In 2011, Bethesda Softworks released The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the latest installment in their series of open-world, fantasy role-playing games that made the studio famous. During one of my countless escapades in the land of Skyrim, I stumbled upon a glitch that allowed me to almost instantly max-level my character. In a flash, I had every skill imaginable, an arsenal of legendary weapons and the ability to vanquish even the most terrifying dragons with ease. It was exhilarating...for about five minutes. I quickly realized that this newfound power made the game insipid, and I abandoned my omnipotent character for a more humble one. The challenge, it turned out, was the very thing that made the game engaging.
Enter friction, the unsung hero of game design. By introducing obstacles and resistance into an experience, designers can slow users down, transforming mundane tasks into meaningful ones. Friction manifests in various forms and serves diverse purposes. While a necessary part of game design, friction is a powerful tool used by designers for many reasons.
Computers are faster than us. This speed is a massive benefit digital experiences can offer over traditional analogue, or even human experiences. Roughly half of users will abandon a site that takes more than six seconds to load. However, in some cases, this lightning-fast efficiency can be unsettling, as it may appear that tasks are left undone. Wells Fargo had this problem with their eye-scanning security system. It was so fast that there was no need for a loading screen or any indicator that it was even happening. This made users feel like they may not have a security system at all. Wells Fargo addressed this issue by adding a faux loading screen to their eye-scanning security system, reassuring users of its functionality.
As much as we hate to admit it, we make mistakes. Humans are prone to blunders. To compensate for our imperfections, designers incorporate failsafes into our interfaces, devices, and experiences. File management systems prompt us with warnings before we inadvertently delete crucial documents. This isn’t the fastest workflow or the easiest way to manage our files, but what this little bit of friction offers is safety. Similarly, product designers may request products be reengineered to reduce user error. In Israel, ATM task flows were rearranged to prompt users to remove their cards before they dispensed the cash. Designers knew customers wouldn’t leave without the money, so a small barrier to receiving the cash wouldn’t be disruptive to the experience or the user goals. This simple change saved companies millions in costs associated with lost debit cards.
As we’ve noted above, some computer processes are so fast we have trouble interacting with them. Sometimes they’re so fast, we just straight up don’t trust them. CoinStar machines, the trusty change-counting companions found at grocery stores, can actually tally coins near-instantaneously. However, customers found this hard to believe, so designers added a progress bar and the comforting clink of coins to simulate a more gradual counting process. Similarly, Intuit's TurboTax included a progress bar that, while purely ornamental, gave its human users a more familiar sense of task completion. TurboTax was able to verify information in real-time, but by adding a progress bar and assuring users the program was double and triple-checking their returns, comforting users that the information was correct and they could trust TurboTax with their money and sensitive information.
Oftentimes, design is about matching user expectations. We don’t always fully understand how computers think differently than we do. Adding a fake loading bar or double-checking with the user before executing a task makes human-computer interaction feel more familiar and comfortable. The rapid acceleration into AI technology is only going to widen the gap between how our digital products work and our understanding of them. So, whether it's venturing through the treacherous lands of Skyrim or navigating the intricacies of everyday digital experiences, let's embrace friction and savor the journey, one obstacle at a time.
Ed Morrissey, Partner and Chief Creative Officer of Integrity, will lead a breakout session at the upcoming ScalePoint on AI Conference hosted by TechSTL.
Integrity is excited to welcome Evan Kelly as our newest Technical SEO Consultant.