Professor David Schonthal of Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business: How Understanding Friction Can Level up Ecommerce
Written by: Satta Sarmah Hightower
"We can't make people do anything. What we can do is make it easier for them to do the thing they already want to do. And frankly, that's the perfect encapsulation of friction theory. It's not trying to get somebody to do something. It's removing the obstacles standing in the way of progress they're already trying to make." — David Schonthal, Professor of Innovation & Entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School and Co-author of "The Human Element: Overcoming the Resistance That Awaits New Ideas"
A big part of every marketer’s job is to compel a consumer to do something. Usually, that “thing” is to buy their brand’s product or services. When this outcome doesn’t happen, a marketer assumes it’s because there is something inherently wrong with the very thing they want the consumer to buy.
But there may be another, more obvious answer — friction. David Schonthal, professor of Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, has co-authored a new book centered on friction theory, "The Human Element: Overcoming the Resistance That Awaits New Ideas." Schonthal and his co-author, Loran Nordgren, a fellow professor at the Kellogg School, argue that removing friction is the key way to get someone to say "yes" to a new idea or innovation.
The core mission of Schonthal and Nordgren’s book is to help "anyone that wants to introduce something new into the world."
Schonthal says the premise of the book started with a simple question:
"Why is it that people say ‘no’ to what are clearly good ideas? Why is it that consumers or organizations are resistant to really compelling new ideas? And are there psychological phenomena that explain that? And how might we take those insights and apply them to new strategies that make it easier for people to say 'yes'?" he says.
Any time you ask someone or an entire organization to change the status quo, there’s going to be friction. By identifying these points of friction and understanding them, you can address them to sell your products and services or even change internal dynamics within your organization, Schonthal says.
The 4 Types of Friction
Friction #1: Inertia
Inertia, the first type of friction, focuses on how much of a departure a new idea is from the status quo.
"We underestimate just how much people favor the familiar over the unfamiliar. Which is why despite the fact that people know they should implement a new system, they should implement a new strategy, [or] they should date somebody different than who they're dating right now, there's a comfort in the familiar — even though the familiar might be imperfect," Schonthal says.
He adds that it’s important for marketers and innovators not to underestimate what they view as a small change, because to their audience, anything unfamiliar could represent a significant shift.
The launch of the Apple computer illustrates the perfect example of overcoming inertia. Though Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were creating an entirely new kind of PC, they decided to design an interface that didn't require people to learn something entirely new.
"They designed an interface that worked the way the rest of people's world worked, which is why it's no accident that the home screen of an Apple computer is called a desktop even to this day. And you create documents on that desktop, and you store documents in folders. And when you want to put something in the trash, you take it and you drag it in the trash," Schonthal says.
The lesson here is that "the less intimidating you make the change, the more likely that you're actually going to increase the total addressable market versus just carving out a bigger slice for yourself," Schonthal adds.
Friction #2: Effort
Effort focuses on how much exertion is required to implement the change. Ambiguity is part of what creates this friction, because there’s often concern about the process involved to implement the change.
"Sometimes the ambiguity of a change can cause us so much cognitive load that that makes us like, 'Ah, I'm resistant to it'," Schonthal says.
He gave the example of a custom sofa manufacturer who couldn’t figure out why customers were abandoning their shopping carts after designing a custom sofa online. The company ultimately discovered most customers didn’t complete their purchase because they were worried about what they were going to do with their existing sofa.
So, the brand launched a new offering where it would take away each customer’s old sofa when they delivered the new one. It then donated the old sofa to charity. In this example, the brand manufacturer identified the friction and removed it for the consumer — problem solved.
"[What this example] beautifully points out is sometimes it's not increasing the desirability of your thing that's the problem, it's removing what's standing in the way of them saying 'yes'." — David Schonthal, Professor of Innovation & Entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School and Co-author of "The Human Element: Overcoming the Resistance That Awaits New Ideas"
Friction #3: Emotion
This type of friction involves the undesired or unintended feelings the change causes in someone.
Fear and anxiety often accompany change — whether it’s wondering whether a custom sofa will look the same in person as it did online or implementing digital transformation within an organization.
To combat emotional friction at the enterprise level, Schonthal says it’s crucial for organizations to break down big lofty goals into bite-sized pieces.
He gave the example of a company called Public Digital, which works with traditional organizations to advance their digital transformation. Ironically enough, Public Digital never refers to what it does as "digital transformation" when it works with clients.
Instead, the company focuses on individual strategic priorities or projects, and how they can make each one more efficient with digital approaches. This way, the change doesn’t feel quite as sweeping, making it easier for employees to embrace.
Friction #4: Reactance
Reactance is human beings’ natural aversion to being changed by others.
"Human beings value — almost above all else — their autonomy and their feelings," Schonthal says. "They're feeling like they're in control of their own experience or control of their decisions. Anytime they feel like something is being imposed upon them, or it's a hard sale, a tough negotiation, or they're being mandated to do something — no matter how useful or compelling that idea is — human beings will resist the sensation of being changed."
People love new ideas, but they are more likely to buy in when they feel they’ve contributed to the idea in some way. People don’t like being manipulated or sold to, so the best way for companies to overcome this type of friction is to give consumers some measure of autonomy in the decision-making process and engage them with questions or information to help them come to a buying decision on their own.
Less Friction Equals More Action
Whether it’s inertia, effort, emotion, or reactance, no company can overcome friction unless they identify and understand the unique barriers that prevent consumers from moving further down the funnel. Schonthal says it’s ultimately not about persuading someone to take a specific action — it’s about making it simple for them to do what they already were inclined to do in the first place.
"We can't make people do anything. What we can do is make it easier for them to do the thing they already want to do," he says. "And frankly, that's the perfect encapsulation of friction theory. It's not trying to get somebody to do something. It's removing the obstacles standing in the way of progress they're already trying to make."
For more details on the best strategies and processes for identifying and overcoming friction, check out the rest of this episode of "Unpacking the Digital Shelf."