What is Cognitive Friction?
Cognitive friction occurs when a user is confronted with an interface or affordance that appears to be intuitive but delivers unexpected results. This mismatch between the outcome of an action and the expected result causes user frustration and will impair the user experience if not jeopardize it. User research can help uncover such problems and generate friction-free design.
Imagine a mouse-operated graphical user interface (GUI) where selecting a folder icon requires two left clicks and opening it requires a right click. This isn’t necessarily a bad way to control the GUI—however, it’s completely counter-intuitive, as our experience with GUIs for decades leads us to expect that a single left click selects an icon and a double left click opens it. The conflict between our expectation and the way the interface works is called cognitive friction. As users will not be comfortable with the prospect of unlearning a conventional way of completing an action, they will reject such a design.
User interfaces that suffer from cognitive friction can negatively affect the user experience, leading to frustration and possibly the abandonment of a product. Avoiding cognitive friction is the job of the user experience design team, in conjunction with the UI and interaction design teams. To identify places where cognitive friction might occur, the team might engage in user interviews, create task flows, and design easy-to-use information architectures ahead of development. Expert evaluations and usability testing with users during the development of a product can highlight problems and point to solutions for them. Remembering that cognitive friction can arise across a range of conventions is vital. While areas such as mouse and keyboard design (including the entrenched nature of the QWERTY keyboard) appear obvious, designers should remain aware of potential pitfalls, established norms, and the need for eliminating user frustration.
Literature on Cognitive Friction
Here’s the entire UX literature on Cognitive Friction by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:
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