doctor who made speed a priority over safety. Why would we trust an app that does?
Kevin Roose is a New York Times writer
This post originally appeared here: SFgate.com