Friction is anything that gets in the way of getting tasks done. And one of the best ways we make an experience better is by looking for opportunities to reduce friction.
For example, this is the automated attendant at a parking garage near our offices. There’s so much friction to completing the task of inserting a ticket and paying by credit card that the parking company has supplemented the interface with a note – complete with numbered bulletpoints and strategic highlighting – to explain how to operate the machine.
In this example, much of the confusion is created by the machine’s three different card slots. (Two on the right, one on the left.) Imagine how much simpler it would be if there were only one ticket and credit card entry slot? Why do you suppose there are three?
Note, too, that the handwritten instructions create additional points of friction. While the word yellow is highlighted in yellow, the word green is also highlighted in yellow. And the word white is highlighted in pink.
Points of friction aren’t always so obvious.
Every application has points of friction, though some have more than others. Oftentimes we’re not aware of the friction points until we see the users of our application in action.
One way to identify points of friction is with a usability technique called contextual inquiry, in which users are observed completing tasks in their natural setting and asked probing questions during the process.
So, in parking meter example above, the observer would actually stand by the parking meter and watch people use it, asking questions as needed along the way. During the observation, the observer should take detailed notes, which include:
- the sequence of tasks (pulls ticket out of ashtray -> inserts into box 2 -> stops to read sign -> pulls credit card out of wallet -> notices flashing light -> restarts process -> etc…);
- points of confusion, along with any user articulated expectations for how interface should work;
- failed attempts vs. the total number of attempts to complete the process in order to estimate how many attempts are required to figure out the process; and
- any other observations that would reduce confusion or increase the usability of the application.
To improve the user experience, look for opportunities to reduce friction. Every team member should make it a habit to spend at least 2 hours each month watching real people using their applications, a process known as contextual inquiry.
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March 15-16, 2012 in Houston. Featuring boots-on-the-ground data about specific UX & usability practices you can put to use right away. Learn more
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