F-f-frictionless: the Dark Side of Seamless Design
Is “good design” the best when it's hidden? How Sillicon Valley's obsession with seamless design is taking over the world.
Travel to Amsterdam and head to The Hoxton bar and restaurant and you'll feel even closer to a fancy Soho cocktail bar than in most parts of London. Why? Because it’s populated by the same people. Listen closely to your neighbors while you eat your avocado toast and poached eggs. They're mostly speaking English, in varying shades of accents; they're all some type of techno-creative working on MacBooks; and they’ve met up to discuss their latest projects in London, Brooklyn and Stockholm. What ties these cities together? They are poles of the techno-creative global economy where the kinds of people you'll find in a trendy bar in Amsterdam Centrum also go to live, work, and travel.
As I write this, I’m deep undercover at the Hoxton's lobby in a Uniqlo cashmere turtleneck, typing away on a MacBook while I sip an overpriced latte. I got to Amsterdam from Paris on a high speed train—before I boarded I scanned my ticket, which was a QR code stored in my Apple Wallet. I bought the ticket through a mobile app. I spent the better part of the morning teleworking with colleagues in Paris, Poland and Tunisia, all while wearing a set of AirPods, which, I’m almost ashamed to say, I actually love.
All that is to say that I, as a young, anglophone, salaried university graduate who works in tech, am a part of this world, sitting here basking in my own casual hypocrisy in drafting a critique of a world that I, through my presence and participation, help perpetuate. And although I'm mostly here for the high-quality caffeine, I'll be the first to admit that I can vibe with it—“it” being the industrial-chic, pretentiously minimalist furniture.
I bring up this example because The Hoxton and other spaces like it are essentially the Meccas of the religion of seamless design. It all comes down to removing “friction,” or “the idea that good design is best when it’s hidden.” This starts with simple design elements in our experiences. Replacing the ticket office with the smartphone app. Swapping out often chaotic and monolingual public transit ticket machines for the seamlessness of Uber. All of these services have been optimized at a micro level. Each step is made easy, each screen made to be functional, simple and aesthetically pleasing. However, Uber, Apple Wallet, and even spaces like The Hoxton also aim to reduce the friction of everyday life—that is, anything that comes between an otherwise willing consumer and the product or service they might consume.
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Places like The Hoxton represent a physical extension of tech’s friction logic. They are quite literally “frictionless,” but in the sense that wherever such an establishment exists, the consumer can expect a properly “unique,” yet also familiar, experience.
This trend bleeds out of our smartphone apps and into our urban spaces, like an updated version of McDonald’s, but for tech bros. Kyle Chayka’s oft-cited but brilliant article “Welcome to AirSpace” identifies a “harmonization of tastes” taking place across well-connected cities. It’s “the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live/work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go.”
While Chayka attributes this effect mostly to platformization—Instagram, Foursquare, Airbnb—what he’s really identifying is the seamless design concepts of these Silicon Valley startups translating into real world spaces. If adapting to a new aesthetic experience, menu, or ambiance is too jarring for the dominant class of connected digital nomads, then spaces will adapt to reduce this friction in order to drive competitiveness. A cocktail, snack or table design that’s trending in one place will spread to others. Those who do not or cannot reduce this aesthetic friction will lose.
The buzzwords of this movement can be found in the way products aimed at this demographic are marketed. AWAY, a luggage company aimed at nomadic millennials, markets its laptop-charging, carry-on-ready suitcases as a way to “travel seamlessly.” The slogan conjures up images of a sharply dressed digital nomad seamlessly disembarking a plane, wearing AirPods, moving seamlessly through automated customs, to then seamlessly order an Uber, arriving at a chic hotel and paying seamlessly with Apple Wallet.
This visual concept—of tech translating a seamless user experience into the real world—is encapsulated in a video by software company J-Frog. In it, a sales executive goes to work in a self-driving Tesla while reading a newspaper, hops out onto a hoverboard that carries him into the sleek Southern California office, and to his desk, all while high-fiving coworkers and somehow smoothly acquiring a latte along the way. Naturally, the latte is served in a biodegradable cup.
Reducing friction has even made it into our politics. I was once in Tallinn, Estonia for a conference. Estonia being the global capital of “GovTech,” the airport was covered in advertisements for Cybernetica, the Tallinn-based company that created and manages Estonia’s eGovernment and X-Road systems. eGovernment means paperless government, which Estonia has achieved. X-Road, created in 2005, was essentially a proto-blockchain, a system that held all citizen information in a series of encrypted servers, with data unlocked by each citizen’s unique combination of ID card chip and PIN.
Data is not stored centrally; instead it is stored in the agency where it’s generated. This way, your medical records are kept in an encrypted server at your local doctor’s office, but can be seamlessly and simply transferred with your consent to, say, an employer or hospital. Estonia estimates it saves 2% of its GDP per year on paper and administrative costs alone. Even voting can take place through the eGovernment citizen portal from anywhere at anytime, using a two-factor authentication system.
While many of these changes may seem inevitable or simply good, they are neither preordained nor universally benign. Many may look favorably at the way Airbnb or Uber have reduced red tape and prices in industries that have long frustrated their customers. However, it’s important to understand what the “friction” being removed by sleek modernization has truly changed, and who it affects.
In the end, while the value provided to the customer is important, the key question to ask is this: if a company or business model replaces an old industry, what exactly is it that’s being replaced? Airbnb provides a service that is in many ways superior to a disliked, dated model, but instead of replacing steady jobs with steady jobs they replaced heavily-unionized working-class jobs with precarious part-time work full of stress and uncertainty. Post-war generations could build families and wealth around a decent wage and a predictable schedule. The dominance of the gig economy, while great for consumers, cannot provide this stability for its employees.
