Explore inspiring stories of how three businesses achieved extraordinary results, propelling them to new heights of success by identifying and addressing hidden barriers.
Whether you want to improve business outcomes, understand your client's motivations, or even your own, this article is my attempt at making a case for understanding the hurdles and challenges of your end users by implementing the teachings of applied psychology research in business.
This article is a summary of the key findings from the "Hidden Brain" podcast episode, titled Success 2.0: The obstacles you don’t see along with examples from local social impact organizations who have made use of these tools.
Businesses, aiming to gain traction in a crowded marketplace, often throw money into marketing, product improvements, and hiring strategies. However, as revealed in a conversation on the podcast "Hidden Brain", Loran Nordgren, a psychologist at Northwestern University's School of Management, makes the case that focusing only on growth (fuel) may not provide the desired results, we need to think about reducing friction. A key element often overlooked is the user experience, particularly the barriers or challenges that may be preventing consumers from engaging with the product or service (Vedantam & Nordgren, 2023).
The following arguments emphasize the importance of Identifying and addressing hidden Impediments, and the differences in outcomes when removing friction instead of adding more (power, fuel, resources, money).
Fuel vs. Friction:
The below examples illustrate the contrast between fuel (elevating the appeal of an idea or product) and friction (the psychological or physical forces that resist change). Businesses often focus on adding fuel, improving their product, or making their idea more attractive, overlooking the equally important aspect of reducing friction. Recognizing and addressing the barriers or challenges that may prevent users from engaging with a product or service is critical for success. Moreover, over-reliance on fuel can sometimes lead to a backlash effect, creating more resistance rather than reducing it (Vedantam & Nordgren, 2023). An example given in the “Hidden Brain” podcast episode was the increase in people getting tetanus shots when they were simply asked to mark the date on their calendars and given directions to the nearest inoculation center from there homes, rather than being persuaded about the value of the shot. Spending more time and effort persuading people can backfire, making individuals more suspicious in this case.
It’s not always about persuading customers but instead making it easier for them to perform desired actions. By reducing the complexity of tasks, businesses can achieve higher engagement rates (whether in the form of profits, or social impact as we’ll see in the next section).
Identifying and Addressing Hidden Impediments
Here are a few powerful examples of social impact organizations, and a for-profit business reducing friction for its end users and seeing direct benefits.
The Alex Community Health Centre, Calgary
The Alex Community Health Centre in Calgary, a social impact organization, recognized the need to reduce friction for its end users by providing comprehensive health and social services to vulnerable populations. They understood that transportation, accessibility, and coordination of care were significant challenges for these individuals.
To address these challenges, The Alex launched a Mobile Health Clinic, a fully-equipped medical clinic on wheels that brings healthcare services directly to those in need. This innovative solution eliminates transportation barriers and increases access to healthcare for those who might not otherwise seek help.
Additionally, The Alex established a team-based approach to care by integrating medical, mental health, and social support services under one roof, reducing the need for clients to navigate multiple systems and locations.
By understanding the needs of its end users, The Alex Community Health Centre has developed innovative solutions to reduce friction and improve access to essential health and social services for vulnerable populations in Calgary
Food Accessibility Innovations
The Calgary Food Bank has innovated to reduce friction for those needing food assistance. Recognizing the challenges some individuals face in physically accessing the food bank, they initiated an online ordering system and partnered with local community centres and organizations for the distribution of food hampers.
The online system allows individuals to request food hampers at their convenience, eliminating the need for lengthy phone calls or in-person visits. The partnership with local organizations, meanwhile, ensures food hampers are more accessible across different neighbourhoods, reducing the need for long and potentially costly trips to the food bank's central location.
By understanding and addressing these barriers, the Calgary Food Bank has made its services more accessible and user-friendly, better serving the needs of Calgary's food-insecure population.
Fresh Routes is a local initiative that provides fresh and affordable food to communities that may not have easy access to traditional grocery stores due to barriers such as transportation and income. Fresh Routes operates a Mobile Grocery Store that brings fruits, vegetables, eggs and bread to neighborhoods in Calgary.
The Leftovers Foundation is the last but most important piece in dealing with food insecurity. They use technology to redirect and rescue edible food to prevent unnecessary food waste and feed people who need it. The most impressive double-solve of reducing food waste and increasing access.
Who Doesn’t Love Customizable Furniture?
A case study involving a Chicago-based customizable furniture company demonstrated that despite consumers' strong interest in their products, potential customers often abandoned their purchases in the last few stages of a purchase. The problem was not with the quality or price of the furniture, but rather a hidden hurdle: what to do with the existing furniture? By offering to pick up old sofas upon delivery of new ones, the company effectively removed this barrier, leading to an uptick in sales (Vedantam & Nordgren, 2023). Another example of enhancing the user experience by identifying and addressing hidden impediments directly from the podcast episode.
A more common and relatable example of effort reduction in the workplace is the changing landscape of video and web conferencing and other communication technologies in a post-pandemic world. With far fewer steps, we can book meetings with anyone, anywhere, effortlessly. The next section explores a brief case study on how culture change can be sped up by technology that has been optimized to reduce effort (harnessing the power of friction reduction), enabling meetings to take over our workdays.
To read the full blog, which includes this last section, you'll have to hop over to my full blog on Medium...
Innovative businesses should focus not just on the attractiveness of their products or services but also on understanding their end users' needs and challenges. By reducing friction and barriers, companies can facilitate user engagement and satisfaction, ultimately leading to increased business success. This user-centric approach requires perspective-taking and a deeper understanding of the user experience. Thus, businesses need to remember that customers don't engage for the company's reasons but for their own.
Conducting user experience research is one way to understand how businesses can create a smoother path for their users, ultimately leading to greater engagement and success.
What to read next?
Check out our recent article, The Business Case for Inclusive Design
About the author
Uriel Karerwa dedicates at least one hour each day to commuting, using this time to listen to podcasts. This amounts to 6% of his waking hours, spent absorbing information, but often without tangible evidence of this knowledge gain. Recently, he's resolved to share the nuggets of wisdom he uncovers. After all, stories become richer when shared with others.
Check out more of Uriel's work on Medium: Uriel's Medium Page
Occasionally I come across a podcast that makes me nod my head vigorously (making me look a bit mad) surrounded by fellow public transit users. I decided I would try to share my learnings with you all in hopes that it inspires some new insights and improves your life in some way. I’ll also make it my goal to make your head nod as you read this. I bring to you the first of maybe a series of posts where I share my favorite applicable insights from podcasts and other fun sources. Happy Reading! - Uriel
Vedantam, S., & Nordgren, L. (2023). Hidden Brain. [Podcast]. National Public Radio
The Human Element: Overcoming the Resistance that Awaits New Ideas. Loran Nordgren and David Schonthal, Wiley, October 2021.
Mass-Scale Emotionality Reveals Human Behavior and Marketplace Success. Matthew Rocklage, Derek D. Rucker, Loran Nordgren, Nature Human Behavior, 2021.
Emotionally Numb: Expertise Dulls Consumers Experience. Matthew Rocklage, Derek Rucker, Loran Nordgren, Journal of Consumer Research, 2021.