One theme in applied psychology is that, if you want to encourage change, then make the desired behaviour as easy as possible.

In fact, Richard Thaler, the 2017 Nobel prize winner in economics, says: "My number-one mantra from Nudge is, 'Make it easy'."

There are plenty of examples where the removal of seemingly inconsequential barriers had a disproportionate effect. Think of the boost to Netflix’s viewing when it switched to playing the next program automatically. Or when Amazon introduced one-click purchasing.

Each time, removing a tiny bit of friction had an outsized effect.

'Easy' can change behaviour

The effect is even apparent in far more significant decisions.

The Behavioural Insights Team, a policy team known informally as the "Nudge Unit", found that, when the UK government switched workplace pensions from opt-in to opt-out, there was a jump in enrolment.

Within six months of the rule change, the proportion of employees in their work schemes leapt from 61% to 83%.

However, while "make it easy" is a general rule, there are moments when you might want to consider the opposite.

This might sound contradictory, but nuances shouldn’t surprise us. People are complicated after all. As Rory Sutherland puts it:

"In physics, the opposite of a good idea is a bad idea. In psychology, the opposite of a good idea can be another good idea."

'Hard' boosts appreciation

So, when should you add friction into the customer journey?

  • If you want to change behaviour, then removing friction is the right tactic.
  • However, if you want to change people’s appreciation of a product, then add a little.

That’s not supposition. In 2012, Michael Norton, a Harvard psychology professor, led a study into the effect of effort on the perception of an item’s value.

He recruited 52 participants and randomly assigned them to one of two groups: a "builder" or non-"builder" group. Builders were asked to assemble a plain black IKEA box whereas the others were shown a professionally-assembled box.

Finally, the psychologist asked everyone how much they would be prepared to pay for the box. The results were clear: builders offered 62% more than non-builders.

Labour means love

These findings weren’t a fluke. Norton repeated the experiment, but with origami. This time, the people who constructed a paper bird bid five times as much for it as those offered the same style of bird assembled by an expert.

In Norton’s words, “labour seems to lead to love”. It’s as if we need to justify to ourselves the effort we’ve expended.

You can see this principle being applied across the commercial world. And it’s not just the obvious places like IKEA and Build-a-Bear.

Think about drinks. The effort of uncorking a bottle of wine, the wait for a pint of Guinness. In each case, the small effort involved boosts appreciation.

The key is to look for the sweet spot: easy enough that people engage, but not so easy that people don’t value the offering.

This balance is masterfully applied by meal kits like Gousto or Hello Fresh. They’re more convenient than cooking from scratch - but not so easy that the buyer doesn’t feel like a proper chef.

Find your friction

So, what should you do?

Go through your customer journey and remove the friction that has been unintentionally added.

Then, once that journey is seamless, pick one area where adding friction will boost appreciation.

If you do that, you’ll be harnessing behavioural science to its full extent.