Striking a Balance: The Role of Friction in E-commerce and Product Perception

Striking a Balance: The Role of Friction in E-commerce and Product Perception

Nadeem Manzoor, Director of Innovation & Analytics | June 28 2023

In the ever-evolving landscape of e-commerce, businesses are constantly searching for ways to enhance customer engagement, drive conversions, and differentiate their products from competitors. One concept gaining attention in the world of behavioral science is the role of friction—or lack thereof– in influencing consumer behavior and shaping product perception.

Studies have shown that even the smallest reductions in barriers can significantly impact desired behaviors. But is it always beneficial to remove all friction? Should brands find a delicate balance between ease of use and maintaining a sense of involvement or effort to boost perceptions? It may seem counterintuitive, but some brands are rethinking their stance on friction. Is a friction-free customer experience really the right solution? Not always.

Let’s dive in and explore the relationship between friction, consumer behavior, and product perception to see how giving customers a sense of control can positively impact a business’s bottom line.


The IKEA Effect: When Labor Leads to Love


Many people can relate to the idea that a house doesn’t truly feel like a home until they’ve invested their own effort and personal touch into it. If you’ve ever hung your own window treatments, changed out a light fixture, or painted a room, you know that these tasks can be challenging and time-consuming, but the sense of accomplishment and transformation they bring make it all worth it.

Undertaking home improvement projects, renovations, and decorating allows homeowners to put their own stamp on their living space, fostering a deeper connection and emotional attachment to the property. Investing time, energy, and even physical labor can transform a house into a home, creating a sense of accomplishment, pride, and appreciation for their living space. The relationship between ‘sweat equity’ and appreciation holds true not only for our home but with our products, too.

In 2011 researchers from Harvard, Yale, and Duke published a study that identified a psychological phenomenon known as the IKEA effect. The results debunked the traditional idea that a completely friction-free experience was preferred by consumers.

IKEA is known for its affordable furniture and do-it-yourself assembly process. On paper, it appears that the main advantage IKEA provides is its low cost because assembly furniture is a hassle, right? Surprisingly, research found that customers had a sense of pride after assembling their own furniture. It appears that the more effort someone puts into something, the more they tend to value it.

The IKEA effect shows that involving customers in the creation, customization, or personalization process can significantly lead to increased product appreciation and attachment. The key lies in finding the right balance between ease of use and customer involvement. By striking the right balance, brands can create a stronger emotional connection with their customers.

The IKEA effect and do-It-yourself products work for a few reasons:

  • We like to feel competent: Nobody likes to feel foolish or incompetent. We want to feel like we are capable of handling the tasks that are given to us. That’s why assembling furniture or making a meal feels good in the moment – it fulfills a deep psychological need. And it’s why we see items that we put together ourselves as much more valuable than they actually are.
  • We justify our efforts: No one wants to feel like a sucker for wasting our time and energy building a coffee table when we could have just bought one pre-assembled. We want to feel like investing time and effort into something was worth it, placing more value or importance on the goal we’re working towards. We make mental adjustments to justify all of the effort in the process, believing there was a good reason for us to put in all that work.
  • We are innately optimistic: In general, people have a positive outlook on the world and even when it’s not necessarily justified, we are confident in our own abilities. This optimism extends to the things we own, or even the things we associate ourselves with, which can spill over into the things we have made. As a result, we may see things we’ve crafted as more superior or valuable.

Several brands have successfully harnessed the IKEA effect to enhance product perception and customer appreciation.

Take Blue Apron, for example, which found the balance between making the cooking process easy and fun while still involving the customers in the meal preparation. By having customers actively participate in the process, people were more likely to appreciate the food. Build-A-Bear Workshop allows customers, especially children, to build their own stuffed animals from scratch. Customers can choose the type of animal, select its outfit, and even choose or customize a sound that the stuffed animal plays. This level of involvement generates a deep emotional connection between the customer and the stuffed animal, increasing its perceived value.

The IKEA effect describes how we put more value on things that we’ve built ourselves. These examples are counterintuitive, as marketers we’ve traditionally been trained to reduce friction as much as possible, aiming for an easy, accessible and hassle-free purchase process. However, by adding friction to the purchase process, these brands were able to add value while reducing their costs.

Making things satisfies our need to feel competent and that we are able to handle the tasks that are given to us. Marketers can capitalize on this – customers do most of the work, feel happy about it, and come away with the perception that they got a great value.


Illusion of Control: Our Need to Put Our Own Stamp on Things


Maintaining a sense of effort and involvement in product creation can have several benefits for e-commerce brands. In fact, psychologist Ellen Langer argues that one of the biggest drives of human behavior is our desire for a sense of control. The more you can give your customers control over certain elements of your product, the more you will incite their positive feeling of control and encourage conversions.

