Make friction your friend

7 principles for using friction to build delightful onboarding experiences for your users…it’s counterintuitive, we know :)

This article was co-authored by Samantha Stephens, Abid Ladhani, Mario Bozzo, Dael Stewart, and Emily Xu

The word “frictionless” has reached buzzword status along with the likes of “personalization” and “big data” (yuck). From “frictionless commerce” to “frictionless activations”, any form of resistance in the user experience seems to have been deemed ‘bad’ (and usually for good reason).

But we’re here to give you a different perspective. In our collective experience building products at Freshbooks, Q4, Ritual.co, Loblaw Digital, Shopify, and Normative, we believe friction can be a “frenemy”… even a friend. We will specifically focus on friction in the user onboarding journey, arguably the single most important user experience. Adding a little friction might slow down the onboarding process, but it may also be the difference between acquiring users and acquiring high-value brand evangelists!

PS: We made this article super visual — perfect for a skim-read. Skim away!

What is the value of a good “user onboarding experience”?

Let’s first start by outlining what a good onboarding experience achieves. Good onboarding should do the following:

  1. Hooks your target users by articulating the value of your product in a compelling way
  2. Gets users to reach their first point of value (or ‘Aha moment’) as quickly as possible
  3. Gets users to use your product at the intended level of frequency
  4. Encourages healthy user behaviour by getting your product used as intended
  5. Ensures we have the “right” customers (some products aren’t for everyone)

What is included in the onboarding journey?

If you’re about to close this page, hold on! If there’s one thing to take away from this article, it’s the diagram below. We’ve identified the key stages in a user’s onboarding experience, and identified 7 principles of constructive friction that can apply along the journey.

To be clear, these principles aren’t hard and fast rules. You will need to conduct your own experimentation to determine what level of friction is acceptable. Let’s explain each principle with some examples.

Principle 1: If your offerings are highly targeted, add some friction to get users to the right solution faster

Onboarding stage: Discovery + Consideration

For products with highly targeted solutions; i.e. location, eligibility, regulations, adding friction to your landing page can ensure users get to the right solution faster. While this might seem obvious, keeping users focused on the solution that will work for them is a key requirement in making sure they don’t fall off during the consideration phase of the onboarding journey.

KeyPay does a great job at sending potential users in the right direction through both the navigation and the CTA which directs users to the payroll solution required based on user geography. KeyPay may have a great payroll offering in Singapore, but that solution isn’t going to work for a user in Australia. A little navigation friction ensures that users land on an eligible solution within one click and don’t waste any time considering options that do not apply.

Principle 2: If a curated marketplace is your core offering, make users put a little effort into joining the club

Onboarding stage: Consideration + Sign-up

This is a lonnnggg onboarding flow for FAIRE merchants…but for good reason.

If a curated marketplace is your core offering, then ensuring you have the right users is key. A four step onboarding form might deter some users, but it’s a healthy dose of friction when you need your users to be aligned.

Pro tip: When a little more friction is necessary, keep it enjoyable for users. Let them know how long this is going to take, celebrate their progress, let them know they only have a few more steps to go and remind them of all the goodness they’ll be getting out of the time invested.

FAIRE is a great example of a marketplace that adds friction to both buyer and seller onboarding to ensure they acquire users who are equally invested in ethical, handmade and small batch goods. The value prop for buyers on FAIRE is that they can trust the curation of quality products and vendors when they are making buying decisions. For sellers, they can run their business more efficiently selling to a marketplace of serious buyers who have been vetted. On FAIRE, a little friction goes a long way to ensuring mutually beneficial working relationships.

Principle 3: If personalization is a core way for your users to realize value, add some friction to ensure you deliver what they really want

Onboarding stage: Sign-up

Getting a user through the Sign-up stage of the onboarding journey as quickly as possible is important. But users will drop-off quickly if they are forced to use something that is not highly relevant to them. This is especially the case for products with core offerings that rely on personalization.

Pro Tip: Strike a balance between adding too many additional steps, and getting the minimum amount of information required to curate a personalized experience.

