Jeremy Smith Apr 7, 2016 4:30:55 AM 28 min read

Optimizing For Conversions: Finding & Eliminating Friction

Part  4 of  5 - Optimizing For  Conversions -  Finding  & Eliminating Friction 

What You'll Learn In This Post

Where to find conversion-killing friction that you can remove from your website.

It is a simple, sad fact: the friction that users encounter on your website is costing you money.

There are many points of friction on your site. And they are hurting you. Friction kills conversions, which cuts into revenue.

If you are an online marketing director or anyone with a responsibility for increasing online revenue, friction is Enemy No. 1.

Friction will never go away completely. But you can take some steps to mitigate its potential damage.

Below, I’m going to walk you through:

  • What friction means to the digital marketer and conversion optimizer.
  • How friction harms your conversion rate.
  • How to identify points of friction to be eliminated.
  • Where you are likely to find points of friction on an e-commerce site.


Conversion Optimization Friction: An Enemy You Must Face

Know Your Enemy

(Image source)

Identifying friction is a basic element of your conversion optimization process. As a digital marketer, you’ll either deal with the amount of friction on your website or ignore it at your own peril.

Friction and anxiety are two negative elements we discussed in a prior tutorial about the Conversion Triangle, the basis of optimization, which comprises relevance, motivation and value proposition.

Friction and anxiety can destabilize the foundational triangle that your conversion optimization efforts rest on.

Friction is any variable (on or off a website), that negatively affects or distracts from the user’s experience on your site. We said earlier that anything that slows a user down a sticking point or something that rubs them the wrong way is friction and can block a potential conversion.

Let’s see how others look at friction:

At ConversionXL, friction is described as consisting of two components:

  • Length: fatigue, irritation or aggravation caused by forms or processes that ask for more time or information than feels reasonable
  • Difficulty: poor usability, asking questions people don’t know the answers to, insufficient product information, etc.

In a guest post for Kissmetrics, I wrote that friction is anything that gets in the way of conversions.

Baby driving Mom crazyAnd I really mean anything.

If a customer’s baby wakes from her nap and cries just as Mom is about to click the buy button for your mega stroller, too bad. That conversion grinds to a halt, and you’re out several hundred bucks.

Now, before you say there’s nothing you can do about external points of friction, you’re right, except that you can make sure the friction on your site doesn’t keep the user distracted by external forces from wanting to come back.

If your site didn’t have too much friction, Mom may be back once Baby has been fed. If your site was a pain to use, now that thanks to you she knows what she wants, she may think it’ll be easier to buy a stroller elsewhere.


The Result Of Friction On Your Site

Friction is often referred to as the ultimate conversion killer. It’s also called a silent killer. It can be tough to put your finger on what specifically stops a customer in their tracks and makes them abandon a website.

stickman leaving

But we do know that friction can lead to:

  • Users having a bad experience and leaving
  • Users remembering repeated or particularly bad experiences and not coming back
  • Conversions and revenue sinking.

(Image source)

So whatever it is that’s causing friction on a landing page, in a form or wherever on your site, it’s hurting the immediate page value. This in turn reduces conversion value, which hurts your brand value or the memory of your brand.

If your site doesn’t make the purchase funnel clear and easily navigated, potential customers can become confused and unable to complete the conversion, or simply fed up and unwilling to convert.

Unfortunately, there’s more to it than making your site cleaner or simpler. Often the problem(s) can only be seen in qualitative or usability testing, like how the user’s eye is guided away from the call to action at a critical conversion step, the CTA’s message is ambiguous, or users bail out of a signup form that asks for entirely too much information.

Offsite variables or user behaviors that cause friction are harder to control. But you can help yourself by understanding your customers’ needs and preferences through demographic research and developing personas, and turning that knowledge into targeted site content and customer journey mapping.


How Do We Identify Friction Points?

The old saw tells us that you have to recognize you have a problem before you can solve it. But really, you need to know what’s causing the problem.

To get to the root of your website’s friction problems, you need to understand:

  • Your website’s buyer funnel
  • Your users’ search intent (what brings people to your site), and
  • Your users’ site intent (what they want to do once on your website).

In other words, you need to have customer personas researched and identified, and you need to have developed customer journey maps (CJMs). This will give you an idea of what should happen.

If you haven’t taken these steps, you can still get a lot of information about friction points from analytics reports. Exit-page reports, for example, show where users are leaving, and if certain pages have high exit rates, they deserve some scrutiny.

Tools like Hotjar or Clicktale, which provide heat maps (below)  and recordings of users’ movement on a site, can also show you how your site actually works.


Example heatmap

(Image source)

Another approach is to conduct user surveys and ask the right questions, not only about the site overall, but each page and each step in the process of buying what you’re selling.

Qualitative testing will quickly show you that users have different motivations and impediments at each interval as they come to, work their way around and through, and exit your site.

There are many more conversion research and implementation tools available.

Once you have the tools and the data they provide, you have to follow up with some commitment. You’ll need to be ready to invest more into analysis and heuristic audits that show problems based on theories of human-computer interaction (HCI) and user experience (UX), as well as testing and taking action based on the lessons learned.


What Are Some Common E-Commerce Friction Points?

As I tried to make clear above, anything is potentially friction, or a pain point, for an e-commerce customer. Even the lack of instant gratification the ability to touch, hold and take home the product can outweigh the convenience of online commerce for some people or in some instances.

But while there are some friction points you can’t do anything about, there are many more you can address.

Start by examining a specific area, such as where the most conversions or the most valuable conversions should be happening on your site. Or start at the top of the funnel and work your way through it.

