Reduce Friction, Increase Happiness

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Editor’s Note: Brenden Mulligan is an entrepreneur who created Onesheet, ArtistData, MorningPics, and PhotoPile. He’s an mentor for 500 Startups, Advise.me and several startups. You can find him on Twitter at @bmull and blogging at Starting Up.

There has been a reoccurring theme on my mind recently as I’ve advised startups on areas of focus. It revolves around the goal of reducing friction.

Reduced friction in a product leads to less user frustration, high conversion, and overall user happiness. I’d like to use a few examples to illustrate what I mean.

Taxis / Uber

Let’s start with Uber, the startup that lets you order a black car from your mobile phone in San Francisco, New York, Seattle, Chicago, and a growing list of cities. Because I know the team, I’ve been following this startup since they launched. I actually took an Uber car to celebrate selling my first startup during one of their first weeks in beta.

When I first heard about the service, I focused on the luxury aspect of traveling in a black town car with a private driver. Who wouldn’t? It’s in their tagline (“Everyone’s Private Driver”) and it sounds awesome. But after my first Uber experience, I found out that while nice, the luxury component is strangely unimportant compared to their much bigger function of reducing the friction of getting a ride somewhere.

Let me elaborate. Friction points are italicized.

Here is generally what you need to do to get a cab:

  • Find a Car: Stand on the street waving at taxis as they drive by, hoping one stops (this can take a long time in SF), or call for one, which usually takes 15-30 minutes to arrive.
  • Set Destination: Tell the driver where you are going.
  • Ride: Many taxis aren’t the most peaceful drivers.
  • Pay: Take out your wallet and pay with cash (or credit card if they accept it – many don’t).
  • Tip: Calculate a tip to add to the fare.

Here is the Uber experience:

  • Find a Car: Open app and hit Pick Me Up. The car usually arrives within 10 minutes, sometimes within 5.
  • Set Destination: Tell the driver where you are going (although you can set this ahead of time)
  • Ride: Almost always a quiet, peaceful experience.
  • Pay: Your credit card is charged automatically.
  • Tip: Tip is calculated for you and included in fare.

Uber has reduced all the friction. What was a tedious process before is a seamless, pleasurable interaction. The most important thing Uber provides its users is that frictionless experience. The fact that it’s a black car means it’s generally an aesthetically nicer experience (and with SF Taxis, that can make a big difference), but that’s a small detail compared to the other benefits of using the service.

Zipcar / Getaround

A lot of people are familiar with Zipcar. It’s pretty simple. There are a bunch of Zipcar-owned cars around the city that members can rent on an hourly basis. All reservations are done through their website.

Getaround is a new startup taking on Zipcar by altering the model. Instead of Getaround purchasing a lot of inventory (cars), they built a marketplace for car-owners to list their own vehicles for other people to rent. I love the idea, and so do thousands of car owners looking to make money from their unused cars. The company won best startup at TechCrunch Disrupt in NYC and since then has been well funded. I have used the service frequently. I love what they’re doing and think they’re going to build a great company.

However, they face a serious challenge. Zipcar owns its inventory, so they have more control of the friction in the experience:

  • Search: Search Zipcar.com
  • Reserve: Click on an available car and it’s instantly reserved.
  • Get Keys: Unlock with your Zipcar Card
  • Find Car: Go to the dedicated Zipcar parking spot
  • Drive
  • Add Gas: If less than 1/4 tank is left, use provided gas card to fill up tank. Otherwise, just return the car.
  • Return Car: Park car in reserved parking space
  • Lock and Return Key: Lock with card and walk away

There isn’t really a lot of friction there. Now let’s look at that experience with Getaround:

  • Search: Search Getaround.com
  • Reserve: Since the cars are personal property, car availability isn’t guaranteed, so this turns to two steps.
  • Request several potential rentals.
  • Wait to hear from an owner.
  • If an owner replies, your booking is reserved. If not, repeat search.
  • Get Keys: You can unlock some cars with the mobile app. Most, however, you need to set up a time to exchange the key in person with the owner.
  • Find Car: Since Getaround owners don’t necessarily have dedicated parking spots, the car’s location varies, so you need to ask the owner where it is. Sometimes the answer resembles “On 27th between Guerrero and Dolores”.
  • Drive
  • Add Gas: Before returning every rental, the gas needs to be filled up to where it was at the beginning of the rental, which you pay for. So you need to remember the initial level and try to add just enough gas to return it to that level.
  • Return Car: If there’s not a reserved spot, you need to find a place to park it. If this takes longer than expected, you might be late returning it.
  • Lock and Return Key: Coordinate with the owner how to return the key and tell them where their car is parked.

Wow. That’s a lot more friction.

Again, I love Getaround, and their team is more aware of these issues than anyone. I’m 100% confident that as they go, they’ll iron this stuff out, just as Zipcar ironed out all the challenges they faced at the beginning. The friction issues Getaround faces are a result of the fact that Zipcar bought cars, while Getaround buys bandwidth. This initial disadvantage will make the company much more nimble and scalable long term.

I think the key to reducing friction quickly is to incentivizing the car owners to reduce the friction points. Give owners the option to guarantee their schedule, so cars can be booked immediately. Push them to install the CarKit, (the device that lets the renter locate and unlock the car from their smartphone). Then, when owners do these things, Getaround should give them a bigger percentage of the rental fee or prioritize those cars in search results. These owner will get more rentals and make more money. Over time, as users choose these cars, other owners will need to add these options to compete in the marketplace, and friction starts to disappear.

Airbnb / Kayak

Even successful startups still work every day on reducing friction. Let’s quickly compare Kayak and Airbnb.

Kayak:

  • Search: Search Kayak.com and only available hotels appear.
  • Confirmation: You can make a reservation instantly on the hotel website
  • Arrival: You go to the front desk, get your key, and go to your room.
  • Checkout: You leave your room.

Airbnb:

  • Search: Search Airbnb.com and get a list of properties, some available, some booked (since the owners don’t keep their schedules up to date).
  • Confirmation: Many times, owner writes back saying the calendar wasn’t updated and you need to search again.
  • Arrival: You need to arrange a time to meet to get the key, sign a small contract, etc.
  • Checkout: Most of my experiences, you can just leave the key and go.

A lot of times, finding an Airbnb accommodation is a bigger hassle than a booking hotel. But they’ve managed to build a $1 billion company, and continually works to make the process seamless and frictionless. And it’s getting better and better.

So what does all this mean?

Friction is important to consider when creating a product. If your users feel friction using or signing up for your service, you have a problem. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but you should do everything in your power to remove as much friction as possible. And you should pay attention to this constantly as your product and service grow.

When you examine your product, where are the friction points? Are you letting users sign up with Twitter/Facebook, or do they need to register separately? Are you opening popups to get their attention instead of letting them continue on the site? Are you requiring information you don’t need?

Reduce friction, increase happiness.

Excerpt image courtesy of Ian Hampton