When customers invest their precious time and effort into creating or customizing a product, they tend to perceive it as more valuable. The creative process fosters a sense of ownership and personalization adds a unique touch. This increased perceived value can lead to higher customer satisfaction, loyalty, and willingness to pay a premium. Removing all friction from the process may actually make the offering or product seem too easy or less substantial.

Function of Beauty – a personalized hair, body and skincare line – is a great example of a brand that has leveraged the illusion of control. Function of Beauty empowers consumers to create tailor-made products that cater specifically to their unique hair types, needs, goals, and preferences. By simply taking a quiz, customers receive personalized recommendations for a fully customized formula that addresses their individual hair concerns. What’s more, they have the freedom to add fragrances and colors, allowing them to craft a product that’s completely unique and truly one-of-a-kind. This personalized experience enhances the perceived value of products and forges a strong bond between the brand and its customers.

Other brands have found ways to involve customers in the product creation process with customizable options. M&M’s allows customers to create custom candies with personalized messages, colors, and images, making them popular for special occasions and gifts. You can create your very own pair of sneakers through Nike’s innovative Nike By You program, and Moleskine allows you to personalize your notebooks with embossed initials or custom designs.

The key is finding the right balance between convenience and customization. These big brands have something in common – they have found a way to make the customization process user-friendly, intuitive, and enjoyable. As a result, it adds value to the overall experience. Customization and personalization aspects require a bit of time and effort on the consumer’s end. However, these additional steps enhance the customer experience, foster a sense of ownership, and boost perceptions of quality and value.


The Importance of Distinctiveness & Uniqueness


Another tactic that ecommerce brands can harness to shape the perceived value of a product is distinctiveness. When brands remove unique or distinct elements from their products, it can have a negative impact on how customers perceive their value.

One notable example is the case of San Pellegrino, a popular Italian beverage known for its sparkling water. In an attempted to modernize its packaging, San Pellegrino redesigned their cans by removing the iconic foil label that adorned its packaging for years. The foil label was not only aesthetically pleasing but also served as a symbol of authenticity and quality. The removal of the foil resulted in a loss of distinctiveness and diminished the perceived value of the product.

These points of distinction can add a touch of magic or excitement for the customer, allowing brands to stand out from their competitors. When these distinctive elements are removed it will shape customer perceptions negatively. Adding distinct elements to a product’s design will contribute to the overall perceived quality and value of the product, making it more appealing and memorable, and help brands differentiate themselves in the marketplace.

Distinctive elements of a product or brand can serve as friction-reducing factors. When a product offers unique features or design characteristics, it can enhance the overall user experience by making it more seamless, intuitive, and enjoyable. Distinctive attributes can eliminate or minimize friction points that customers commonly encounter, leading to smoother interactions and increased customer satisfaction.

Lesson learned: redesigns and product updates should be approached with caution to ensure the elements of ‘magic’ are not accidentally removed.


Striking the Right Balance: Convenience, Control, and Product Value


Finding the right balance of friction in the purchase process is crucial. While making the process too easy and frictionless can lead to increased returns due to impulsive purchases, making it too complicated may deter potential buyers, especially for big-ticket items. Ecommerce brands need to strike a balance that caters to customer needs and preferences, and finding the right balance of friction might depend on the value of the item.

On one hand, consumers are much more likely to make impulsive purchases if the purchase process is too easy, leading to unintended consequences like increased returns. For certain products, a degree of friction can act as a safeguard against impulsive purchases. E-commerce brands may consider incorporating steps such as order confirmations or reviewing cart contents before checkout to give customers an opportunity to reconsider their decisions and reduce the likelihood of an impulse buy.

On the other hand, customers often prefer a more immersive experience for big ticket items like luxury items or cars. They want to physically touch the product, feel the texture of the leather or experience the horsepower behind the car. In order to feel super confident in their purchase, they make seek out expert opinions, research consumer reviews, or see the product in person before making an investment. In the case of products that entail a higher level of involvement and value, friction may enhance the purchase process by boosting customer confidence or creating a sense of exclusivity.

By finding the sweet spot between convenience, control, and product value, ecommerce brands can create a purchase process that maximizes customer satisfaction and minimizes unwanted behaviors like impulse purchases and returns.

Continual testing and iteration are key. By analyzing customer feedback, monitoring conversion rates, and leveraging data-driven insights, brands can identify areas where friction may hinder the purchase process or impede customer satisfaction. This allows for informed decision-making and fine-tuning of the purchase experience to create a seamless and satisfying journey for customers.


Accelerating Growth by Finding the Sweet Spot


If you’re ready to take your e-commerce brand to the next level, striking the balance of friction in the customer journey is key. Function Growth delivers expertise in marketing, creative, technology, and entrepreneurial consulting to snap-in to in-house teams and accelerate growth. By leveraging behavioral change models, we find unique ways to engage with consumers and inspire action. Contact us today to see how we can help take your brand to the next level.