Silicon Valley seems obsessed with making things frictionless. At the core the removal of barriers to people using their products is a sensible business development strategy. Why on earth would you want to stop people being customers?
In the “pay with your data” world of modern web services, it’s even more important to allow people to become users as quickly as possible because volume of users (and growth in volume of users) are key metrics that the investors into Valley startups track to measure progress, far more so than those old-fashioned concepts of making money. Sometimes this leads to bizarre business model contradictions: LinkedIn, for example, strives to make users be selective in the links that they form so that the network on the system is as true to real life as possible, and yet at the same time they provide the frictionless experience of “People you may know” so that connections can be made in as frictionless way as possible.
For the most part the things that these companies are making frictionless have little limit on supply. Connections on LinkedIn are essentially free for LinkedIn to deliver; new user accounts for a new social network are again, essentially free in these days of unbounded computing and storage. Frictionless works when there are no limits on supply or you actively want to build demand.
When your supply is finite, however… Well, in that instance, frictionless can exacerbate problems.
The time and attention of staff in an organisation is finite. Email made the ability to distract their attention much more frictionless than it was before in the era of memos. The economic cost of communicating with lots of people went from something to essentially nothing. There was no commensurate increase in those people’s amount of time and attention; if anything, it coincided with a reduction in their time and attention because with the rise of the office PC came the decline in secretaries, typists and filing clerks. We all had to do it ourselves at a time when a removal of friction on behalf of the sender increased demand exponentially.
The same goes for meetings. The cost of organisation of a multi-party meeting has plummeted. Tools like Outlook have removed economic friction; audio, video and web conferencing have removed the time and financial costs of travel. People’s time has remained constant, and the numbers of places to have those meetings have declined dramatically as the relentless move to open plan from closed offices has run in parallel to the friction-removing technology.
The technology is yet to catch up, really, with helping manage demand on scarce resource. And it’s no wonder that for large proportions of the people I speak to, toiling away in large bureaucratic organisations, “email” and “meetings” are the two most common reasons people give for not having enough time to get on with some actual work.
How could this be different?
Take email and all of the other tools that are now available for us to make demands on the time of others. All of these tools aim to reduce the friction between sender and recipients (and how often it’s plural, not merely singular). But what if the tools were to turn that around, to act as a filter and start to put some of the slack that secretaries and PAs provided by acting as gatekeepers for the people to whom they provided services? What if rather than delivering messages as fast as they possibly could, these platforms delayed the delivery of messages until points at which it was likely that the recipient could actually act upon them?
There’s bits of this starting to creep into tools like Google Inbox, which not only uses elements of intelligence to pre-filter messages into prioritised categories, but also flag up messages unactioned (or those where there has been no reply) for follow-up. You can’t stop it delivering everything at the point at which it is received as yet, though.
Or take meeting booking. Rather than making it easier to book meetings, how about if a meeting planner tool asked questions about what you were trying to achieve, who you needed to be involved, and then suggested alternative courses of action when it thought that a meeting might not be the most effective means to achieve your goal (or suggested techniques and structures when getting people together would be necessary)? That you couldn’t even book the time until you’d thought through what you were trying to do.
Putting barriers in the way of achieving an objective is an anathema to the mindset of software development. Speed and efficiency of goal completion is everything. But if the goals that are being stated merely use up resource with no economic impact on the consumer, and those resources are finite – well, bad and very ineffective things happen.
Maybe it’s time to start getting a bit of friction back into our businesses.