Emergent Friction in Product Development
This is a concept which appeared in my head when I was working on my own startup. To understand it better let’s analyze the two elements — what does it mean to be “emergent” and what is “friction”.
Friction is a physical notion. It is simply a force which appears between two surfaces. From one side it may block the movement but on the other hand it enables the movement — e.g. it allows the car to drive. Without friction the tires wouldn’t be able to move the car in a forward direction because they would spin around. In the context of a product friction is not desirable because it makes things harder for the client. However, the same as with a physical force, it might serve the company some “good”. For example when you are creating a customer journey for the user to delete a subscription some companies tend to have this process quite complicated — possibly because no one has time to focus on that. There is no positive ROI in creating a frictionless user experience for canceling subscription. However in general we obviously want to avoid friction in our products — the less friction the better the customer experience with our product.
Many times Product Managers have to make tradeoffs and have to allow for some level of friction — simply because you cannot create a perfect product. If you make less steps in the process (without apparent friction) you might have a more limited UI with less features and some of your clients will have more friction when they will want to access settings or other features. No friction is also a cost — but it is worth taking to have the best possible product.
To sum up, in your products you will always see some level of friction. How to get rid of it is not a part of this post. Let’s go back to the “emergent friction” idea. What does it mean to be “emergent”?
In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence occurs when an entity is observed to have properties its parts do not have on their own, properties or behaviors which emerge only when the parts interact in a wider whole (source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergence).
From this short description we can infer that emergent means that some properties magically appear when we look at the system as a whole instead of looking at its parts. I have one example which might be useful to understand this concept better. Let’s say that you have a team of individuals with different skills. The task is to build a spaceship. Not one person has all the skills to do it on their own. However if you gather x smart people with different skills in one space (!) they will be able to build a spaceship. Then the emergent property of this group is the skill “building a spaceship in n months”. Not one person can say “I can build a spaceship on my own within a few years”. That is the magic of emergence.
Emergent friction in Product Development
Let’s combine those two notions into one and create a new (emergent :)) feature. As I said, this idea comes from the lesson I took when I was working on my own startup. Our application had quite a complex UI. When we were making decisions on how to build some functionality we also had to make decisions how much we invest into it and what level of friction we allow. It is hard to make everything perfect when you are a team of three people. Our decision process looked more or less like that:
- What is the user requirement? How should the feature look like?
- How important is this feature?
- How complex is it to develop?
- Do we allow for some imperfections (friction)?
This process caused our features to have some level of friction. However this decision making process was missing one important last point — which is a topic of this post:
- What level of friction overall do I have in my product?
We didn’t realize, that by introducing friction for low level components, we introduced friction to the system as a whole. So there is a difference between having
- 9 features which have no friction at all and 1 feature which has a lot of friction, vs.
- 10 features where each of them has a very little friction.
Obviously the above is some spectrum and you will always be somewhere in between (as we were).
For point 2. you have the problem of emergent friction which is visible only in the system as a whole. You won’t find it when working daily on single features. You have to take a step back and take a panoramic view. However its presence is crucial to consider when making product development decisions. It is not obvious at which point in time this friction will emerge —and if it will emerge at all. It might be hidden but it may be the reason why we are sometimes not satisfied with products that we use. This is also the reason why we should strive to remove friction and make our products perfect.