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All great experiences need a little friction

Believe it or not, friction can be your friend when considering how to make audiences feel comfortable with returning to your live event.

The following article is based on the insights WRG gathered from a recent focus group of 60 global marketing and event leaders, who were brought together to consider how we should best bring audiences back to live events. You can find out the results in our free report here. 

When we think about experience design, we tend to think about ways to make that experience as smooth and easy as possible; wherever we can, we look to remove friction. This presents a challenge when thinking about the return to live events, for the simple fact that the various checks and measures now needed to protect against COVID inevitably add more friction to the event experience.


But not all friction is created equal

Take an interview process for a new job. If, within five seconds of starting the interview, the interviewer says to you, “Do you know what? That’s enough of that – you’ve got the job,” how might that make you feel about the job and the company? It’s certainly a near-frictionless interview experience, but it’s likely dented the value of the role and the company. In this case, less friction means less value created. Compare this to a difficult series of interviews for a role. They may be horrible while you’re doing them, but there’s every chance this friction would make getting the job so much more valuable to you (most high-end MBA programs know this well).

This counter-intuitive effect of friction adding to the overall value of an experience has been identified in academic research and is nicknamed the IKEA effect, based on how people value the furniture they assemble more than the same furniture delivered pre-assembled. Friction involves us exerting effort, and this effort is a cost for us, which means friction can represent an investment and a subsequent sense of ownership.


This counter-intuitive effect is actually more widespread than we realize

Think about the security process at the airport (remember when we all used to fly?). Working our way through the “shoes off, laptops out, belts off” ritual can be profoundly frustrating, but it makes the flying experience better (more valuable) by making it safer. And let’s be clear – there’s nothing more valuable for a flight than safety. Not convinced? Then here’s the same argument in a different form: if two planes were traveling to the same destination, leaving at the same time and from the same airport, and one had security checks and the other was just inviting anyone to turn up and get on, which one would you most likely get on?


So, what about when it comes to a return to live events?

A key ingredient to making live events a success is to think about how the inevitable added friction of COVID checks and measures can be turned from a negative to a positive for the audience – to have the friction add value to the experience, not detract from it.

So, how can we do this? The interview and airline examples both give us a clue. In each case, the friction is added to a preparatory or adjunct aspect of the experience, rather than the core, value-creating experience. Put another way, once you’re through the high-friction interviews, you don’t want more friction in the form of daily bureaucracy in the new job. Once on the plane, you don’t want to find your seat doesn’t recline (or, worse still, the seat in front won’t go back up). In each case, the good friction can signal that there’ll be no bad friction ahead.

So, with COVID-safe events, we might do well to think about making sure we keep those moments of COVID friction as far away from the core experience as we can. This could include rapid tests, confirmations of vaccine, or LFTs ahead of the event, meaning when people arrive and enter the room, they already know everything’s been done to make sure they’re safe. And while some aspects of friction from COVID are still going to creep into the core event, we can still be creative in terms of reducing or reframing this friction in some way. A great example of this is the idea of colored lanyards not just showing your name and company, but also signaling how comfortable you are with greetings and contact when surrounded by others (choosing your lanyard could be made even easier by including it alongside the testing routine ahead of the event, where delegates can see how the various color options are being adopted by everyone else attending).

Used in the right way, friction within an experience can create significant value for those within that experience. It can signal scarcity, exclusivity, membership, skills, and – of course – safety. Friction does not need to detract from an experience. However, using friction in this way requires us to fundamentally re-imagine what that overall experience needs to look like and how it can add value to a more cautious, complex, and demanding audience today. It forces us to be creative and to place the audience at the center of how we think and plan, which – COVID or otherwise – is actually a good thing.


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