Scott Fulton, expert on digital friction

Digital friction on the frontline (and how to overcome it)

Scott is the founder of Digital Rebels, and the ex-Head of Digital Services at Avon and Somerset Police, where his team's intranet won 5 international awards.


“I don’t know why you’re bothering, it’s going to fail”.

That’s what a police officer said to my face when I told him I was leading the rollout of a new intranet for the force. 

With 6,500 employees (around 50% of whom were frontline workers), I knew his view wasn’t an isolated one.

Years of long, drawn-out technology projects that failed to meet the mark. “The next big thing” promised to staff, time and time again, without results. By the time it lands (if it ever does), it isn’t what people expected – or is full of bugs.

Sound familiar? This isn’t isolated to the police force. How scary are these figures?

  • Less than 30% of digital transformations succeed.
  • Only 16% of employees said their organizations’ digital transformations have successfully improved performance.

Wow, that’s a lot of money down the pan. And a lot of employees will be sceptical of future technology rollouts. 

Digital friction on the frontline

Have you heard of the term “digital friction”?

Even if you haven’t, I’ll wager a guess that at least one of these has happened to you:

  • The search on your intranet fails to return the correct results
  • Your software is unintuitive to use causing frustration and time wasted
  • Website banner adverts or popups are getting the way of what you are trying to do
  • You have to go through about 15 steps to get an app to install and work on your device
  • You’re forced to use a chatbot and it doesn’t understand what you’re asking and returns the wrong results

For desk-based workers, these frustrations slow them down, annoy them and result in duplication of effort. For example, if someone can’t find something on the intranet they will message or call someone else to ask them where it is.

Annoying, but not disastrous.

For frontline workers? It’s a very different picture.

For one thing, the mobile nature of their jobs means they simply don’t have time to deal with digital friction – especially in high-pressure situations.

For another, they’re likely to have a lot less patience than their desk-based counterparts.

The decisions frontline workers make every day have real-life repercussions. And digital friction leads to the wrong decisions made based on bad, or lack of, information.

The intranet led by Scott Fulton helped the Avon and Somerset police force overcome digital friction.

What causes digital friction?

One of the biggest problems when it comes to technology?

Too many IT and company leaders obsess about the shiny tech while completely forgetting about the humans that have to use it. 

They make technology decisions based on cheapness, convenience, and senior executive reputation. Often, on assumptions rather than evidence. And in my experience, none of these decisions work out very well.

When I worked in the police force as Head of Digital Services, people would often come to me saying “look this force has {this feature} on their website, why don’t we”

(The implication being: another force was ahead of the game – we were lagging.)

I would reply “how do we know this is working for their citizens?”. 

It happened so regularly that we printed this on the wall:

“Just because someone else is doing it, it doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do”.

We need data.

A few years ago, I was challenged as to why we dealt with citizen needs online differently to another force. So, we compared our user journeys. FYI – this service provided by the other force was presented to me as ‘much better’ because they had an app and we didn’t.

Our force’s citizen experience:

  1. Search Google for an answer to the question
  2. Click on the top result
  3. Answer page on a mobile responsive web page

The other force’s citizen’s experience:

  1. Search Google for an answer to the question
  2. Click on the third Result
  3. Web page saying they need to install an app
  4. Install app
  5. Need to choose the force area you live in
  6. Search for the same question again within the app
  7. Answer

Can you see it?  DIGITAL FRICTION.

Get the basics right to win them over

Back to frontline workers. They need speed, they need simplicity, they need accuracy, they need confidence and reliability.

Now, translate this into the digital environment. They need:

  • Information that is up-to-date to help them do their job
  • Information that can be accessed within seconds to help them do their job
  • Information that they can rely on to help them do their job

(It’s no accident I’ve highlighted “to help them do their job” three times.)

Take the police intranet as an example.  I used to say to people “The citizen is our primary intranet customer”.

I hear you ask “How can the citizen be a customer of the intranet when they never see or access it?”.

Technology’s purpose is to help your frontline workforce serve the customer better

That’s a powerful mindset to take.

It helps with your decision making. And it helps you focus on the needs of the workforce – above the desires of the chief execs.

How content can solve digital friction

There are two key types:

  • The content frontline workers want to read (rotas, holiday bookings, etc)
  • The content YOU want frontline workers to read (new company values, CEO updates, etc).

If you want to push out the latter – in other words, corporate messaging that doesn’t directly impact the frontline – you’ve got to get the basics right first.

(Or no one will read it.)

Getting the basics right means:

  • Taking an evidence-based approach to content creation: My previous team spent months on user research, running workshops and card-sorting exercises – and continuing to iterate for years afterwards.
  • Optimising content for search: That’s right, bad search is often a content design and management problem, not a platform one.

The bottom line? Everything must be tested with real users, on real devices, in real workplace environments.

Here are two quotes from police officers using our evidence-based intranet after it launched.

“I just put “uniform orders” into the search and it told me exactly what I needed to know”

This is saving me so much time”.

Not ground-breaking stuff. Just getting the basics right.

Whether you have an intranet, an employee app, SharePoint, or all three, the same rules apply:

Frontline workers come for the content. Not the design or the whizzy features. They want a digital experience that solves their problems, removes friction from getting their job done, helps them keep in touch and collaborate and ultimately be a better employee. 

Does your digital experience help them or hinder them with this?

What can you do next?

We’ve built a free digital employee experience scorecard that will help you assess your level of maturity as well as get some tips on how to improve with your personalised PDF report. 

Digital intranet scorecard

It takes on average 5 minutes to complete.

Take the free scorecard now