User friction can sink your app. Here’s what it is and how to avoid it.
It only takes a small amount of user friction to cause an app to hemorrhage users. And even apps that manage to remain sticky despite user friction will see their users struggle to find the intended value in all its features.
Simply put: User friction can single-handedly sink an app’s usefulness.
As a product manager or developer, you want to squash user friction from your app. But first, you not only need a strong grasp of what user friction looks like, but you also need to be equipped with product analytics that can systematically identify its sources in your app so you can stamp it out.
What is user friction?
“User friction” is an industry term that refers to various kinds of pain points that arise when a user engages with a web app, mobile app, or some other kind of digital product. This can manifest as subtle frustration, confusion, agitation, or any other kind of negative reaction to interacting with (or simply encountering) the product.
Bad user experience (UX) design is a big source of user friction, but it’s not the whole story. Sure, if your user interface disregards UX best practices and is actively difficult to use, you’ll have so much user friction that you will abdicate the privilege of having users.
But for most products, the issue of understanding and addressing user friction is more subtle. Imagine an app with exquisite design but just takes a few too many milliseconds to load. That’s user friction. Imagine a productivity app with a visual brand that’s more triggering of a fast food chain, therefore emotionally confounding to users. That’s user friction. Imagine a high-value feature that has one too many steps to be fully useful in practice. That’s user friction.
Partial functionality actively utilized is better than full functionality rarely utilized.
Indeed, user friction comes in many forms—some obvious, some not so obvious. The point is that all forms of user friction impact your product’s success to varying degrees: everything from drops in engagement to full-on churning of users. This is why, especially in today’s competitive app market, user friction must be a top priority if you want your product to succeed.
Examples of user friction
The best way to build your intuition around user friction is by example. I find that something like the hierarchy of user friction, which helpfully breaks user friction into three hierarchical categories, only takes you so far in understanding what user friction looks like. Putting the following, more concrete examples on your radar is a great next step.
Too many steps
- Even one step too many can render the most valuable features useless in practice. Imagine an urgent need to take a note. Even a minute’s amount of extra thinking is going to lead you to grab the nearest pen and paper.
Lack of immediate reward
- While some use-cases aren’t intended to be enjoyable (e.g., anything involving hard work), the absence of reward can tank usage. A task app that gives no sense of what you accomplished can leave users demoralized.
Unattractive or dated UI
- Don’t be the victim of the idea that functionality trumps aesthetics. Design that is unattractive—or, worse, dated—cancels delight, challenges trust, and may even signal low quality to your users.
Glitches and bugs
- Small glitches and unexpected behavior can degrade trust that a product is reliable and safe to use. And if your app crashes, they’ve exited without even choosing to do so in the most jarring way possible.
Non-standard design language
- Users have certain expectations when they use an iPhone. They have different expectations on Android and even more different on the web. Don’t throw them for a loop by not meeting these expectations.
- Too little animation can cause apps to feel abrupt and glitchy. Too much animation can be distracting and dizzying or simply tedious. But the sweet spot for animation adds clarity and delight.
Too much text
- More than a few words in a digital product can feel like a wall of text that blocks a user from further action. Nobody is going to read an explanation unless strongly compelled to do so.
- Great design without sufficient performance is moot. You can dazzle your users with polish, but long load times can have users desperate to keep going but forced to give up out of sheer frustration.
- Your UX design may be world class, but if you fail to use colors and styles that resonate with your audience and what they expect from your app’s purpose, you won’t build loyalty or engagement.
Unclear upfront value
- Your UX design needs to be clear and to the point. Users need to see the value of taking action before taking action, not several steps down the line. Seeing the value first is precisely what gets them to the final step!
- Too many features introduced too quickly will overwhelm users and prevent them from establishing sufficient familiarity with one item before they’re ready to take on an additional layer of functionality.
In no way do these examples capture the full universe of causes of friction, but they are a great step to building your intuition about sources that are specific to the nuances and context of your product.
Detecting user friction with product analytics
Lucky for us, product analytics—like Mixpanel—provides powerful tools to detect practically every kind of user friction there is. That’s because you can track all events that a user takes in your product (in order) and then measure what you expect to see against what actually happens. The following are some examples of how.
Say you released a new feature that the whole team is excited about. The data is now flowing in, and you see that users are noticing and opening the screens associated with that feature—but quickly exit.
Unexpected drop-offs like this signal a problem. Perhaps the name of the feature is confusing, or the UI doesn’t resonate. Now that you’ve detected the problem, you can interview users to isolate the source. Without the product analytics data, however, it could have been a silent killer that caused you to scrap the feature prematurely.
Now imagine the same feature release from above, but instead of seeing immediate drop-off, you see users taking steps in a completely unexpected and bizarre order before dropping off. This could indicate the user is attempting to use the feature but can’t quite figure out what to do with it before getting frustrated and exiting. Again, you can use this as a signal to do user interviews, but you might also notice a pattern in the apparent chaos that leads to an obvious UI tweak that solves the problem outright.
Think of the scenario where you present something new to a user with the expectation they would understand what to do next, but instead a large amount of time lapses before anything happens. Maybe some users take the next step, but some just close the app. This hesitation could indicate that too much thinking is happening, flagging a need for simplification of the experience.
Total absence of engagement
Now let’s say you released a feature that is not critical but adds value in some cases—for example, the ability to favorite an important task. But you notice very few users are taking advantage of the feature even though user interviews indicated high demand. This could mean the feature is too hard to find. Or it could mean that the design is inappropriate. For example, it might be more clear to “pin” the task rather than “favorite” it with a heart. With product analytics, you could release both simultaneously to different segments of your users and see which does better!
Solutions (obvious and unexpected) to user friction
Once you’ve uncovered the causes of user friction in your digital products with analytics, you can rest assured that there are numerous (and some highly creative) ways to mitigate their impact on engagement.
Religiously reduce steps
- Spend the time to reduce the steps it takes to act to the fewest humanly possible—even if it means sacrificing some functionality. Partial functionality actively utilized is better than full functionality rarely utilized.
Warp time with delight
- Even when wait times can’t be reduced with better performance, you can still use psychology by turning waits into sources of entertainment with animations, surprises, or even humor.
Leverage gamification principles
- Gamification is not just for games and entertainment-focused apps. It takes what’s enjoyable about games and subtly infuses serious apps with experiences all human minds crave. Think: awarding users points for marking tasks “complete” in a project management app.
Invest in performance
- App performance needs to be top priority for your engineering teams, especially for commercial apps. Fewer features with great performance will yield higher engagement than more features with poor performance.
- Your overall brand, visual design language, copy, and other UX elements should all be deeply in rapport with your users. Run experiments to find out where they’re not and adjust by hiring the right experts.
- The most impactful way to reduce user friction is to have the highest standards for UX design available to you. That starts with hiring seasoned experts, even if only for review of more junior work.
Again, these examples only scratch the surface of what can be done to address user friction once discovered. The kinds of user friction relevant to your products will vary based on your value-add and audience. Use these as a springboard to brainstorm additional ways in which your users might feel any kind of resistance or friction at any point of their journey with your product, whether it comes from simple confusion or a more complex emotional reaction to its less material elements.
About Joseph Pacheco
Joseph is the founder of App Boss, a knowledge source for idea people (with little or no tech background) to turn their apps into viable businesses. He’s been developing apps for almost as long as the App Store has existed—wearing every hat from full-time engineer to product manager, UX designer, founder, content creator, and technical co-founder. He’s also given technical interviews to 1,400 software engineers who have gone on to accept roles at Apple, Dropbox, Yelp, and other major Bay Area firms.
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