Amazon’s Dash Button and frictionless, invisible computers

This week, Amazon released a small plastic button that you can affix to anything. You press the button, and it orders more of a specific product for you.

The device was panned on Hacker News. The general public was so skeptical that journalists had to assure everyone that it was not a silly April Fools joke. It was derided as “an excess of convenience”:

Few people have complained, as of yet, about the laborious walk to a laptop where they have to sweat and agonize over Amazon’s “one-click” shopping button. But for those weary souls who are tired of having to pull out a smartphone and go through the motions to order more Tide detergent, the cavalry has come.

Putting the smarminess of that quote aside, when was the last time consumers disliked something because it was too convenient?

Amazon’s empire is built on products and services that create an “excess of convenience” consumers love—not only the one-click shopping mentioned above, but also product recommendations, standard 2-day delivery, Prime, and Prime Now. Even Amazon Dash is already finding ways to become even more convenient: they recently rolled out an API for smart devices that can automatically re-order consumables, no button press needed.

Uber is an “excess of convenience” for getting a taxi. Twitter is an “excess of convenience” for blogging. Tinder is an “excess of convenience” for online dating. Every person has a level of friction at which they are willing to do a given task, and as you lower the friction, more people are willing to step over the barrier. Even small decreases in friction can drive many more people to use a product. I used to work for a large e-commerce company that invested millions of dollars in shaving milliseconds off of web page loading times, because even imperceptibly faster load times led to significantly increased revenue.

As friction decreases, computers become invisible

Hiding behind Amazon’s little button are giant warehouses, logistics networks, payment systems, robots, and inventory management algorithms. But, because the process of pressing the button is so easy, you never have to stop and think about any of that — it all becomes invisible.

Being able to compartmentalize a concept and stop thinking about the underlying system is what programmers call functional abstraction:

[Functional abstraction] lets us manipulate information without worrying about the details of its underlying representation. Once we figure out how to accomplish a given function, we can put the mechanism in a “black box,” or a “building block” and stop thinking about it.

(from The Pattern on the Stone, p. 18)

When railroads were invented, they revolutionized transportation. We spent 100 years perfecting the technology of railroads. Explosive growth came from increasing the efficiency and decreasing the friction of railroad systems.

Eventually, we were able to systematize these solutions. We still use railroad technology today, but now we don’t have to think or talk much about it:

And now, the same thing is happening to software:

Amazon’s Dash Button is a small example of what functional abstraction looks like today. People using these buttons can stop thinking about the fact that computers are even involved in the process of buying things, and devote that time to something else.

The impact of reducing friction

It’s hard to imagine the impact that reducing friction can have when it is multiplied by millions of users. But successful entrepreneurs like Drew Houston are able to conceptualize how valuable this is:

“Every time we find ways to save you 15 minutes to an hour, times hundreds of millions of people,” he tells me, “it’s, like, we save lifetimes of pain, every day.”

But the time saved by pressing a button instead of logging onto a website is not even the biggest gain. The biggest gain comes from not having to store, recall, and process unnecessary information in your brain.

Imagine that I run out of laundry detergent. I pull out my phone, and add “Buy more detergent” to my to-do list app. Some little part of my working memory is being occupied by a nagging feeling that I have something to buy on Amazon. Next time I’m at my computer, I need to check my to-do list, remember my Amazon credentials, search for detergent, sort through the options, and try to remember what I’ve used before. Throughout this process, I’ve had to interact with my computer, Amazon’s website, my phone, and my to-do list app. It’s a lot of unnecessary software to deal with, when instead…

I could just push a button and go back to thinking about The Most Important Thing. I’m amazed at how much more I get done when I don’t have to worry about the trivial details of life, like running out of detergent. All of those little nagging feelings occupying my working memory add up, and — for a distraction prone person like me — they pop back into my thoughts at the most inconvenient times, killing productivity.

Technology gets a bad reputation for wiring us for distraction. But the technologies I’m most excited about do the opposite: they let us focus on what’s important, and delegate the rest to invisible, frictionless computers.