Friction: Lessons From The Dot.com Days

Fuel prices are up, food prices are up: pretty much everything except for a Costco hot dog costs more these days. So thrift is on our minds – the Northwest Edible Life Facebook page recently posed a question: with food prices on the rise, what are people doing to try and keep budgets under control?

The responses ranged from my own tongue in cheek contribution (never have the phone number of a pizza delivery place on speed dial) to elaborate discussions of how folks are ever more focused on the productivity of their own gardens. Being the analyst that I am, I couldn’t help but notice a trend tying these suggestions together: friction.
Indulge me, and let’s go back a few years (Sherman, set the WABAC machine for somewhere around 1997): the Internet revolution is booming here in Seattle and I’m part of it. I’m working for an online bookstore and listening to our charismatic CEO give an all-hands speech. He keeps talking about friction, like it is some sort of magic way to affect customer behavior. Friction? I’m struggling with concepts from freshman physics so it takes me a while to switch contexts and figure out what he means.

Eventually I get it:

In a store with a million different books, how do you direct customers to the ones that are best for the business? Some books are more profitable than others – and good business practice directs customers to these books instead of ones that are less lucrative. In a brick-and-mortar store the solution is easy: only stock the books that make you money, and put the most money-making ones on end caps and tables near the checkout. But since the entire conceit of Amazon.com centers around having (more or less) every book in print a more subtle solution is needed.
Friction.
Low friction: make it easy for customers to do the things you want them to do (buy books, buy books that make you money, etc.). High friction: make it progressively more difficult for customers to do things that you don’t want them to do (buy books that are barely profitable, buy books that lose you money, etc).
This is nothing new – impulse-buy items are by the checkout counter while the returns department is understaffed take-a-number land. But control of friction is much more important in the self-directed world of online commerce. These ideas are commonplace now, but back in the day Amazon.com had it down to a science and was way ahead of the curve. Awareness of friction was part of the culture of the place, guiding almost any type of customer interaction, from design to implementation.
The results speak for themselves – stunning growth into a veritable empire. Can we take a lesson from this for our own lives?
Absolutely, because we can control friction to direct our own actions in ways that are beneficial to us.
When I had Pagliacci Pizza programmed on my cell phone’s speed dial (yes, this is true: I knew at exactly what point in my drive home I should call to ensure that a pizza would arrive about five minutes after I got to my apartment) it was all too easy to get myself an Extra Pepperoni and a two liter of diet coke. There wasn’t enough friction. The impacts on my Visa bill (and belt size) were obvious.
Now, with our garden verdant and starting to yield spring’s first bounty, another, healthier low-friction pathway is opening up. Snipping some baby spinach greens is easier and faster than running out to the supermarket (or calling Pagliacci!).
Many of the suggestions posted to Facebook were about reducing the friction associated with healthy and frugal choices: cooking ahead, preparing your own convenience foods and snacks, menu planning so the required ingredients are always at hand, keeping a garden or chickens or goats.
These all might require extra effort at another time (I’m not saying that keeping a goat is easy!) – but at that crucial moment in the middle of a glycemic crash with a kid screaming “I’m hungry!” while you decide between grabbing the phone and ordering a pizza or reheating the pre-made chicken and vegetable soup, ensuring that the right choice is the easy choice is the only way to avoid a $55 charge showing up at the end of the month.
The best efforts at friction control are efforts at friction reduction. Make it easy to do the things you know are right, healthy, thrifty. The customer experience becomes one of ease and satisfaction, the personal experience one of convenience and delight.
Friction control risks failure when it focuses on increasing friction. That’s when we get execrable customer service, excessively complicated site navigation, restrictions that make us feel constrained and oppressed. We rebel and take our business elsewhere or ignore our self-imposed rules.
In attempts to control the friction in our own lives, there is the risk of going too far, imposing too many restrictions on our lives (or the lives of our families) and reaching the point where honey badger don’t give a shit, where the constructs intended to keep us in line give way and, like a damn bursting, indulgence and rebellion take control: “Screw it, I’m over budget this month anyway, I might as well [insert your personal slippery slope item here]…”
But there is a difference between making it hard to do something and not making it easy. I avoid carrying cash. Why? Because I know it is all too easy for me to wander in to a Starbucks and order an Americano and a Top Pot donut, pull out a single and a five spot (the total comes to $5.01) and walk away. But if I have to put that same purchase on my Visa, I know it’ll come back to haunt me, mocking me during our weekly budget reconciliation. (This isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, some folks love cash and swear by envelope budgeting.)
When people create their own convenience foods, they lower friction. Making it easier to bring a healthy, affordable snack to work decreases the likelihood that you will give in to that coffee and donut from Starbucks.
Gardens, chickens, goats: these are all powerful tools for controlling friction in our lives. When I can harvest spinach by stepping out my back door with a basket and a pair of scissors, the friction to harvest my own is less than the friction to get in my car, run out to the market and buy a bunch. When our fridge is full of home made yogurt, the friction to get a cup of Dannon is considerably greater than to grab a spoon and just eat away.
Here are a few of the things we do to control friction and help us make good decisions easier to make:
  • I avoid carrying cash (Erica somehow can manage this OK)
  • We try to pack lunches for everyone while making or cleaning up from dinner – this avoids putting it off until the morning…and then not doing it, and then just picking something up.
  • I try to keep a stash of snacks and breakfast munchies (e.g. hardboiled eggs) at the office so I don’t hit the vending machines in desperation.
  • We had a baby who was born loathing car rides and expressed his displeasure with unending shrill wails, which made us more likely to walk except when automotive transport was absolutely necessary (happy accident, hard to reliably duplicate).
  • We plan a few days ahead on meals so anything frozen is thawed by the time it is needed. Usually we have a couple thawed proteins in the fridge to give some choice.
  • We start lettuces every month through the growing season so there is a perpetual salad bowl waiting just outside our door.
  • We use cloth diapers and cloth wipes, which keeps us out of Costco, which keeps our monthly bill down.
  • We make our own beer, which keeps us out of Costco, which (see above).
How do you control friction to improve your decision making? What ideas (successes and failures) have you tried?

