In defence of friction

To build successful online businesses we need to identify long-standing human desires and use technology to simplify their fulfillment. While technology excels at reducing friction in services like transportation, finance, and shopping, excessive ease can lead to unintended consequences. Regulators face the challenge of balancing technological innovation with necessary legal friction to prevent harm.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

According to Ev Williams, the hugely successful founder of genre-defining online products such as Blogger, Twitter and Medium, the way to build multi-billion dollar online businesses is to “take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time… identify that desire and use modern technology to take out steps."

He is describing the organizational purpose behind most modern businesses that typically start out by identifying friction in our daily interactions and then find ways to design around it. In many ways, their business model is based on making products so easy to use that they attract customers away from their competitors with simpler ways to achieve similar results.

Technology is particularly well-suited to eliminating friction. The digital medium allows for intermediation in ways that were impossible without modern innovations. Ride-hailing businesses have taken the friction out of urban transport, allowing drivers to get a fare without the hassle of having to wait at a taxi rank and offering passengers the facility of being picked up at their doorstep, wherever that is. Online and app-based financial services businesses have taken the friction out of money transfers, letting us wire money to our friends and service providers from our mobile phones with minimal effort—without the need to wait for money to clear or to memorize complex routing codes and wiring instructions. Delivery services and e-commerce companies have taken the friction out of shopping, allowing us to choose what we want without getting out of our armchairs, and getting it delivered to our doorstep without the hassle of trying to find the precise store that has exactly what we want.

This has resulted in a spurt in the use of app-based services and an increased dependence on mobile technologies across almost every aspect of our lives. Even among these online services, there is cut-throat competition to find new ways in which customers can get to use their services with fewer clicks. As a result, they have turned to prediction, building algorithms that can suggest what we should do next based on their analysis of our past behaviour and interact with us in newer, more intuitive ways using technologies like voice recognition and augmented reality.

But there are benefits to friction that we sometimes overlook. The time that we take to overcome friction while processing a transaction gives us an opportunity to reconsider our actions, allowing us the chance to avoid acting hastily. It lets us think through our actions before making them permanent, allowing us to avoid the harm that comes from haste. There is no better example of this than autocorrect, that pernicious innovation of the mobile era that was aimed at simplifying one-handed typing—but which, in the process, causes us no end of embarrassment when we send text messages without first checking what the algorithm had suggested for us.

There are many other examples of the harms caused by frictionless interaction—from emails that we struggle to recall after having accidentally pressed send to the consequences of inadvertently swiping right on Tinder.

Such are the real-world consequences of living in a frictionless online world that has offline consequences that are hard to rescind.

One of the greatest sources of friction in our daily lives is the law. In highly regulated sectors, such as financial services, the friction that law applies is designed to ensure the stability and security of the entire industry and to protect consumers from harmful consequences that could result from hasty action.

But as these industries begin to embrace technologies, regulators are coming under pressure to adapt their regulations to the demands of frictionless technologies, while ensuring at the same time that they don’t smoothen them out so much that customers accidentally cause themselves harm. In the recent past, we’ve seen how badly things can go wrong when friction is taken out of the financial system, with Aadhaar numbers being linked to payment bank accounts without customers’ knowledge.

In less regulated sectors, the challenges are slightly different. Most of these industries are subject to laws that were designed for offline regulation. As a result, the technology companies looking to disrupt these sectors find themselves subject to friction imposed by laws that might have been reasonable when applied to traditional businesses, but which seem meaningless in the online world.

Regulators in these sectors are coming under pressure to appropriately amend their regulations so that their laws stop applying needless friction to these technology-enabled evolutions of traditional models. But in doing so, they need to ensure that just enough friction is retained so that no harm ensues.

In arriving at this balance, regulators should consider using regulatory sandboxes—an idea I discussed in detail in an earlier column. By creating appropriately firewalled environments within which regulations can be relaxed under controlled circumstances, regulators can evaluate whether removing friction will actually achieve the desired results or whether, as a consequence, it will cause harm to consumers.

As much as technology companies might protest, they would do well to remember that a little friction is a good thing. Like salt as seasoning, when used in just the right amounts, it makes for better outcomes.