How the World’s Best Innovators Use Friction to Change Behavior & Deliver Ultimate Digital Experiences

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on LinkedIn here.

When Forbes released their 2018 ranking of the world’s most innovative companies, topping the list—and beating out the likes of Amazon and Tesla—was ServiceNow, where I proudly serve as a board member.

ServiceNow is a new breed of enterprise technology companies that delivers software-as-a-subscription, just like Salesforce, Box, and WorkDay. In 2004, founder Fred Luddy had a vision for a cloud-based platform (way before most had even heard of cloud computing) that would “enable regular people to route work effectively through the enterprise.”

Fred’s idea of “frictionless business” sounds oxymoronic to any of us who have spent time trying to move work around and get things done in large organizations. But I confess: while the former IT and operations executive in me likes the idea of more efficient processes, the former physicist in me loves it!

One swipe, one click, and you’re done

Of course, ‘frictionless business’ is old news in the world of consumer tech. There, quick and seamless experiences are table-stakes for apps that vie for pole position on the home screen of users’ phones. Us laggards in enterprise IT were slow in coming to the experience party, but now we no longer have a choice.

Employees today aren’t willing to accept clunky outdated systems when their consumer lives are practically instantaneous.

To your millennial employees, it’s mind-boggling that they can “Venmo” a friend (yes, it’s a verb) in the blink of an eye or tee up a date with a swipe of a thumb, but yet at work, something as simple as changing your password takes a painful 20 minutes and a phone call to IT.

As I watch my stepkids merrily swiping left and right, the physicist in me laughs at the idea of “every action having an equal and opposite reaction.” In the world of Tinder, physics be-damned. Left and right does not a pairing make. But then again, it’s the laws of attraction, not of physics, that rule on Tinder.

Amazon, on the other hand, is master of the forces of friction. They’ve figured out exactly how much friction to design in-or-out of their processes to drive the behavior they want. From the minute you open your Amazon app or browser, you’re a live example of how a “body in motion stays in motion.” One click and you’re done. There’s no worrying about filling in addresses or wondering when your package will arrive. Jeff Bezos gets all the traction he wants from his customers by removing all the friction he can.

Designing sand into the gears

What Amazon has mastered is an essential lesson for every enterprise in the digital age. Getting the level of friction right is what matters. By designing the right amount in (or out), you can change behaviors, re-engineer processes, and deliver a delightful experience.

Changing behavior

The first time I came across the notion of “using friction to gain traction” was in a conversation with the head of internal IT at Uber. We were chatting about what it means to be a “digitally native company,” which he equated to being “digital in everything they do.” The way he saw it, a digital native that doesn’t accept cash from its customers should equally not accept paper as a way of getting work done.

Paperless business? Surely not, this former Swiss banker thought. How was he doing it? By introducing friction into the system.

He started by placing only one printer on every floor, which alone impacted the amount of printing people were inclined to do. Then he threw a little more sand into the gears by placing the printer as far away from people as possible. That meant the “printers among them” were forced to do the walk of shame as they trotted back to their desks with their paper copies. While my inner lazy self groaned at the prospect, another part of me smiled at the ingenuity.

Friction as friend, not foe

While the general mindset that “less friction is more” is correct, there are a few exceptions. In places where there is zero room for error and the stakes are high, slowing things down and purposefully designing friction into processes may be the right thing to do. Businesses like financial services build in extra steps (such as additional signatures or approvals) as a way to prevent mistakes or, worse, fraud. Similarly, whenever customer data is at risk, additional checks like two-factor authentication or dynamic PINs are essential for better security, even if they intrude unwelcomely on the customer experience.

Don’t grind things to a halt

The secret is balancing a great experience (low friction, high speed) with the right level of control (higher friction, lower speed). Similar to physics where the amount of friction between two surfaces depends on the nature of those surfaces, the right balance for enterprises depends on the nature of the process itself.

For example, when trying to incentivize a certain behavior (like signing customers up for a service), the initial steps have to be as streamlined as possible. I don’t know about you, but I’m inclined to abandon ship whenever I encounter a long form as the very first step.

The drawback of purposeful friction for consumers occurs when companies deliberately design friction into a process to disincentivize certain behaviors. Show of hands, how many people have given up going after that $5 you were erroneously charged by Uber because you can’t be bothered to fill out the complaint form? Amazon again offers a masterclass in purpose when you contrast how simple they’ve made it to buy versus the multiple steps involved in a return.

Rubbing people the wrong way

Friction also exists in the dynamics within organizations and among people. Any team with cognitive diversity—i.e. differences of perspective informed by differences of backgrounds—will inevitably experience differences of opinion. And while common sense would say that reducing friction between people is a good thing, a bit of constructive dissent and debate can help avoid groupthink.

