Managing friction in our work
Let’s play product designer for a moment.
Imagine this user story:
As a corporate employee
I want to increase my 401K contributions
So that I can eventually retire and leave this place.
Like any designer, we map the user journey, and our first pass may look like this:
The user opens her company-issued laptop.
She navigates to the benefits portal.
She selects the 401K Contribution option.
She updates the monthly contribution percentage field.
She presses save.
She receives an email confirmation about her update.
When this is our conceptual understanding, we might gravitate toward enhancing the experience—maybe we can update the contribution percentage field to a dropdown or change the color scheme for accessibility.
But if we’re good designers, we’ll perform user research and discover that the actual experience differs from our conceptual understanding. The reality is much more dismal:
The user opens her company-issued laptop.
She enters her username and password and accepts a terms & conditions pop-up.
Once logged in, she selects the VPN icon to join the company network.
She opens an authenticator app on her phone, scans her face to get a one-time passcode, and enters it before it expires in 28 seconds.
She opens her browser and selects a bookmark to the benefits site.
The link is broken.
She opens the chat app, but it has software updates and needs to restart.
Once it reloads, the user messages her colleagues requesting the link.
After a few minutes, someone gets back to her with the correct link.
But she must use a different browser because the previous one wasn’t compatible.
She waits ten seconds for the page to load and enters her username and password.
She navigates through six dropdown menus until she finds 401K contributions.
She learns she must contact HR to make the update.
The user navigates to the HR portal and reads how to contact HR via the chatbot.
She selects the friendly-looking icon in the bottom right.
She asks about 401K elections, and the chatbot shares a “self-service” article.
The user clicks the link and arrives at the article that led her here.
The user smashes her laptop, spewing the alphabet across her desk.
Multi-factor authentication, high latency, poor internet connectivity, legacy tools, and clunky workflows are all papercuts that transform a simple user experience into a nightmare.
Lingchi is the ancient art of Japanese torture, in which tormentors slowly slice away portions of a victim’s body until they die. This lovely art is the etymological root of “death by a thousand cuts” and inspires the design of the many systems we use in our jobs. The 401K contribution update described above is a milder form of torture knowledge workers endure today. Sadly, our fictitious user did not end her journey by smashing her laptop—she likely endured another seven hours of operational papercuts in her day job.
A Culture of Callused Complacency
A single papercut is never fatal—neither literally to our bodies nor figuratively to our spirits—but we can die by a thousand cuts. Many knowledge workers are lacerated by operational papercuts daily in almost every task, even logging into their laptops. One must adopt a certain level of complacency to persist in a place of perpetual papercuts. Like developing a callus, workers build up a tolerance for papercuts so they don’t bleed to death.
When a work culture lets these calluses form, it breeds complacency that spreads like cancer. The impact on the workforce and society could be a thesis of its own, but that’s beyond the scope of this article. On a personal level, the ambition of our spirits—and I believe most of our souls have a purpose beyond an Epicurean existence—can go dark. Ambition dampens because the effort to achieve the most minuscule tasks is immense. We become bored and sluggish.
When we become complacent with papercuts in one aspect of life, that complacency can permeate our creativity. When papercuts—like products with bugs or writing with grammatical errors—plague the things we make, they’re unlikely to succeed.
I offer a six-part solution.
I. Become a Tenderfoot
After my backpacking trip in Montana, where I spent a few days in wet boots, my feet began to peel. Walking became labored as the calluses lifted, exposing the tender skin below. My feet regained a sensitivity, so every rock perturbed me when I waded into a lake the other week. Although painful, it made me aware of something I had grown numb to.
Sometimes, we need to peel back the calluses in our work.
We can gain awareness of operational papercuts with an audit of our workflows. By slowing down to document each step of a familiar process—such as writing a status report—we can uncover the pain points we’ve grown numb to—copy-pasting text from three different screens, changing font colors, and remembering to CC the right people. Or maybe it’s a workout habit we’ve struggled to stick with. We intend to exercise four days a week but only achieve one because we’re subconsciously avoiding the papercuts of packing a bag, driving twenty minutes to a crowded gym, waiting around for equipment, and not knowing if we’re doing the right exercises. When we let ourselves re-feel that pain, we can understand how friction withholds success.
II: Abandon the High-Hanging Fruit
With our calluses removed and the papercuts exposed, we can ask ourselves if we want to pursue what we’re chasing. Do we know the value these high-friction tasks are driving?
We may discover that friction exists for a reason. If we’re struggling to motivate ourselves to run five miles two days per week, maybe we could spend that motivational energy elsewhere. We might enjoy biking, and if we weren’t depleting our willpower on attempting to run, we could get in three or four bike rides each week and realize better long-term health.
Unlike the low-hanging fruits, which have good rewards for little effort, some pursuits are high-hanging fruits—low rewards for a lot of effort. Unless we have a good reason to pursue these things, we’re better off abandoning them.
III: Flow like a River
We could consider a less painful approach if the high-hanging fruit is too good to abandon. There’s a principle of jiu-jitsu that acknowledges the wisdom of a river. When a river encounters a rock, it does not try to go through it; the river simply flows around it. To mix metaphors: When pursuing the high-hanging fruit, do we need to climb through gnarly branches, or could we use a ladder? When too much friction blocks our path, consider a new route.
IV: Take Care of the Ounces
Backpackers have a little aphorism: Take care of the ounces, and the pounds will take care of themselves (or, for our non-imperial audience: Take care of the grams, and the kilos will take care of themselves). Don’t neglect the little things. Each rock the river encounters and moves around is a win, and when several of these friction points disappear, the overall going gets easier.
V: Embrace the Grind
At this point, we’ve abandoned pursuits that aren’t worth the effort, found new ways to overcome obstacles, and stacked process improvements to reduce friction. But some things are just plain hard: summiting a mountain, writing a book, rearing a child, or launching a business. We can take care of many ounces, but a ton of raw effort remains. We’ll embrace the grind and persevere if we want something enough.
VI: Recognize Barriers
Persevering on hard things is even more challenging when we don’t understand the root cause of the hardship. For instance, why is it so hard to publish a novel with a reputable publisher?
There are a lot of friction points—establishing a portfolio of work unrelated to the novel, querying an agent, generating a solid draft, and convincing the publisher. Given this cumbersome and archaic process, companies began to offer self-publishing services. I’ve used several self-publishing platforms and can confirm they’re relatively painless. Unfortunately, that lack of friction—democratizing the means of production—creates a crowded marketplace that’s harder to compete in.
Traditional publishing continues to have a better path toward commercial success because it uses friction to maintain a quality bar. Every step along the way was designed to turn away low-quality work. So, enduring this friction-heavy process offers an opportunity to improve.
We can apply this understanding to other systems, like warranty returns, immigration, or customer support queues. When demand exceeds the supply, the papercuts of bureaucracy can trim down the excess. It’s a dark design pattern, but it’s an unfortunate reality.
Anything worth doing will have friction because we’re pushing against complacency—the natural order of things. Since we only have so much energy, we must prevent papercuts wherever possible to persevere on the things that matter most.