Airbnb as a service greatly reduces friction at every level of the travel experience, from cost barriers down to the ease of check-in, the expected amenities on-site, and the accountability that comes with leaving reviews. Airbnb even ensures a reaction in aesthetic friction by giving design tips to its hosts, so that customers even know what kind of comfortably minimalist-Scandinavian look to expect. I recently caught myself describing a friend’s recently renovated apartment in Paris as “very Airbnb-chic,” mostly because the interior looked nearly identical to the Airbnb I’d stayed at in San Francisco, ornamental cacti and all.
Outside of the apartments themselves, popular neighborhoods adapt to the influx of affluent tourists, reducing vacation friction, but increasing residential friction. Local services— laundromats, dry cleaners, cheap cafés, markets—close, and tourist friendly services, like instagram-friendly brunch cafés, and concept stores open in their place. Airbnb’s effects have been best documented in Barcelona, where the city has stopped giving out new renting licenses under political pressure from voters.
In Paris, where I live, mass tourism has been a reality for decades. However, this tourism has typically been confined to hotel properties, tightly regulated by the city. Among other drivers, Airbnb has increased housing costs by drastically reducing housing supply. Ian Brossart, leader of the French Communist Party and a deputy mayor of Paris, has carved a political profile out of his opposition to Airbnb. He’s named Airbnb’s impact the “Uberization of Paris”—ubérisation being a catch-all French term for platformization.
Speaking in a 2018 TV interview, Brossart accused the vacation platform of creating a “predatory” housing market by “clandestinely transforming apartments into hotels,” and called for a partial ban on Airbnb in the four central arrondissements (districts) of the French capital. While the service democratizes access to Paris for young tourists, Brossart and others in the city’s Socialist administration argue that the platform “replaces residents with tourists,” making some parts of the city unlivable due to rising rents.
The Airbnb effect in Europe can be seen as a type of burden transfer. By removing barriers to consumption, the service unloads friction normally reserved for the customer and places this burden onto the environment in which consumption is taking place. This trend can be seen across all of tech. In housing, this means making it easier for people across the income ladder to find tourist accommodation, but in the process driving up local rents and driving out resident-focused businesses. In media, this means making news more accessible and free, but polluting the overall information environment.
Resistance to the obsession with frictionlessness has come not only from anti-tech activism, but more recently from some tech figures themselves. In an essay for Vice’s Motherboard, former Google and Jigsaw product lead Justin Kosslyn argues that “friction can be a win-win-win for users, companies, and security. It is time to abandon our groupthink bias against friction as a design principle.” He goes on to cite examples where friction has been introduced to a system, and where the effects are generally seen as positive: highways have speed limits, drugs require prescriptions.
Kosslyn approaches the problem from the angle of security, warning that the speed and seamless experience offered by inventions including APIs, high speed internet, and connected devices makes our machines and societies more vulnerable to cybersecurity threats. This is fundamentally true—if a device is "smart," it’s also vulnerable. However, Kosslyn’s initial argument can be deployed in a much broader way. Writing for Vox, Ezra Klein argues that increases in depression, anxiety, loneliness, political polarization and tribalism can all be linked back to the War on Friction. Klein, as a journalist, naturally uses Twitter as his first example. “Twitter is almost perfectly frictionless,” he argues, “no editors, no formatting, built for instant reaction and in-group applause—and Trump is the result.”
Twitter is not how Trump communicates with voters; cable news via “Fox and Friends” is his main conduit to his base. Twitter is instead the way Trump communicates with the press to drive the news cycle. Here we see the catalyst effect Ezra is describing. The speed and total lack of filters—for publications and reactions—on Twitter allows Trump to move the news cycle along at breakneck speed. We forget his tax scandal, because we’ve already moved on to imposing tariffs on French wine. We forget Kushner’s shady dealings with the Saudis because we’re tweeting our way to war with Iran. Twitter removed all friction from the experience of broadcasting opinion, and naturally this seamlessness was going to be exploited.
In Europe, the accelerating power of frictionless communication has been felt in the waves of protest movements in the last year. Large Facebook groups and events allowed the gilets jaunes movement in France not only to organize in the traditional sense, but also to spread articles and audiovisual content on a massive scale, despite much of it being conspiratorial, anti-semitic, or generated by Russian state media. On the other hand, Twitter was also exploited by the Macron government, who used the platform to anonymously post a doctored video supposedly showing protestors attacking police in Paris.
So clearly the catalyzing effects of reducing friction are to blame for tech’s damaging dark side, right? This causal link is not as simple as our previous examples would have you believe. Paris-based startup product lead Florian Herlicq explains that there are actually two forces at work here. “Platforms reduce bottlenecks providing more access, more content, more demand. Frictionless design reduces annoyance.” Following this logic, reducing friction is more an element of craft in product design. Its negative side effects are simply amplified by the concentration of economic activity on platforms.
Examined from this angle, reducing friction is a simple design element, as benign as the little curve on the back of a Fender Stratocaster that lets the guitar sit comfortably on your hip. It’s about removing irritants, and it’s something designers have been doing well before the internet. The real problem then is the scale of modern platforms. Reducing friction will always be a goal of good design, the problem is when the product being designed allows anyone with an internet connection to reach 2.4 billion people. The ills some blame on optimization may in fact be caused by the broader trend of platformization.
This article appears in Are We Europe #5: Code of Conscience