Pinterest is a great example of this! If you drop users into a sea of random “pins” (i.e. images) and expect them to discover the pins they love by themselves, you’re probably asking too much. The stickiness of Pinterest comes from the endless sea of interesting pins that consistently resonate with the user based on their interests. Pinterest has built an onboarding flow that prompts for a minimum number of categorical interests (i.e. 5) that are easily searchable in the modal above.

Principle 4: If product fluency will save the user time in the future and foster retention, add some friction to ensure they’ve got the hang of it

Onboarding stage: Learn

Friction can be beneficial if it can foster adoption, create power users or save the user time in the long run. This is especially the case during the learn stage of onboarding. The classic example of this would be your standard tooltip tutorial. Teach a person to fish and you empower them to extract the maximum value from your product.

SuperHuman, the email enhancement product, offers a solid example. With a hefty monthly price tag to add to your free email service, it sounds like a hard sell. On top of that, they require a 30–45min 1:1 call to set up each new user. At a first glance this may seem like lots of unwanted friction, and the one on one attention scales poorly. However, the opposite has been true. SuperHuman has had a lot of success in driving product adoption and creating power users as a result of this friction-heavy touchpoint leading to high retention. The value to users is a customized and fully tailored experience that solves their specific problems.

For the SuperHuman team it drives deep product evangelism, massively reduces churn, resulting in long-term recurring revenue.

Principle 5: If the stakes are high for your user, add some friction to remind them of the impact

Onboarding stage: First point of value

If your product helps users perform a critical task, like marketing to thousands of customers or investing life savings safely, the stakes are high. In most cases, software helps perform these tasks fairly quickly. However, speed and seamlessness come at the expense of checking your work. Humans are imperfect…if your product feels so seamless that a user completes their job without checking twice, it may result in a critical error made by your user.

Pro Tip: It’s very easy to blame how a product is designed for user error, especially when the stakes are high. Adding a bit of friction that gets the user to think twice and check their work can be powerful.

Mailchimp does this really well. They have a sweaty monkey finger hanging over a big red button before you send your email campaign. This doesn’t only appear for your first campaign, it consistently appears. This is a clear and fun way to say “FYI this is going to your ENTIRE email list…I really hope you double checked the email dude.”

Principle 6: Use friction to discourage unhealthy user behaviour early on in the experience

Onboarding stage: First point of value

Ritual.co pushes it’s loyalty program instead of discounted offers for new users to place their first few orders

Often users can use your product in unexpected and often unhealthy ways. Unhealthy could include gaming the system on promotions, or disinformation in the case of Twitter. A good onboarding experience can set good behaviours early on in their experience, and weed out bad users.

Ritual.co gives us a great example. The mobile ordering marketplace experienced significant growth in 2018, fuelled (in part) by discount programs and referrals. The referral programs involved providing steep discounts on orders when new users first onboard, causing an influx of “deal hunters” who would only use the app one time to unlock the deal. The true value of the app includes loyalty and social ordering, something that requires ongoing usage. In response, Ritual featured its loyalty program as one of the primary benefits for new users during the onboarding flow, and also reduced monetary discounts which added a bit more friction when users placed their first order. However, this led to healthier users and better retention going forward.

Principle 7: If the goal is to get users onto your premium offering, add some friction to highlight the benefits

Onboarding stage: First point of value

Lastly, Friction can be used as an upsell opportunity to highlight the benefits of your premium product offering.

Take Spotify for example. They provide a completely different experience for free users to showcase the benefits of the paid offering. For Spotify, this works because the freemium experience still allows users the ability to listen to music, but consistently reminds users how much better it can be.

To sum it all up

Let’s be real, friction should definitely be minimized in most cases. However, friction itself is not an inherently bad thing. Onboarding your users as quickly as possible shouldn’t come at the expense of user health. Friction can be a useful tool to convert the right users into brand evangelists while setting guard rails so your product is being used as intended (and so your users get the most value). A little bit of friction may get your users to experience the kind of magical ‘Aha moment’ that gets them to fall in love with your product.

Product @ Loblaw Digital, ex-Ritual, Accenture | Professional chai taster