How to Win the War Against Conversion Friction

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Friction is bad. Even the sound of the word is bad.

And when it comes to conversion optimization, friction is really, truly very bad. It reduces conversions, frustrates customers, and eats away at your bottom line. Friction is the number one public enemy of conversions.

I call myself a conversion optimization expert (even though I am not supposed to, according to industry peers). Another way of viewing my occupation is as a warrior against friction. I’m like Batman, fighting for conversions in the Gotham of friction. Friction is so expansive and pervasive that any attempt to optimize conversions is, in reality, a battle waged against friction.

I hope this simple understanding of friction’s evil provides the nudge you need to do battle against friction and win more conversions.

What is Friction?

Since this is “an introduction,” we’re going to start at square one and assume you know very little about friction.

Let’s begin with definitions, shall we?

Here is the sweet-and-simple official Jeremy Said definition of friction:

Friction is anything that gets in the way of conversions.

Let me break that definition down a bit:

  • Anything – Friction is broad, very broad. It can be anything from a slow-loading page to a typo in the checkout process. It can be a psychological color reaction in the mind of the customer or a broken link on your “buy now” button.
  • Gets in the way of – Friction can slow down the conversion or stop it altogether.
  • Conversions – Whatever its cause or cure, friction is, at its core, an impediment to conversions. Friction is a conversion killer.

My definition is not the only one, nor the only right one. Friction has a variety of definitions, depending on who’s defining it and the context in which they’re defining it.

Here are some additional definitions of friction:

“To reduce friction on your website and increase sales, KISS your visitors — ‘keep it simple stupid’ for them. Make it as effortless as possible for them to purchase from you. Building signs of trust and security on your homepage and checkout flow is essential, as is improving error checking for your forms (inline validation and helpful error messages are key). And go ahead and try purchasing on your website right now – you probably haven’t done it for a while. It will help you see examples of common visitor friction to overcome. And then get your mom to try too! ”

Rich PageRich Page Website Optimizer

“I actually think the word ‘friction’ for conversion optimization is unclear and confusing. It’s hard to tell what it really means. I think the underlying problems some refer to as friction are more related to Anxiety-causing elements, or perhaps lack of Clarity, or Distraction-producers. Beyond the nomenclature question, though, these concepts are important for businesses to fix. Maximizing the Clarity of your communication, reducing Distraction from peripheral messages and design, and eliminating Anxiety-causing elements can produce massive business improvements in your marketing.”

Chris GowardCEO, WiderFunnel

“Friction is one of the four key elements in my Persuasion Slide model – it is the factor that fights the customer’s built-in motivation as well as the motivation provided by the site. Friction is a killer for ecommerce – an estimated $1.8 trillion dollars is abandoned in shopping carts every year. Friction can include lots of things – long forms, confusing instructions, etc. But the most insidious kind is perceived friction – it’s not really extra friction, but customer brains are wired to think it is. For example, using the wrong font for the same instructions can make them seem twice as difficult and time consuming!”

Roger DooleyFounder, Dooley Direct

“Friction arises from any element of the conversion process that causes frustration, mental fatigue, or confusion. Friction causes aggravation, mental fatigue, or confusion.” Mike Perla Conversion Optimization Manager, BB&T

“In relation to CRO, I define friction as anything that slows down the decision-making process of the prospects. By mitigating friction we can build momentum, accelerate decisions, and get more prospects safely through each step in the conversion process.”

Michael Aagaard Content Evangelist & Testing Junkie, ContentVerve

“When we think of friction, our brains may draw images of sandpaper water slides. But friction can have its place in website optimization. For example, if you want to generate phone calls from your website, you should put a long, ugly, high-friction form on the page. This could generate more phone calls than a page with no form at all. [And] adding form fields on your landing pages can drive away unqualified prospects and decrease your cost of sales.

“Friction is not synonymous with simplicity. We often find in our tests that simplifying complex-looking pages decreases revenue per visit. For sites with lots of return visitors, familiarity may trump friction. Removing friction can confound visitors who have figured out how to deal with it.

“Friction is a complex substance and should be eliminated only with proper testing.”

