Balancing Familiarity and Innovation: The Key to Successful Product Design


Hatched by Glasp

Sep 21, 2023

4 min read


Balancing Familiarity and Innovation: The Key to Successful Product Design

In today's digital age, it's no secret that people have shorter attention spans and are more inclined to skim through articles rather than read them in their entirety. A study has even revealed that there is a weak correlation between scroll depth and sharing. This means that even if someone shares a link to an article, they might not have actually read it. It's a phenomenon that highlights the need for content creators to capture readers' attention right from the start and deliver valuable information concisely.

Similarly, in the world of product design, the concept of "The Most Advanced Yet Acceptable" (MAYA) plays a crucial role in determining the success of a product. MAYA suggests that the ideal design lies between being completely novel and entirely familiar. People are often resistant to drastic changes or solutions that deviate too much from what they are accustomed to. Therefore, finding the right balance between innovation and familiarity is essential.

Apple is a perfect example of a company that has mastered the art of MAYA. When the iPhone was first introduced, it broke new ground in terms of technology and design. However, Apple was careful to incorporate familiar elements into the device. The industrial design of the iPhone resembled the contemporary iPod, leveraging the existing design continuity. Additionally, the touchscreen technology was intuitive and easy to understand. The iPhone also retained familiar phone functions like calling and SMS, despite its innovative features.

Over the years, Apple has continued to evolve its products while maintaining the delicate MAYA balance. The removal of the home button and the shift away from skeuomorphism in iOS 7 were significant changes that tested the acceptance of users. However, Apple recognized that it had reached a level of familiarity that allowed for more substantial advancements in form and function.

The success of the iPhone paved the way for other products like the Apple Watch and AirPods. While these devices may not have been as technologically advanced as some of their competitors, they struck a chord with consumers because they were more acceptable and familiar. Apple understood that incremental steps towards innovation were crucial in preparing the market for more significant advancements, such as their upcoming venture into "spatial computing" with the Vision Pro.

In a similar vein, OpenAI's ChatGPT offers an interesting case study. The core technology behind ChatGPT was available to the public since 2020, but it didn't resonate in the same way until it pivoted its interface to a conversational chat style. The shift made the interaction design more familiar and increased the user's margin for error in prompting, making it more approachable for both new and returning users. This example emphasizes the importance of presenting a product in a way that feels familiar to users, even if the underlying technology is groundbreaking.

So, how can product creators apply this concept of balancing familiarity and innovation to their own designs? The key is to assess the core of the product and determine whether it leans towards being familiar or surprising. Once the baseline is established, design can be used strategically to shift the force in the opposite direction until a balance is found. As the saying goes, "To sell something surprising, make it familiar, and to sell something familiar, make it surprising."

In conclusion, finding the right balance between familiarity and innovation is crucial for successful product design. The examples of Apple's iPhone, Watch, and AirPods, as well as OpenAI's ChatGPT, demonstrate the power of striking a MAYA balance. As product creators, it is our responsibility to understand the natural equilibrium and inherent tension between familiarity and innovation. By doing so, we can create products that resonate with consumers and drive meaningful advancements in various industries.

Actionable Advice:

  • 1. Understand your audience's expectations and comfort levels. Conduct user research and gather feedback to determine the balance between familiarity and innovation that will best resonate with your target market.
  • 2. Continuously iterate and improve upon your product's design. Incremental changes that gradually introduce new features or concepts can help users adapt and embrace innovation more readily.
  • 3. Strive for clarity and simplicity in your product's interface and user experience. Familiarity often stems from ease of use and intuitive design, so prioritize user-centered design principles throughout the development process.

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