Remember, your content has to establish the Conversion Triangle, consisting of:

Here are some problem areas your analytics and qualitative testing are likely to alert you to:

Page Content, Product Descriptions

First and foremost, a landing page must match the user’s intrinsic motivation, or intent. That is, if the user came for information about Product X, the landing page has to be about Product X.

The page content has to be relevant. If it’s not, why stick around?

When selling products online, you can easily overdo it. You can underdo it, as well. Too much or too little descriptive copy, to many or too few photos, video or the lack thereof, etc., can overwhelm the user or leave them wanting more, which maybe some other site can provide.

If the amount of content you use to depict your product is just right, how you present it can cause friction.

Information that’s inaccurate or doesn’t match the user’s perception of the product can be fatal to a transaction. Claims for your product that are too extravagant can be seen as phony and taint your whole brand. Underselling your product can be a problem too; if you offer no value, why should I buy it?

Of course, as a marketing pro, you know how to present your products, but check how each product description is working out for you. If you see a drop off, or several, test some different combinations of content.

Images / Design

Images on a page that don’t have clear illustrative purposes will leave visitors puzzled at best. Harsh or clashing colors in illustrations or page design are off-putting.

Animated images – .gifs – are repetitive and not nearly as clever as you think they are.

A busy or jumbled design with too many elements creates a cognitive overload, which is reason enough to leave. For example ...

Macy's landing page screen shot

Bad design is the worst kind of friction: content that annoys instead of helping.

Page Flow / Navigation

Customers don’t want to have to figure out what to do or where to go next. Too many options is another form of cognitive overload.

If each step in the buyer funnel isn’t absolutely clear, it creates bad UX.

There shouldn’t be any trick to getting around the page or site, and users shouldn’t have to look around for standard page elements, like the site menu or search tool.

“Scroll down and click” is pretty much the extent of what a user wants to do on any given page. Anything more is a pain. Really, unless they’re on a mobile platform, they’d rather not scroll.

When a headline doesn’t match what follows, the user who backs up to make sure they read the headline right is taken out of the flow and, as a bonus, recognizes your sloppy error.

If reading from one block of text to the next is broken up by irrelevant page elements or a pop-up/slide-in ad, again, the flow is lost. Friction has stopped the now-unhappy user.

And how can you blame a site user who avoids a call to action that isn’t clear about what they’re supposed to do or what will transpire if they do it?

Registration Pages / Forms

Having to “register” before being allowed to see the content of a web page is a hoop that many users will simply choose not to jump through.

Gap landing page registration

(Image Source)

If you must ask for the time, effort and information required of a user to register with your site, there should be a recognizable value to it. More often than not, for the new user who doesn’t know anything about your site’s content, it’s easier to hit the back button and shop at the next site on the SERP.

Forms are always potential sticking points. If any form asks for too much information or information the user sees as irrelevant or unneeded, that’s a source of unnecessary friction. Poorly designed forms can also run users off in a heartbeat.

Additionally, imagine that poorly designed form on a desktop, and now picture the user trying to navigate and fill out that same form on a mobile device. If, in addition to its poor design, it’s not responsive to the platform, we’re talking about major frustration.

Where the form lives can cause problems, too. Make sure you test the page with the form at both top and bottom, and that you segment your testing efforts to the different user types (new vs. returning, etc.). Only then will you know whether form placement causes friction that impedes conversions.

Checkout Process

Across the web, e-commerce checkout procedures are so poorly designed, that I wrote an e-book with some 12,000 words about the causes of shopping cart abandonment.

There are many reasons a customer will abandon your site during the checkout process. Top of the list, after technical problems, is that you ask for too much.

Too many steps in the process, too much information, having to create an account to make a single purchase you are too needy, and this relationship is over.

Surprises during checkout cause friction, too, like additional shipping and handling charges. Don’t wait to tell customers about these costs, especially if you can’t or don’t provide a way to easily go back and change the order.

Other common friction-creating problems in the checkout process include:

  • Lack of trust factors (site security verification, professional affiliations, etc.)
  • Limited payment options
  • Lack of a clear return policy
  • Lack of customer service (online or off).

Technology Issues

It almost goes without saying that your site has to work. But this means start to finish, everything.

Cartoon about compter problemsA load speed of more than a few seconds will send customers fleeing.

If you site isn’t optimized for the user’s browser or more important their phone, tablet or other mobile platform, they’re not going to stay long. Nonresponsive type size and form fields are absolute killers for sites not optimized for mobile.

Too many internal links that don’t work are not only bothersome, but show a lax attitude about site maintenance. How many is too many? It’s hard to say. Could be just that one.

It’s the same for anything your site and business says it can or will do: if it fails, some customers will work around it, but others will see it as a problem that kills their motivation and the perceived value in moving forward.



Friction makes movement more difficult; it reduces speed. When shoppers who turn to the web because of how effortlessly and quickly they can get their shopping done encounter friction, it’s understandable that they become unhappy. There’s little we can say if they leave instead of buying.

As a conversion optimizer or marketing manager, your job is to ensure a user experience that’s the opposite of making customers so unhappy that they leave. Friction makes your progress more difficult, too.

Every minute you ignore friction that is slowing the UX on your e-commerce site is conversions and money lost. Find the friction on your site, and unburden yourself and your site users.

Learn more from our series about the Conversion Triangle — how to use relevance, motivation and the value proposition to boost conversions, and how to eliminate conversion-killing friction and anxiety.


Jeremy Smith

Digital marketer with a penchant for dance; helping clients see the light through the jungle of tweets since before Twitter was cool.