Brian Massey The Conversion Scientist – Conversion Sciences

When you get right down to it, what does friction feel like, look like, act like? Can you see friction in action?

You’re about to find out.

How to Read the Rest of This Article

Allow me to guide you on how to get the most out of this article. As you go through each section below, ask yourself, “Is this friction element present on my website? Does my website have any features within this category of friction elements?”

I want this article to be as helpful as possible. You’re going to experience immediate benefit by identifying friction elements, eliminating them, and boosting the conversion rate of your website.

Remember this: Every friction element is costing you money. Removing friction elements will give you money. As you search and destroy friction, you will make huge strides in conversion rate optimization.

The sections that follow merely scratch the surface of what could be millions of possible friction elements. I’ve tried to scope out a few big categories, so you can fill in the details at a granular level as they apply to your site.

Time Friction

Time friction is any delay that affects conversion. This can be something as simple as load time, but it also can be the time that it takes the user to read your copy, fill out a form, or scroll to the bottom of the page. The longer an action takes, the less likely it is you will gain a conversion.

Sometimes the time element is merely perceived, not experienced. For example, if a checkout process looks like it will take a long time, the user may not convert. If, on the other hand, the checkout process displays a progress bar, the user will have a sense of sequential completion of tasks and be more likely to remain engaged through the end of the conversion.

Let’s take a look at an A/B test of Obama’s online campaign led by Kyle Rush and team. At first, there was a perceived notion that filling out the entire form would take longer and therefore people stayed away. After implementing a shorter multiple step form, they had a 5 percent increase in overall donations. And that’s not to mention this already was an extremely optimized donation page.

Attention Friction

An understanding of attention friction dives into the heart of user psychology. Part of what conversion experts try to do is grab and hold a user’s attention. Anything that distracts the user’s attention is a friction point, such as:

  • Awkward or unreadable copy
  • Not enough images
  • Too many or too distracting images
  • Garish color changes
  • Offsite anchor links with intriguing anchor text
  • Hyperlinked images
  • Design elements (e.g., parallax action, or CSS motion)

The screenshot below displays a website that has poor conversion optimization due to attention-diverting friction elements. There are many things competing for the user’s attention, and all of them serve to complicate the conversion process.

The goal in reducing attention friction is not just to grab the user’s attention, but to focus the user’s attention in a certain way.

In the era of Web 3.0, there are tons of things that can create friction in attention. One of the big ones is video. In the ecommerce page for a phone case below, the user is invited to watch videos – no fewer than three! While the videos may help engage the user in the experience, they also might distract the user from following the click-path to purchase.

The KISS principle applies here, as it does in so many areas of life: Keep It Simple Stupid.

Simplicity helps to keep the attention of the user focused on the one most important thing – conversion.

Layout Friction

Austin McCraw writes, “The first, and probably most common of these silent killers [friction elements] is a misguided eye-path. A Web page’s eye-path is the natural way in which a visitor’s eyes move through a Web page” [sic].

His example image shows exactly how this happens:

Image from http://www.marketingexperiments.com/blog/general/hidden-friction-silent-killers.html.

The layout friction element includes more than just the presentation of elements on a web page. It also can include logical sitemapping. Where does a user go to find what he or she is looking for? Is there a logical layout? Can the user find it easily?

For example, Ace Hardware does not make it easy for me to buy a hammer. If I go to the site, my attention is drawn to the upper menu bar. What do I click on? “Shop” is too vague. “Tips & Advice” is irrelevant. “Services” isn’t what I want. “Sale & Specials” doesn’t describe it. “To-Done List” doesn’t make sense.

Why can’t I just find a “Tools” tab, or something? There is no click-path to my desired object. Instead, I’m forced to use the “Search” field to manually input my query and return a list of generated options.

In this context, the layout does not aid in the flow toward product selection and conversion. The layout of a website is one of the most basic elements of user experience.

The minute you throw something confusing into the layout is the minute you start to lose conversions.

Web Copy Friction

The words on your web page can be a source of friction. Joanna Wiebe, web conversion copywriter, explains, “Most often, friction words are found in calls to action.” She provides a list of words that are high, medium, and low friction.