Ironically, research shows that cognitively-diverse teams solve problems faster, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to manage. A critical skill for managers is understanding what level of friction is appropriate for a given team and culture, as well as gauging where friction can help arrive at a smarter answer without grinding the decision-making process to a halt.

Friction as a design principle

If enterprise technology is going to meet the expectations of our users (employees), then we need to embrace friction as both a friend and a foe and make it a design principle in every process. However, designing friction correctly requires understanding its relationship to three key factors:


One of the key determinants of the speed at which you can get things done is the level of friction you’re willing to accept. Higher speed requires lower friction, which is only achievable with greater simplicity. Think about your favorite apps on your phone. Chances are they’re beautifully designed, easy to use and minimize the number of steps needed to do anything. These qualities must now become the gold standard for enterprise applications.


Lower friction also means greater transparency, which has long been a sore point for employees. In large organizations, it’s not unusual for requests to seemingly “vanish” as they pass from one department to the next. But why shouldn’t your employees be able to see the status of an IT helpdesk ticket just as easily as they can see their Lyft coming around the corner? In the digital world, transparency empowers users and enhances experiences, which is one of the key reasons why ServiceNow’s platform is so readily loved by almost 5,000 enterprise customers. Whether it’s the status of a new employee’s onboarding experience or the latest update on a cybersecurity incident, employees finally have visibility.


Trust is the one thing you cannot afford to break when designing friction in or out of processes. The only reason why Amazon’s one-click purchasing works is because customers trust them to get it right. When you get out of your Uber or purchase something on iTunes, you have to trust that your credit card information will be held securely and charged correctly. A lack of trust is the kryptonite of a frictionless digital business.

Who says process innovation isn’t sexy?

A mistake enterprises continue to make about digital transformation is thinking it’s mostly about deploying the latest technologies. Yes, that’s a part of it, but it’s also about radical and fundamental changes to every business and operating model.

Successful transformation starts with fully internalizing the simple and difficult fact that consumer and employee expectations have irrevocably changed. Convenience is the great addiction of our time and frictionless experiences are the norm. For enterprise leaders, these new expectations mean returning to first principles and examining the basic ways in which work gets done across and within your company.

Michael Dell is famously quoted as saying that “product innovation might win you fans, but process innovation will make you money.” And while it isn’t as sexy as talking about the coolest new technologies, companies that are truly reinventing themselves and generating significant returns from their digital business start with their processes first.

It may have been Einstein who figured out the theory of relativity but when it comes to getting work done at the speed of light, it’s ServiceNow that’s setting the pace.

Their mission is to “make the world of work, work better for people.” Finally giving employees the same frictionless experience they enjoy as consumers sure doesn’t seem like rocket science, but for your average enterprise, it’s a quantum-leap forward in their digital evolution.

Dr. Anita Sands is an independent board director at ServiceNow, Symantec, Pure Storage and ThoughtWorks. She is a regular commentator & speaker on digital disruption and board-related topics. She and her husband John, along with their six children, split their time between San Francisco and NYC. All comments personal.

Anita Sands
Anita Sands
Board Director

Dr. Anita Sands is a global technology and business leader, public speaker, and advocate for the advancement of women. She currently serves on the board of three Silicon Valley public companies - Symantec Corporation, Service Now, and Pure Storage, and is a board director at private companies, ThoughtWorks and AppBus. She is also an active advisory board member at DocuSign and Box. Anita earned both her Ph.D. in Atomic and Molecular Physics and bachelor's degree in Physics & Applied Math from Queen's University Belfast and a Masters in Public Policy and Management, with the highest distinction, from Carnegie Mellon University where she was a Fulbright Scholar. Before her latest career pivot into technology, Anita spent a decade in the financial services sector, specializing in enterprise transformation and technology-led innovation. She was the youngest ever-Senior Vice President at the Royal Bank of Canada where she served as the Head of Innovation and Process Design. At the age of 33, she was appointed as Chief Operating Officer, and subsequently as Head of Change Leadership, for UBS Wealth Management Americas, responsible for technology, operations, and corporate services. She joined her first F500 Board at the age of 37. Anita has been honored on many occasions for her contribution to technology leadership and the advancement of women. She holds a diploma in piano from the London School of Music and has traveled to all seven continents, including on an expedition to Antarctica with polar explorer, Rob Swan. Anita is a former all-Ireland public speaking champion and a frequent commentator on trends affecting the boardroom, digital transformation, and diversity.
You might also like ...
4 Tips for Setting Your Company's Annual Rhythm

Every company starts the new year with big goals and aspirations. But how many of those companies actually accomplish them?

by Kristin Hillery