Finding Connection in a Frictionless World


by Ivan Bojanic, Senior Integration Architect, Gongos, Inc. & Nancy Walter, Integration Architect, Gongos, Inc.

Every transaction is a journey. And every journey has bumps along the road, such as unwanted delays, getting lost and backtracking. In a consumer context, reducing those bumps to make consumers’ journeys smooth, quick and enjoyable is the idea behind “frictionless” transactions.

With shopping, eliminating friction has become a holy grail of sorts. Retailers are in a race to integrate technology, consumer data and tailored approaches to make shoppers’ experiences as seamless as possible: reducing time, unnecessary steps and unwanted hassles in their journey from first contact, to payment, to fulfillment.

But, as we approach a frictionless future, have we paused to ask ourselves what that really means? Not only for consumers, but for retailers and brands as well. And, does it go deeper than shopping?

Shopping Experiences Today

It’s 10 p.m. and our to-do list is a mile long. We could wait until tomorrow and lose half of our day driving from store to store to pick up all the things we need: groceries, home and pet supplies, a book club novel, hardware, a birthday present for a friend. Or, we could do what 5 out of 6 Americans have done in the past six months – go online and in a few swipes and keystrokes, order everything we need. Praise be to Amazon!

Whether at 10 p.m. or middle of the day, one item or ten, digital and mobile transactions are on the rise—by 2021, e-commerce is expected to be the world’s largest retail channel. Call it frictionless or giving time back, blame it on urbanization or increased stress, convenience is one of the ruling themes driving trends today as people get busier and technology makes it easier. While price is the number one driver, about half of adults use Amazon because it’s easy, and a one-stop shop where they can buy different things they need. And it’s no wonder because 73% of consumers think the checkout process in stores is painful.

The idea of a frictionless journey goes beyond the convenience of online ordering and stored payment information; we’re increasingly attuned to—and expecting—a seamless experience in our real-world interactions that’s not only hassle-free, but also personalized and offers a wow factor.

Amazon Go stores famously function without humans and use sensors and an app to gather items shoppers purchase, charge it to a pre-approved card and catalogue the purchases within the app. Filld delivers gas directly to fleets of cars for a small fee at the going price of gas. OPI nail polish’s ultra-personalized website uses search behavior, social media insight and Amazon integration to figure out what shoppers like, and serve it up curated for their needs.

What’s the Catch?

Sounds ideal, doesn’t it—what’s not to like about personalized ultra-convenience?

There’s no doubt, for smart brands, there’s no “if” about creating a frictionless journey for consumers. Those who don’t will be left far behind by brands that are introducing innovations like the ones just described. But the difference between being merely competitive and truly successful in a frictionless world could depend on keeping some perspective.

Look back to the dawn of the space age, for instance. In the 1950s and 1960s, we were told that technology would revolutionize our lives. And, in fact, it did in many ways. It democratized a number of innovations that had previously been too bulky or expensive for widespread use such as dishwashers, automated washing machines, and air conditioners.

But a lot of other tech-based conveniences imagined back then never gained traction. Disney’s House of the Future (1957), for instance, breathlessly promised a future in which everything in our homes would be made out of sturdy, sexy, stain-resistant plastic: “Dishes, cups, countertops, walls, floors, ceiling, tabletop, shelves and cabinets. Plastics in all their colorful, functional and beautiful versatility…” It sounds like we dodged a nightmare with that one.

The clear goal for brands going frictionless is to become the dishwasher of today…not the all-plastic household of yesterday.

Providing Convenience—and Addressing Human Needs

It’s an obvious point to note that technology alone isn’t a solution for everything; it must address or complement a real human need. There’s no doubt, as consumers, we crave and love convenience—and frictionless transactions offer that in spades. Then again, so would an all-plastic household.

However, when we talk about customer centricity, we’re also talking about fulfilling human emotions. And that’s where smart brands will focus their frictionless experience.

What helps us feel the most fulfilled is human contact and the journey of discovery; we’re hard-wired as humans to respond to stimuli. Psychologists have established that even brief interactions with total strangers—even just making eye contact—lifts our mood and gives us a feeling of belonging. We’re curious, and find greater pleasure in the process of discovery than being spoon-fed information. Today, frictionless eliminates much of that human contact and discovery and, at the same time, turbocharges convenience.

We can already see some signs of the limits of frictionless retail; consider that 3 out of 4 Gen Z consumers think physical stores provide a more enjoyable experience than shopping online. Will it be really cool to go Trader Joe’s in ten years because it’s a novelty to interact with other people?

Finding Positive Friction

Remember that a frictionless customer experience doesn’t have to be an either/or; it’s possible to give consumers the choice of contact. A checkout-free store like Amazon Go is perfect for shoppers who need to fly in and out in a hurry. But, imagine a pop-up counter there, staffed by a (human) employee, who offers drinks or rotating product samples. We’ve just given shoppers the ability to not lose time by standing in line to check out—and rather use that time instead to have a fun interaction and try something new. It’s positive friction in an otherwise frictionless environment.

It seems to boil down to this idea: as we inevitably move to a more frictionless world—one that people genuinely do want—the companies and brands that really break through will find ways to insert meaningful human contact and discovery into a frictionless customer journey. They’ll do it in just the right ways, and at just the right times, to stand out from the automated crowd. They’ll reimagine ways for us to have human experiences in ways that we’re probably not even thinking of now. And, they’ll succeed, because that’s what fits our human pattern.

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