  • Avoid high friction words – buy, sign up, submit, give, invest, donate, sponsor, support, complete
  • Be careful with medium friction words – join, share, switch, find, start, visit, learn
  • Use low friction words – get, check this out, discover, reveal, earn

Web copy applies to the most critical and fundamental of conversion elements – button copy. The words you put on your button matter a lot.

Wiebe uses the following example. Two buttons – same color, design, font, etc. – probably will have different conversion levels. The difference is the button copy.

Screenshots from http://copyhackers.com/2012/11/how-to-find-and-eliminate-friction-words-in-your-web-copy/.

Another example comes from MarketingExperiments, in which two buttons are displayed. One has several buzzwords, plus some jazzed up design to boot. The other looks like some DOS-based relic of a bygone computing era. Which would you click on?

Sometimes, a copywriter’s true value is proven in her ability to write two or three stellar words, not uberlong blog posts.

Cognitive Friction

Cognitive friction is its own book begging to be written. Within the cognitive process of every buyer is a world of possible friction. Admittedly, you don’t have a lot of control over what could create friction in the mind of the user. What you can do is anticipate friction points and implement procedures or design elements that mitigate those potential friction points.

Let’s take the cognitive issue of trust/distrust. In order to gain the business of a customer, you must gain the trust of the customer. How do you gain their trust?

Here’s a simple one: Add trust symbols. This screenshot, taken from Wayfair.com’s charcoal grill page, has several such trust symbols:

Snapdeal’s page also provides trust assurance with these images:

These are just two examples of cognitive friction reduced by anticipation and trust building features. There are many other spots at which a user can encounter friction. Some of these you can predict and control.

Eliminate Friction Elements

There’s a silver lining to all this bad news about friction: Eliminating friction is one of the easiest and most direct ways to increase your conversion rate.

The process is simple: 1) Understand friction. 2) Find the friction elements on your site. 3) Remove the friction elements.

If you visit your website right now and spend five minutes in friction-finding mode, I bet you will find at least three friction elements.

Look at the small things, literally:

If you are unable to decipher for yourself the areas of friction on your site, here is a great tool to use – UserTesting.

UserTesting is one of the leaders in online focus groups and remote testing. I personally use this tool all the time and it helps me identify friction elements on every landing page we see. You can guide a user to navigate your site through a series of scenarios and/or questions. It’s all recorded and they talk out loud as they go through. It’s extremely insightful for any conversion toolbox.

Although this article attempts to only introduce friction, I want to leave you with some big-picture takeaways. You can start reducing friction right away. Here are four ways to spot friction, and begin nailing it today:

  1. Ask as little as possible from the user. Require less information, fewer clicks, and fewer forms. Get rid of anything that is extraneous.
  2. Limit options. Options can be a major source of friction, producing a sort of choice paralysis that reduces conversions.
  3. Insist upon design excellence. Categorically, design failures are probably the biggest area of friction. Unreadable fonts, ugly graphics, below-the-fold CTAs, appalling lightbox popups, whatever it is, functional design matters. Your audience, regardless of their demographic, wants good functional design. Your failure to deliver it will create massive friction.
  4. Put yourself in the shoes of the user. One of the best ways to spot friction is to become one of your users. For a few minutes, try to become a customer. Pretend you stumble upon your website one day. What do you see? How do you feel about it? Where do you click? Getting into the head of a user is one of the best ways to identify friction points and even anticipate some of the cognitive friction that may keep them from readily converting.

I guarantee that when you start reducing friction, you’ll start improving conversions. The correlation is that clear. The upside is that awesome.

About the Author: Jeremy Smith is a conversion consultant and trainer, helping businesses like Dow Chemical, American Express, Panera Bread, and Wendy’s improve conversions and strategically grow their testing culture and digital presence. Jeremy’s experience as the CMO and CEO of technology firms has given him a powerful understanding of human behavior and profit-boosting techniques. Follow him on or Twitter.

Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, we will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, we only recommend products or services we believe will add value to our readers.

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