Make it faster. Remove all friction. These are the catchy mantras of product building 101, but they also happen to be misleading. They spell out a recipe for making something complaint-free, but nowhere near extraordinary.
Friction isn’t always the villain. Positive friction creates memories, and memories are how customers remember you.
Killer products are opinionated about, among many things, the cadence of friction. They speed through the generic moments, but slow down for the special ones. They grow from a reliable product into a beloved experience.
Let’s look at some examples, and learn how to apply this to your own products.
Slow down, smell the roses
In the 1940s, Pillsbury started making instant cake mixes. Instead of juggling dozens of ingredients, you could bake a cake with just their mix + water. They eliminated all friction, and yet the product flopped.
After talking to customers, Pillsbury stumbled upon a surprising finding: instead of being a source of frustration, making cake was a way to express love.
That’s when Pillsbury decided to make the cake mix less simple — instead of being pre-made, you had to add eggs. Sales picked up, and cake mixes still rake in millions to this day. Adding in the right amount of friction make their product more rewarding.
100%+ open rate
“Your unboxing experience is the only marketing channel with a 100% open rate”
Done well, it can surge far beyond 100%.
In a world that worships speed, it’s ironic that there are companies that obsess over the aesthetic and acoustic details of packaging. They are literally perfecting the layers that delay customers from getting what they bought. In fact, they design friction to enhance excitement, and evoke that Christmas morning feeling.
Why bother? Well, for one, unboxing has spawned wildly popular videos, becoming effectively free advertising for products. Positive friction is a tool to turn any customer into a viral marketing campaign.
Confetti and podiums
Positive friction applies to digital products too. A feature beloved by Faire customers was a burst of confetti whenever they hit the minimum order. It was a toast to the hard work of filling their shopping cart. Sure, there were faster ways to communicate the same message, but it wouldn’t have been as memorable.
Similarly, what I remember most about playing Mario Kart is the cheer at the end of every game and getting on the podium. These moments slowed the pace of the game, but elevated the overall experience.
When you think about it, there’s no such thing as just a product. Every product is really an experience composed of emotions. The best ones simply know how to respond.
Wheel of emotions
Part of the obsession with speed is that lots of products make life frictionless: Uber, Doordash, AWS. They reduce the anxiety of waiting, the annoyance of dealing in cash, or the frustration of setting up servers.
In short, they’re focused on the top half of the wheel of emotion (fear, anger, sadness):
Yet the bottom half features the sorts of emotions (love, joy, surprise) that cement loyalty. They turn a product that does its job into a memorable experience that fuels word of mouth and recurring use.
Understanding your customer’s emotion at every step is key to becoming more opinionated about how the product works.
When an experience creates fear, anger or sadness, design solutions that reduce friction. Make it speedy, clear and reliable. This is how many products begin.
When an experience has the potential to inspire love, joy and surprise, lean into it. Slow down and smell the roses (not-so-instant cake mix, suspenseful unboxing). Celebrate the milestone (confetti, cheers, leaderboard). This is often forgotten.
Good vs. great products
Good products reduce negative emotions by solving an important problem. Great products do all that, and find pockets of positive emotions.
Take Spotify: early on, they focused on delivering insanely fast response time. But now that instant play has become table stakes, they’ve found new ways to differentiate.
Spotify’s Year End Wrap is a brilliant example of celebrating milestones with customers. It bottles up nostalgia, and reminds you of all the great memories you’ve created with them. It’s like one big digital unboxing that people can’t stop sharing.
Milestone your way to LTV
Finding customer milestones isn’t just a feel-good move, it’s good business. For all the talk around growing LTV (lifetime value: how much a customer is worth to your business), it’s surprising that celebrating meaningful milestones is so often overlooked.
I would be psyched if:
- Convertkit celebrated my 10,000 email opens and recapped my best subject lines
- Stripe or Podia marked my crossing 1000 customers with crowdsourced tips on how to get to the next 1000
- Webflow remembered when my site crossed 100,000 visitors and curated inspiration on how to grow faster
What feels like a cherry on top can be a powerful differentiator in a crowded market. Behind every hairy problem are overlooked customer milestones. Above all, there’s room for positive friction to turn a product into a memorable experience.
Technology attracts new customers, but psychology keeps them around. Learn both, and you’ll be unstoppable.