Comments

  1. If I could learn to make vodka…

  2. Great post and very timely! I'm going to be joining in on a panel discussion about how we can improve the food system in my city (there are more fast food restaurants than sit down restaurants here and most of the community doesn't have access to a grocery store). This definitely will help me come up with solutions to share and frame it in a way that gets my point across efficiently.

  3. Great post, and so relevant. A lot of times when I share with people about our gardens, etc. I get the "wow! that's so much work!" or the "I wish I had time to do that!" response. But I am inherently lazy. If it weren't easy, I wouldn't do it. Like you, we've set systems up to make it easy to make better choices. I love it!

  4. I had written a massive response, which blogger ate. :( My husband and I were just discussing this topic, so I have some fresh ideas. We're starting to do lots of things to control our decision making. We grow a garden, bake bread, make kefer, and I'm going to start making my own snacks for the kids so I won't have to buy them. My husband is going to start riding the bus to work and taking a lunch rather than buying it at work which we've figured will save $150 to $200 per month. I never carry cash on me, and when things are really tight I avoid the mall and don't carry credit cards on me. We're starting to budget now and will bring a list to the grocery store so we don't buy anything we don't need. If I need something I try to buy used, or try to think of a friend who might be willing to share before I head to the mall. A lot of friends are willing to trade services for garden work. You'd be amazed how many people don't know how to garden, or don't want to spend time getting compost, etc. One of our friends is going to fix our brakes for 3 loads of horse poo this weekend! That's a huge savings. So whenever we have a big expense instead of looking in the yellow pages I try to think if I have a friend who might be willing to trade. I also try to car pool for the kids sports classes as much as possible and make sure the car pool is in place before the kids start the next term.

  5. I have to admit that I'm still working on how to become more organized to make the convenient choices more difficult. But the one thing I do and will always do is never make just one of anything. If I'm making one lasagna then I make two. If I'm cutting up one chicken for the next few days dinner I cut up two. It's just as easy to make a double batch of soup, meatballs, or most anything. The second batch goes in the freezer for a day I'm tempted to call out for pizza or stop by the store for something premade on the way home.

    To that end, my other tip would be a good freezer. It was my one splurge when we bought our first house. We got the most energy efficient, cost-conscious, and cavernous one we could afford.

    Thanks for bringing up the topic!

  6. Food wise, the thing that's made the most difference for my husband and me is to clear out a bunch of stuff from the kitchen. Our biggest friction was letting mess get in the way and build up (which it did very quickly) – so we moved out extra dishes and pots and whatnot. It's a lot harder to get behind on dishes that way, which them makes it a whole lot easier to cook from scratch regularly. Now that it's spring cleaning time we're hoping to apply the same treatment to the rest of the apartment to make it easier to store food, work on projects, and generally enjoy being here a lot more.

    We've also made a habit of regular walks now that the weather's nicer, so it's easier to stop by the grocery store for a few veggies while we're out, reducing the need to pay more for something we like less just because it's more convenient.

    Finally, I tend to head out to the thrift store regularly with a list in hand of things we need or would like to have to make our lives a little easier. It helps keep costs down, and means that we're likely to have what we need on hand.

  7. Starting a garden this year is a big step, even if I don't get high yields my first time out. Right now, I'm planting all this stuff with the understanding that I'm learning how to do it for next year.

    I'm also learning to forage, which has been a lot of fun so far. It's really changed my way of looking at the world; I go for a walk, see familiar plants ("weeds!") and ask myself, "Is that edible? Is that? How about that?" I've been eating a lot of delicious dandelion greens these past couple of weeks; I've long known they are edible but never got the nerve up to try them until now. Free food! Growing abundantly in my yard, with no inputs from me! Awesome.

    Since October, I've made a lot of other changes to my eating and food-buying habits, with the intention of not only saving money, but eating more healthfully and sustainably:

    I almost never eat at restaurants or buy snacks or coffee anymore. I eat before I go shopping, I carry my own snacks and water bottle, I wait to get home to make my own coffee. If I do stop for coffee, I get coffee, not lattes or mochas. I also buy a smaller size than I think I want–which always turns out to be enough.

    I stopped buying industrial meat and eggs in October for humane and environmental reasons (I'm still working on dairy). Since I was sort of a meatatarian before, this has been a big adjustment–but absolutely worth it. I've saved an incredible amount of money this way.

    I make a list of the things I really need before I go shopping, and stick to the list. If I see something that's truly a killer deal, I'll deviate from the list and buy it, but it's gotta be too good to pass up.

    I keep an eye on supermarket ads, and if there's a good loss-leader special on something I actually eat, I stock up. Lately, it's been pasta for $1/lb at Safeway; it's not going to get any cheaper, so I bought the hell out of it. I can safely say that I'm now ready for the Pastapocalypse: BRING IT ON.

    To save money on food, I've also been investing in better cooking equipment. The more from-scratch cooking I do, the lower my food bills; the better my equipment, the easier it is to cook from scratch. I've always been a lazy, indifferent cook, and the quality of my cookware and knives has reflected that. But by bargain-hunting and being patient, I've managed to acquire much better stuff without breaking the bank.

    And I've also started to learn better food-preservation methods and invest in equipment to do it; after a lot of thought, I bought a dehydrator and will probably invest in some canning equipment, too. Since I'm not buying meat, I've decided against a freezer–besides, having limited freezer space forces me to keep what's in there turned over on a regular basis.

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