Customer Futures Perspective: what if we design for customer friction?
When we automate away everything, what’s left? It’s time to redefine customer engagement
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What if we design for customer friction?
Almost all companies today are on a journey to digitise All The Things. To improve performance. To reduce costs. To find new ways to create value for customers.
What can be automated, will be automated.
Businesses are spending billions to automate away as many processes and customer interactions as possible. And AI is putting this automation on warp speed.
It’s all about reaching that customer holy grail: to become proactive instead of being reactive to customer needs. Even faster. Even cheaper. Even more seamless.
Look closely, and you’ll see that all that digital value is really only being created on the business side.
The customer side remains pre-industrial. Full of manual labour and errors. Lugging our digital selves from place to place. Working for the land owners. Producing vast data troves to be collected by businesses, that later create even more company value.
Consumers are now getting their own AI. Personal AI. New digital agents that work for them.
As a result, customers will soon return the digital transformation favour.
They’ll make sense of their own data, on their own side. That elusive 360-degree view of the customer finally becomes possible: but this time done for - and by - the individual.
All powered by AI.
Individuals will soon decide (or not) how much of that 360-degree profile to reveal to the business… when there’s enough value to do so.
And only if the business is trusted.
Here’s the interesting part: the explosion of automation on the business side will now be matched by customers.
Using their own AI and digital wallets, people will be able to automate away all the boring, repetitive and manual steps they deal with every day.
Collecting and managing all that admin. The forms. The logins. The dealing with contact centres. Digging out the correct order number at the right time. Handling the chaos of receipts, many scattered across a thousand web accounts we’ve already forgotten about (and can’t remember how to log into anyway).
Surfacing that perfect piece of information, just when it’s needed. The ticket stub, the policy number, the hospital appointment location, the size of bulb you need, the meter reading for a new utility provider.
With digital wallets and smart AI assistants, customers will become as well-informed about themselves, as businesses do today.
What they’ve done and where they’ve been. The patterns. The insights. The things they’ve bought. The connections they’ve made. What they might want next. How to return and upgrade things.
Overnight, people will get their own personal Chief Operating Officer. Come to think of it, they’ll get their own CTO and Chief Data Officer too.
All under their own control. All private. All automated. And of course, all auditable so they can track what’s happened (and rewind where needed).
[Side note: I highly recommend reading this lengthy, but worthwhile digest of what autonomous agents are, and what they will mean for customers. Spoiler: it will be swarms of smart personal agents working for you to get stuff done.]
Back to real customer engagement
Here’s where I’m going with this.
If businesses automate away all the wasteful steps and interactions… and customers do the same on their side, then: What’s really left?
What will an AI-powered customer journey really mean?
‘Customer engagement’ is about to be completely redefined, but by the customer.
Let’s assume that our personal AIs will become smart enough to handle the things people don’t want to do. So what’s left is… the real customer engagement. Those steps, those moments, where customers want to be engaged.
By automating and eradicating the Bad Stuff, we can strip things back to only the Important and Engaging Stuff.
Let’s call it Good Friction.
Designing for friction
Service designers already know this. When something is too easy to do, too frictionless, it loses its appeal. Customers get suspicious.
Think of the last time you were offered a product or service where it felt too good to be true. “What’s the catch?” you ask yourself. It’s your gut telling you that you need some friction. You need to feel that there’s effort required, some sacrifice. No such thing as a free lunch.
Because friction is a way we build trust.
There’s a famous example from the 1950s, when General Mills was trying to sell a new zero-effort cake mix. It produced perfect and delicious cakes every time, but people weren’t interested. It was a psychologist who finally uncovered that it was because bakers felt guilty. Getting the credit for making wonderful cakes, but with such little effort.
Rather than address this guilt issue with marketing (“save time and spend it with family!”) they changed the product. Bakers were instead asked to ‘add an egg’ to the mix.
In other words, the company introduced some friction, some effort.
They added Good Friction. And cake mix sales boomed.
As businesses continue to dial digital transformation up to 11, AI is going to turn it up all the way to 74.
So we need to reflect on what ‘engagement’ really means. What Good Friction we actually want.
As Soups Ranjan from Sardine reminds us about friction in financial services, “Would you rather wait a minute or two to confirm a large transaction or get to it instantly with a higher risk of fraud?”
The brilliant Jon Sills wrote this week about Amazon’s latest friction-free shopping experience. It’s what can only be described as legal shoplifting. You pick up what you need from inside the store, and then just walk out with it.
And it’s the same thing over again: consumers can feel a little weird about shopping without interacting with anyone. When things are too easy.
He boils it down to needing certainty (is this the right thing?), memory (is it happening too fast to remember?) and value (was there enough effort put in?).
Becoming more human, not less
I’ve said for a long time that “The best experience is sometimes no experience”.
Removing steps from a customer journey - even the entire journey itself - is what’s actually needed. And that’s true when the whole experience is really just full of Bad Friction. When it’s a grudge purchase, like setting up a utility provider account or basic banking.
But back to all this digital transformation. What if ‘frictionless’ wasn’t the goal?
What if we deliberately design for more human experiences?
Perhaps even designing for Thai chaos (a brilliant post from Ben Reason on how poor service adds to life’s rich tapestry).
In a world of AI, of automated predictions and perfect seamlessness, we’ll need something to hang on to. Experiences to create memories. To elicit joy. To make new connections.
If the global pandemic and yo-yo lockdowns taught us anything, it’s that we need more connection. To experiences. To Good Friction. To each other.
Our AI-infused and perfectly predicted world is going to need a human touch.
A smile. Catching someone’s eye. And perhaps literally a human touch: a hug from an old colleague, or the shake of a hand (which is actually one of the oldest forms of trust around - a demonstration of vulnerability: showing that you're not holding a sword).
Is there a risk we walk blindfolded into more isolation with all this AI?
Do we really want a frictionless life?
Friction is about building trust. And what we need is connection.
So let’s design for that. For connection. For Good Friction. And for trust.
Maybe now’s a good time to amend my maxim above: The best experience will be the most authentic, connected human experience.
Because in a world of dizzying and overwhelming AI, it’s really us humans, our connections and trust, that are going to matter.
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