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How frictionless technology made its way from Silicon Valley to Main Street

Published December 10, 2020

We all experience friction in our everyday interactions, from a traffic-filled commute to long lines at the grocery store. But technology has a category of friction—or frictionless—of its own.

Friction as a concept is “the force that resists relative motion between two bodies in contact.” But in technology, friction represents the resisting forces between our digital and physical lives. Frictionless technology removes those resisting forces by making traditionally high-touchpoint experiences much less high-touchpoint—especially with innovations like mobile payments and self-service ATMs.

Frictionless technology is ubiquitous because consumers have come to expect a seamless online-offline experience. In this article, we’ll explore where frictionless technology came from and the touchpoints businesses should focus on as they look to increase the frictionless nature of their customer experiences.

The origins of frictionless tech in Silicon Valley

Frictionless tech hasn’t been formally defined, but it’s generally understood to be the removal of barriers between the digital and physical experience to make it easier. 

For years, Silicon Valley’s top tech companies had declared war on friction. Facebook, Google and Apple took it upon themselves to remove as much friction as possible from the consumer experience. For Facebook, it started with a platform that allowed students to connect with each other. For Google, it started by making finding answers easier than ever before. For Apple, it started with inventing the first full-blown handheld computer—the iPhone.

We don’t always call it “frictionless,” but we experience frictionless technological experiences every day. The experience is exemplified in apps like HotelTonight, where consumers can contact a hotel, book a room, and pay for it all within one interface. The old friction—calling the hotel, speaking with a concierge, handing over a credit card—was removed. Silicon Valley determined those old-school steps to be friction, so they developed products that removed them entirely.

Frictionless technology, as we know it today, was born in the ’00s when the advent of the iPhone placed an entire computer at every consumer’s fingertips.

A 2013 New Yorker article stated that frictionless technology is so “beautifully designed that using it is intuitive, and it evokes a fantasy in which all inefficiencies, annoyances, and grievances have been smoothed out of existence.” And in the article, Dave Morin—former Facebook and Apple employee and founder of then-social network Path—said that “one of his company’s goals is to make technology increasingly seamless with real life.” That seamless tech-to-life ideology is what’s carried our society through the fastest-growing technological advances in history.

In English, that all means that today’s frictionless technology is so frictionless that we barely even notice it’s happening. When we book a ride through Uber or Lyft, pay for our coffee through contactless means or order groceries right from our phones, we think of that as a simple convenience.

Consumer behavior shifted to favor frictionless

Friction in life is annoying—and now, considering how integrated our digital lives are with our physical lives, digital friction is (arguably) even worse. Silicon Valley leaders have identified ways to remove friction from their products’ user experience, and users show they prefer it. 

According to data from BigCommerce, 96 percent of Americans shop online, with 20 percent of those consumers shopping from their car and 43 percent of them from their bed.

In a 2011 keynote presentation at F8, Facebook’s annual conference, founder Mark Zuckerberg talked about the elimination of pop-up “sure you want to post this?” messages across the platform. The pop-ups were nixed because they created friction between what a user wanted to do and them actually getting it done. “From here on out, it’s a frictionless experience,” Zuckerberg said. As more consumers had these small-but-mighty frictionless experiences at their fingertips, they started to expect it everywhere else they went, too.

That subtle shift to a frictionless experience wasn’t overtly obvious to the average consumer, but over time, experiences like it became expected. Outside of social media, smartphone-enabled innovations like contactless payment and order ahead quickly took frictionless from a digital concept to something we see and use in our everyday interactions.

Frictionless customer experiences go hand-in-hand with a business’s omnichannel efforts. Zendesk defines omnichannel as “a customer experience strategy that creates connected and consistent customer interactions across channels.” And according to BigCommerce, an omnichannel experience transcends “any one medium and simply providing shoppers what they want, when they want.”

Frictionless and omnichannel have the same goal: to remove any blockers that get in the way of a seamless, integrated and delightful consumer experience.

COVID-19 accelerated the growth and adoption of frictionless tech

The payment sector is a key player in the frictionless consumer experience, with things like touchless ATMs, self-checkouts, QR code payments, and mobile wallets all fueled by frictionless. And when COVID-19 entered the picture, frictionless consumer experiences became even more important as contactless technology went from nice-to-have to must-have for most businesses.

According to a COVID-19 contactless payment update from Visa, “Contactless payments, or tapping to pay with a contactless card or mobile device, are fast becoming the preferred way to pay globally with nearly 60 percent of Visa transactions outside of the U.S. occurring with a tap.”

A 2020 study by Shekel Brainweigh Ltd., released on Business Wire, showed that during the pandemic, “more than 70% of shoppers are using touchless, robust self-checkout options or shopping at frictionless micro-markets, compared to nearly 29% that are shopping online.”

Contactless payments in the U.S. alone have skyrocketed year-over-year. The Visa data showed that “31 million Americans tapped a Visa contactless card or digital wallet in March 2020, up from 25 million in November, with overall contactless usage in the U.S. growing 150% since March 2019.” Further, “The U.S. now has the most contactless cards of any market globally at 175 million, with nine of the top ten U.S. issuers actively rolling out new contactless cards to customers.”

Frictionless shopping technology is a mainstay on Main Street

Frictionless technology may have planted its roots in Silicon Valley, but the experiences it has powered is a worldwide phenomenon—and thanks to COVID-19, no business is excluded from the rise of frictionless.

Brick-and-mortar businesses that fall under the “essentials” category, like pharmacies and grocery stores, aren’t exempt from the frictionless trend. According to McKinsey, “intent to spend in essential categories is increasing” due to COVID-19, and the behavior is expected to stick post-pandemic. In the report, McKinsey points out that “categories where expected growth in online shoppers exceeds 35 percent include essentials such as over-the-counter (OTC) medicine, groceries, household supplies, and personal-care products.”

The contactless trend extends to essential businesses as well. According to the Visa report, “tap to pay transactions in everyday segments in the U.S. including grocery and pharmacy has grown more than 100% year over year.” 

Now that frictionless experiences are a part of every consumer’s life, businesses must adapt or get left behind. Brick-and-mortar businesses can start their frictionless transformation by building a seamless bridge between their physical and digital operations. Any retailer can implement contactless payment technology, build out a transactional capability to start and end purchases anywhere and install a POS system with a built-in loyalty program to encourage repeat visits.

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