“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.” - Steve Jobs

Commuter Thought – aesthetics of familiarity

As I was walking to the subway today listening to my iPod, I noticed that in a Phish song I barely ever listen to, a familiarity to the pedal setting of at least one of the guitar players. Then I thought about other great musicians and at least for some extended period of time, there is a lot of overlap in style of music usually followed by a great leap, then a return, and then another leap (if they are truly great that is).

I then thought about our pull towards the familiar. We tend to go to the same restaurants, and theatres, and neighborhoods, even though others may be easier to get to or have something just as worthy to sample. Part of this is that fear of being disappointed, or wasting our time just to find out that it wasn’t all that good. Part of this is just well, comfort.

So what does this mean for UX, usability, and IxD. I know in my own current work here at IntraLinks, we are exploring how to balance familiarity with our current designs with familiarity with larger sphere of influence products like Windows and Office with our desire to do an even better job than anything that is out there already.

I have seen users tell me they prefer what is harder to do. They don’t say why, but they just say, “I like this”. Usually “this” can be described as something they have seen or used before and often. It’s like Yahoo, It’s like Google, It’s like Outlook, etc. Sometimes they’ll even contradict themselves in the same test, saying I like this b/c it is like Yahoo, and I like that b/c it is like Outlook. Or better, the examples are, “Can you make this more like X? And that more like Y?” Where Y & X are incompatible metaphors. What they are really saying is that I feel lost and scared in this environment and I’m grasping at what I know to make me feel comfortable.

So what is our task? To make things more the same? What happens when the “same” changes, like when Office 12 comes out sometime in the distant future? That will become the new “same”, no?

I don’t have any answers here, just noticing a trend in the reaction to aesthetics that I feel will need to be looked at as we look towards a more wholistic approach to designing useful, usable, desireable, USED, & BOUGHT products and services.

Be Sociable, Share!
  • http://bradlauster.com/ Brad Lauster

    Jef Raskin used to tell a story about how his clients would say, “We want the best designed application on the market, but it has to work just like Microsoft Office.”

    You cannot make a better interface by copying what’s already out there. You can merely achieve “as good” status.

    Unfortunately, commonly held beliefs aren’t always correct and this belief, that an interface has to be “familiar” to compete in the marketplace, is one of those misconceptions.

    As someone designing innovative user interface and interaction designs, this attitude is extremely frustrating, especially considering that there are known solutions to many of the problems inherent in the WIMP model.

  • http://www.gravity7.com/blog/media/ adrian chan

    i just bought a rack of guitar pedals and was up late the other night trying to master van halen’s Jamie’s Cryin… the phaser fx on the rack took me to a particular song, elided memories of driving through the streets of columbus ohio in a beat up Opel, and drew the mental picture of a guiar in red w/ white stripes running across the body in all directions.
    or as comedian mitch hedberg joked, “i like that joke so much i’m going to use it again. but i’m going to swap out all the words.”
    we need to leverage familiar experiences… IxD is exactly that–leveraging grammars, rules, languages, symbols and icons, other formal meanings–in order to get the user from a to b without requiring them to re-invent the wheel. That said, i think there might then be distinctions in the formal domain: style, tone, inflection, genre, similarity/imitation. And those are where we can be different while leveraging desired familiars. One could make a product that looks ipod but works msoft, or that sounds strat but looks les paul… on could make a product that looks apple but is a cosmetic for men, or that seems gothic while being buddhist….
    You bring up a good point. stylistics are practically a design task unto themselves. This would be fun to break down.

  • http://www.iprincipia.com Alok Jain


    Excellent point, I think about the same as well. My belief is change is always difficult and resisted to. That’s human nature applying to jobs, marriage, work, interface anything..

    That does not change our goal- to build effective and better experiences. What changes is our role and approach. Gmail was a sudden hit even though it changed the interface for one of the most widely used applications – email. They did so because of incentive they provided. Similarly other techniques need to be applied to influence people’s decision. We cannot stop at just building a better experience.

    These techniques in my view are:
    1. Communicating – make people aware
    2. Enabling – make people able of working with change
    3. Incentivise people to accept the change. (Beyond better experience as that comes only if they try)

    – Best


The archives run deep. Feel free to search older content using topic keywords.