Friction and the Role of AI in the Customer Experience


For years, buzz words like “friction-free” and “seamless” were the gold standard for managing sales funnels and designing engaging digital experiences. With AI taking off, marketers are reimagining customer journeys once again.

Here at EGR, we’ve been exploring the latest artificial intelligence (AI) tools. Like many, we’re enjoying them, we’re fascinated by them, and we take precautions when using them. We’ve been vigilantly (and creatively) thinking about helping our clients gain a competitive edge in this next phase of intelligent digital transformation. So are “friction-free” and “seamless” customer experiences still the ideal? How should we go about planning an engagement strategy embedded with AI?

Renée Richardson Gosline with the Human-AI Interaction Group at MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy has come up with a good way to think about this. For Gosline, “friction is not the same thing as a pain point.”

Read on as we explain good and bad friction, how your brand can take advantage of friction as a tool, and how AI can eliminate harmful friction and implement good friction in your buying experiences and engagement strategies.

Now more than ever, we need to keep paying attention to friction — the good, the bad, and its absence. Gosline and other AI experts see friction as a key indicator for designing successful customer experiences and building trust.

What is good friction?

It comes in many forms, but fundamentally, good friction involves interactions designed to make the customer feel more aware, empowered, and heard by the brand.

As embedded AI becomes more accurate, seamless and undetectable, we may be tempted to remove the good friction altogether. Already, algorithms can be used to analyze a variety of problems, from optimizing and tracking the success of our selling strategies and to even diagnosing disease with enough data. But when that’s done silently, we lose an opportunity to show up, learn, and talk with customers. AI expert Gosline reminds us that not all moments of deliberation are bad. In fact, they keep us from going on autopilot. Good friction reminds us when “the human element is needed and moving factors need to be taken into consideration.” Good friction allows us to design for trust.

Cookie pop-up notifications, security steps to verify one’s identity, and feedback surveys can be slightly annoying, but they are all examples of gentle rubs. Good friction. They remind customers of how the brand is protecting their data and their relationship.

Now let’s take an example with generative AI, the technology powering ChatGPT. Recently, on Future Ready by Think with Google, journalist Katie Couric sat down with Google’s James Manyika to chat about the ABCs of AI. Turns out Google Translate is one of the most popular examples of generative AI. Imagine if your browser automatically began translating a website without first asking? Asking your permission before automatically translating is another excellent example of good friction with AI.

What is Bad Friction?

So if good friction creates a moment of fleeting tension, bad friction creates a swelling sense of frustration and powerlessness. It could be transacting on a clunky website, discovering your payment method is invalid without a reason, or getting stuck in password verification. The outcome, as we know from analyzing analytics, is often abandonment. Goodbye – not good buy.

Now add to that lack of transparency… even less transparency. Brands are increasingly tempted to use AI as a way to nudge the customer along the buying funnel without options to get out and cancel. These practices, called “dark patterns,” might include auto-enrollment. While at face value this can be a huge convenience for the customer, removing the opportunity to unenroll or unsubscribe eliminates the customers’ choice, voice, and may have an impact on their wallet. So-called dark patterns also present a security risk, as one’s personal data and contact information is, in effect, stolen. Bridges are easy to burn when brands treat customers in this way.

Gosline recommends using AI to “practice acts of inconvenience,” as in giving customers more choice and providing more navigable autonomy when it comes to their experiences and preferences. Though this approach seems counterintuitive at first blush, customers may appreciate the transparency in the end.

“…When it comes to the adoption of AI and machine learning, ‘frictionless’ strategies can also lead to harm, from privacy and surveillance concerns, to algorithms’ capacity to reflect and amplify bias, to ethical questions about how and when to use AI,” wrote Gosline for the Harvard Business Review.

How to get good friction with AI

By now, there’s a good chance your brand is using AI (or hopes to in the future) in some form or fashion. In fact, the IBM Global AI Adoption Index 2022 found that only one in five of today’s companies don’t plan to use AI.

As automation moves forward, marketers can make incredible progress by building relationships with customers that are more rooted in trust and authenticity. Finding the right balance with good friction can be hard. We recommend auditing your customer experience to assess the bad and good. Then get back to the drawing board. When it comes to AI, the rules are being written as fast as they are being broken, but staying aware of friction keeps us human-centered, agile, and ethical.

Experts say we’re in trouble if we go on algorithmic autopilot. Customers’ decision-making remains important. As does our own! (A 2021 study on executives using AI revealed 56 percent of them could not explain how AI decisions and predictions are made.)

Or as Googler James Manyika, the Senior Vice President of Technology and Society, said recently about AI, “these capabilities are not just something for the IT department to think about. These are central to the business strategy of the company.”

Thankfully, successful brands remain committed to continually improving the buying experiences they offer by evaluating the latest technologies for potential and purpose. With so much changing in the landscape of customer relationships, we predict this will stay the same.

EGR International works with brands to enhance their customers’ journeys

From personalized loyalty rewards programs, to designing engaging chatbots, to producing one-of-a-kind, unforgettable sales summits, EGR has extensive experience guiding brands in delivering superior strategic customer journeys. Whether it’s through the use of AI, channel marketing, interactive media, virtual events, content creation, or any of our other specialties, we’ll help you inspire engagement among your targeted audiences. Contact us today to learn more.

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