Online commerce has made it easier than ever to shop, right? Maybe too easy. A recent study by comparison-shopping site Finder revealed that more than 88 percent of Americans admitted to spontaneous impulse buying online, blowing an average of $81.75 each time we lose control. Clothes, videogames, concert tickets. One in five of us succumb weekly. Millennials do it the most.
“The main emotion that people feel after this impulsive spending is regret,” says Jennifer McDermott, a consumer advocate for Finder. While it’s not an impartial estimate, Finder calculates that we spend more than $17 billion on impulse buys—which is a lot of regret.
So McDermott’s team decided to help us rein in our impulses. They created Icebox, a Chrome plug-in that replaces the Buy button on 20 well-known ecommerce sites with a blue button labeled “Put it on ice.” Hit it and your item goes into a queue, and a week or so later Icebox asks if you still want to buy it.
In essence, it forces you to stop and ponder, “Do I really need this widget?” Odds are you don’t.
This is a lovely example of what I’ve come to think of as “friction engineering”—software that’s designed not to speed us up but to slow us down. It’s a principle that inverts everything we know about why software exists.
Most of the time coders labor to increase our throughput by reducing friction. Speed often improves life. But the recent techlash has been driven in a fundamental way by the grim side effects of this acceleration. Facebook’s Newsfeed made it frictionlessly easy to spread misinformation; Twitter let trolls engage in coordinated harassment campaigns; Amazon enticed me to buy crap I manifestly don’t need and is helping to denude towns of local businesses.
In contrast, inserting friction can bring intriguing wins. Consider the case of Nextdoor, the site that lets real-life neighbors create online hubs to talk to one another. The service includes a crime-reporting tool that made it easy to report suspicious activity. The problem was that jittery residents would too often write a racist alert whenever any black person so much as walked past their house.
So Nextdoor redesigned the crime-reporting tool to slow things down. Filing a report now requires listing specific details—what the suspicious person was wearing, their age, their actions. Using the tool suddenly involved more work. It helped: Nextdoor says racial profiling in its crime section dropped dramatically.
Others have tried to inject friction into the hummingbird metabolism of social media. Entrepreneur Andrew Golis created This, an app used to post only one link a day. “The goal,” he tells me, was to encourage high-quality curation, “to create something that was like showing off your bookshelf, the things you really love.”
What unifies these experiments is that they encourage deliberation. Why am I buying this? Why am I reporting this “suspicious” incident? Friction engineering ought to be taught in computer-science and design schools everywhere.
It’s a Sisyphean battle, I admit. Offered the choice, we nearly always opt for convenience. Golis’ This app died after less than two years of gathering only a small but devoted following; Icebox is brilliant but hasn’t yet taken off. Socratic deliberation improves our lives—but, man, what a pain!
It’s certainly possible to slow our software, and thereby ourselves. But it’ll happen only when we become too unsettled by the speed of our journey.
This article appears in the September issue. Subscribe now.