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You Can’t Have Innovation Without Friction and Here’s Why

Back in 1969, marketing gurus Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote a paper called “Positioning is a game people play in today’s me-too market place”...

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Back in 1969, marketing gurus Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote a paper called “Positioning is a game people play in today’s me-too market place” which would later be expanded into a smash hit of a book called “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind“. This had revolutionary ideas, especially its focus on the consumer’s mind and the first appearance of the term “positioning” to describe the process of installing a brand in an audience’s mind.

The book was filled with interesting insights and reflections, but one of the adages that stand out among marketers read that “the easy way to get into a person’s mind is to be first”. Of course, Ries and Trout had a whole book around that phrase, explaining it in more depth and avoiding the mistake that a lot of marketers after them made: to strip that adage from its context and take it at face value.

For decades (and even today), a large number of business executives and entrepreneurs believed that the best way to win consumers’ hearts was to be the first to market, no matter the cost. Facebook’s credo “move fast and break things” was the ultimate embodiment of that sentiment. The breakneck speed of our modern lives did the rest, especially within the tech industry. The race was on and the only thing that mattered was to be first.

Speed can be a good thing but never a primary end, a goal by itself. Focusing too much on beating everyone else to market (“being the first in the consumers’ minds”) forced other, more important things to take a back seat. Strong features, smooth performance, ease of use – all of that was sacrificed in speed’s altar. Unfortunately, that blind dynamic had its consequences.

First and foremost, we grew accustomed to tolerating bugs and incomplete products because we could take care of that afterward. The software development times were cut, projects were rushed. The only thing that mattered was to have new things as quickly as possible. The worst part of all that – we believed that that was the perfect way to pursue our thirst for innovation. Oh, boy, how wrong we were.


An unfit paradigm for the user experience age

Investing in so-called innovation without so much as a second thought for the end-users and consumers will eventually backfire. In fact, it’s already happening. The video game industry is known for its blatant attempts to make money at all costs by launching a ton of unfinished games. For years, it kinda worked – until people grew tired and stopped buying them altogether.

That’s because we’re living in a time where consumers are starting to realize that they hold all the power. So, if a product or service is incomplete, performs poorly, or lacks basic features, customers will pack up and go look for something else. Being the first in the age of user experience isn’t worth that much anymore, because it’s not the fact of being the first that matters – it’s all about how satisfactory the experience actually is for the client.

A Gartner organization survey clearly highlights this shift. It found out that 80% of organizations believe that companies are competing on the basis of customer experience. And that’s happening right now! Companies that want to win the hearts of their audiences need to revise their strategies and start understanding that a quick launch is good, as long as the product or service is good.


Friction, or how to innovate more slowly

Realizing the times that were coming, Facebook changed its credo some years ago. The idea of smashing any obstacles that got in the way of innovation gave way to an epiphany – maybe those obstacles were there for a reason, after all. So, instead of launching incomplete products or subpar services, the company started to take some time to get things right before getting them to the public.

Which makes sense. Innovation, the creation of new things and the evolution of the ones that exist, needs some time to ripen: the friction of taking the necessary time. 

Advocates of speedy development would hate that. Friction prevents from going fast, so it must be eliminated at all costs. Bugs and errors could be fixed later on, features can be added on an update – the important things is to get to market. This approach, however, doesn’t eliminate friction: it just moves it towards the consumer that gets frustrated and angry over a product that doesn’t work or a service that feels like a dressed skeleton.

Evidently, customer frustration isn’t a good thing for the customer experience. Given that the competition between companies is based on that experience, brands are now seeing that they need to provide a frictionless product. And if that can’t be achieved, then the product or service friction has to be less than the competitor’s friction.

Interestingly enough, to avoid friction during the consumer experience, and as it happened when development was speedy, said friction has to be moved. Where? Back to innovation.  Here are 3 ways to do so:

  • More budget in research and strategic exploration: if you check the innovation spending of big companies like Amazon or Microsoft, you’ll see that they are at the level of the billions. It’s no coincidence. These companies know that there’s a cost for innovation and they are willing to pay that price to stay ahead of the game. What does that money buy? Mainly research into markets, trends, industries, and consumers to fuel a sound business strategy. Informed strategies lead to stronger products and services which, in turn, lead to better user experiences with them.
  • More time for the early stages of development: the issue isn’t just solved by throwing money at it – they need time for it to be done correctly. That’s why the phases of discovery, exploration, and research can’t be hurried. The friction here is given by a slower research stage, where innovation-driven companies take the time to check their assumptions about the market against the real thing. By taking down those assumptions, development teams can detect possibilities that were overlooked and new ways to provide value to the consumer.
  • Increased user testing: an often neglected way of finding issues before the product or service goes to market is by introducing user tests to the sprints. Many development companies don’t even consider doing them because they slow down development and add up to the time to market. However, conducting those tests in the early stages can remove the friction from the consumer experience and into the development stage. It’s a clear example of how the friction will exist no matter how but that it’s enough to move it to prevent consumers from paying for it.

As can be seen, friction will always be there, so it’s up to the companies to decide where they want to experience it. If they ignore it during development, the end product will have a lot of friction which will destroy the consumer experience (and hence, the product, even if it was the first to get to the public). If they don’t want their customers to suffer it, then the innovation stage is the perfect way to willingly pay for it.

Taking more time, spending more money, and introducing user tests will surely add friction to the development process. Yet, this ultimately will result in superior products and better experiences for consumers, the field where modern commercial battles are fought. The final goal is the same, it’s the approach that changes. Even Ries and Trout would agree – for a brand to stay in the consumers’ minds, it has to do whatever it takes. Today, that “whatever” is friction in innovation.

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