By Andy Valencia
Friction is certainly present in our day-to-day life. Your skateboard slows down on a level surface because of it, and some of the energy your car uses is to avoid slowing down. A different kind of friction is used to guide your behavior as a consumer; in this article, I’ll cover technology products. Once you’re aware of the techniques, you’ll see them everywhere.
Consider search engines. You can tell your browser to go to google.com, then type in the words of your search. Just as easily, you could have gone to duck.com to do the search. They’re both likely to find you some useful results.
The fact that you can choose either search engine at a whim means there is little friction in the marketing sense. Consumer whim could leave Google search a ghost town in the space of a few days. You don’t think about which search engine to use, but Google certainly thinks about its users – they pay Apple around $15 billion dollars per year to be the default search engine on Apple products, and another $450 million to Mozilla to also be the default on Firefox. There’s virtually no friction in search engine choice, so they spend large amounts of money trying to be the default, hoping you never think about.
Compare search engines to email services. Imagine you use Gmail – all of your friends, family, and services have been told about your address. Suppose that some particular day you get tired of them ditching important messages in the spam folder. Or you get creeped out because somebody sent you an article about Hawaii, and they start advertising Hawaii trips to your spouse. For whatever reason, you decide it’s time to switch.
If you want a privacy-respecting email provider, we suggest you look at tutanota.com. We have no business relationship with them, except as customers.
It’s easy enough to open a new email account somewhere. How many people and businesses do you need to contact? How many online accounts have to be accessed, just to update the email part of your profile? How many will you forget, and what sort of late fees or other trouble will it cause? Most people find it overwhelming, and decide to stay where they are after all.
Changing email providers is a high friction technology choice. A provider who becomes abysmal may see a declining user base over time, but each lost user represents somebody who had to put in a lot of tedious effort. With high friction technologies, the business pretty much has to drive users away. Most Gmail users I know say they liked the service much better five years ago. Google doesn’t care; they don’t need to. Friction.
With this sort of friction in mind, you should look at each technology-based service you use. If you use TurboTax, you might think it was difficult to switch away. However, that .tax file they let you download can be imported by a number of other online tax services. This is a case where your intuition is that the friction is high; it’s actually quite low.
As a possible alternative to TurboTax, take a look at FreeTaxUSA.com. The name sounds like a scam, but a number of my family have been using it for years. I mention them solely as a satisfied customer.
With high friction services – in Google’s case, an entire family of services – it can be very painful to switch away. You make the choice, you get the pain. A corollary of this is that the service can kick you off. Without making a choice, you still get all the pain. There are many stories of people who wake up one day with no access to their digital world – the quintessential article is “Dumped! by Google.”
Why might you get kicked off? The reasons are as varied as the services and companies. A tech company might have a new China project, and your opinions on Tibet are suddenly unacceptably hateful. Or an attorney general is making headlines with a tough-on-crime campaign, and your public views on the police or marijuana put you in the crosshairs. There are cases where the cancelled user never finds out why.
At least for Google, takeout.google.com can supply you with a snapshot of all your user data. It’s not in a user-friendly form, but it’s much better than having nothing at all.
Understanding friction is understanding how services look at you, and how you can control your digital life. The higher the friction, the more likely the service doesn’t care about what you like or don’t like. But it might finally become too much, and you make the switch – or they might just kick you off. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Manage your options before you need them.