Frictionless product design

Great post by Steve Sinofsky on the difference between minimalist and frictionless product design.

Frictionless and minimalism are related but not necessarily the same. Often they are conflated which can lead to design debates that are difficult to resolve.
A design can be minimal but still have a great deal of friction. The Linux command line interface is a great example of minimal design with high friction. You can do everything through a single prompt, as long as you know what to type and when. The minimalism is wonderful, but the ability to get going comes with high friction. The Unix philosophy of small cooperating tools is wonderfully minimal (every tool does a small number of things and does them well), but the learning and skills required are high friction.
  • Minimalist design is about reducing the surface area of an experience.
  • Frictionless design is about reducing the energy required by an experience.

This is a critical distinction that not many understand, but it's critical to absorb in this age where minimum viable product (MVP) and minimalist design are so in vogue. What you want isn't minimalism, it's something else. I had never come up with a concise way of encapsulating this “something else,” but Sinofsky's “frictionless design” is perfect, and his playbook of low-friction design patterns is worth internalizing for any product person.

To the untrained eye, a more minimalist design always seems like superior design, but often it leads to higher friction. A door that only swings one direction might be cleaner with no handle of any sort, but the handle is an affordance that clues a user into whether they should push or pull the door.

A lot of first generation mobile apps for well-established web products and services were so far from feature parity with their web brethren that they were arguably too minimalist. While the smaller screen size and touch interaction method forced some healthy simplification, some mobile apps lacked basic functions that users associated with the product or service, and thus the apps just seemed crippled. It's often a fine line between MVP and broken.

I download lots of mobile apps nowadays that are so in love with minimalist design I can barely figure out how to use them, and even after I learn, I've forgotten by the next session (unless it's an app that warrants daily or near daily use, a lot can be forgotten in between sessions). Lots employ gestures, which are very difficult to discover. Many employ icons without text labels and might as well be showing me hieroglyphics from ancient Egypt.

On the other hand, if you always listen to your earliest users, your power users, you often end up with a product that just gets more and more bloated and complex over time. I remember hearing someone say once that users only use 20 percent of the features in Excel, but every users uses a different 20 percent.

Low end disruption theory (one of the two dominant variants of the theory) says that products and services can grow to the point where they over-serve a market. At that point, a simpler, lesser featured, lower-cost competitor comes in to steal share from underneath you.

Since so many of the world's largest apps and services today are free, the cost advantage doesn't come into play as much when it comes to low end disruption in software, but products and services can absolutely over-serve on features. Instead of a price umbrella that competitors sneak in under, it's a complexity umbrella that leaves market openings for more intuitive customer experiences.

Lower friction design matters, and today the returns are higher than they've ever been. If you can build a lower friction mousetrap, it's often enough to create a new market even if the incumbent can do everything you do and more; in fact, it's often because they do more that you create a new market. Software is so powerful it can solve almost any problem, but don't forget the cost side of the ledger. Until we shift into a new design medium that isn't based around functionality mapped to icons and menus in screen real estate 2 , added functionality all comes with a tax on user comprehension.

  1. The most promising of these alternate design paradigms in the near term is text. In the medium term: voice. In the longer term, the most promising I've seen is virtual reality. All of those can map to behaviors humans learn from a very early age and thus the learning curve is dramatically flattened. Furthermore, screen real estate is less of a limiting factor.