Something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, since we have been looking at learning systems, is the idea of friction. My definition of friction is anything that either lowers our expectations of the results we can get from a particular tool or process to the point that we either change our expectations of the results or abandon them altogether.

Examples of friction include: bad usability, frustration, unexpected results, bad user experience, steep learning curves, cognitive overload, lack of critical mass of the right participants, hardware problems (slowness, breakdowns, etc.) – in short just about any sort of obstacle. It is anything that gets in our way enough to make us change what we hope to get out of the process we are engaged in, even if only slightly. Friction plays a part in how we choose to use devices, apps, and services and even what route we choose on the way home.

Friction is what causes us to unconsciously lower our expectations of something because using it simply takes too long, is just a little too frustrating, results in poor output or is physically difficult to use, past the point where it is worth it to get the ideal result.

For example, what kinds of things do you choose to do on a your laptop rather than on your tablet? What do you do on a tablet that you would not do on a smartphone? What do you do with a yellow pad or post-it notes that you couldn’t do on any device? And what are you simply not able to do, period?

When I got my original first-generation iPhone, although the web browser was a huge leap from the Blackberry I had been using, it was simply too slow to use for looking things up quickly. As a result I barely used the browser. The next generation iPhone was just fast enough to make the difference between it being worth it to use and not. Now I use it constantly, but I’m sure there are things I still don’t do because it is a little slower than it could be. The original phone wasn’t useless, but I couldn’t use it for the same things. A relatively small speed gain removed the main obstacle.

Similarly people prefer to use a pen and yellow pad to do their thinking, or prefer to use post-it notes or index cards to organize information. The disconnect between what their hands and fingers can do on paper, compared with a keyboard or even with a touch interface, and the rapidity with which they can make changes makes the difference.

The problem of performance support in healthcare jobs is another example: if looking something up requires any interruption in the task at hand, or stopping to log in to a computer or smartphone, it may be enough of an obstacle to make do with simply asking someone or winging it. I’ve seen systems that require repeated logins where that alone is an insurmountable barrier to the use of the system.

Each device or process has its advantages, but each also has disadvantages that subtly change the kind of communication and the kind of work you can do on them.

When we use certain tools, we make allowances for their failings and decide that we don’t need the optimal result – only what we can get. So the output and what we do changes.

We don’t really need to get to the best destination badly enough, don’t need to communicate fully, don’t really need to to find a better solution, at least not enough to get past the friction of whatever process that is available to us. I’m not saying we are being lazy when we give up some expectations: we must constantly make choices about what is worth doing, using our own internal personal calculus.  A change in workflow, a change in UI, a change in the intelligence or speed of the device could make a huge change in what we can expect and what we are willing to do.

Friction is also involved with modifying the choices we make with big purchases and investments, because it is difficult and very expensive to figure out what you are really buying. And apparently is almost impossible to answer questions like these accurately:

“What’s the true value of those mortgage-backed securities – how risky are they, really?” “What’s the real value of a corporation like Autonomy?”

Right now, it is so difficult to get accurate data about these types of purchases in a useful form that even huge corporations can’t do it. We are in a situation where the evaluation piece of the system cannot keep up with the marketing end. Imagine if you could reliably determine the value of complex packages with some sort of supercharged Google. How would that change things?

I was also thinking of friction the other day after talking to a friend who is making a big change in her teaching career. She has taught a very complicated, artistic skill set for many years. It requires a lot of detailed manual grading and at this point, she’s just plain tired of it.

Perhaps, she could have used an online quizzing application that would grade automatically, but she would have had to substantially change the content and course objectives to fit the existing technology. Perhaps if she had an instructional designer to help, she could have overcome this by building a custom application that would get at the important concepts and give meaningful feedback in all cases. But all this is way too much friction.

A younger instructor might just pragmatically change the course content or change the evaluation process to suit the existing technology, and in fact I’m sure this has already happened somewhere. But what if you could magically teach a system to grade very complex skills like a human?

Friction is one reason why people communicate different types of ideas with different tools, and why the style, format and length of communication, which I think mirrors our quality of thought, have changed over time. When looking at process or tool improvement, we should always keep asking the question: “what’s standing in the way of what people REALLY want to do?” But maybe we should also phrase the question, “how is the inherent friction of using the current tool changing how we think and what we are able to communicate?” and is it for the better or worse?