Friction is everywhere in our day to day lives. It’s so much a part of life, in fact, that almost none of us would think to give it a name. And its negative impact is so much a part of life that we consider it, well, just a part of life.
But friction might just be one of the most damaging forces in modern life. And creating a general goal of reducing it might just be one of the single most important things we can do to make life better.
What do I mean by friction? I mean those things that make life harder. Having to take your key out of your pocket to open your door — that’s friction. Having to accept cookies every time you open a website — that’s friction.
Friction often serves a really good purpose. Most often that purpose is our own security, and the friction we experience is a trade-off for basic levels of safety and security.
But for some people in many circumstances, and many people in some circumstances, friction is more than an inconvenience. It can require so much effort that we disengage with processes altogether. Or overcoming the friction needed to undertake the essential tasks in life can leave us too exhausted to do anything else.
The result of both those things is a life less fully lived. Potential less fulfilled. And these consequences are more likely to affect disabled people.
We encounter strategically added friction whenever we use technology. Some is deliberate, like hard to navigate subscription cancellation. Some is a by-product of otherwise beneficial features, like multifactor authentication/data protection. But the effect is the same. For many disabled people, especially neurodivergent people or those with poor mental health resulting in poor executive function or anxiety, the service becomes harder to use, sometimes to the point of disengagement.
Friction doesn’t just affect disabled people’s access to particular services. It has a cumulative effect on their ability to participate in and contribute to public life, especially at the limits of a person’s potential, following the principle of scarcity outlined by Shafir & Mullainathan.
This contributes to individual outcomes like the income gap. But in a world facing wicked problems whose solutions are most likely to come from those outside existing power systems, the issue has wider implications, which will become greater and more urgent as connectivity expands globally.
Avoiding friction for disabled (and all) users is as much a part of providing the universal internet access the world needs as infrastructure or interoperability.
At present, when regulators, manufacturers, policymakers, and service providers balance friction against other factors, they do so by weighing friction as a minor inconvenience. It’s about time they started considering its true cost — even if that cost is not an immediate one, it is both urgent and important
At Rogue Interrobang, we specialise in finding creative ways to solve wicked problems. Making the reduction of friction a primary aim of every policy and process possible is one of our current aims.