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How to create a hit product
Familiar with a touch of novelty
We get excited by the prospect of effecting change. We’d love our creations to be used and enjoyed by others. This begs a question. Why do people like particular ideas or products, but not others? Is there a formula for creating a hit? To help answer these questions, I draw upon ideas shared in Derek Thompson’s book Hit Makers.
Familiar is safe
During hunter-gatherer times, if we found a plant or animal we had seen before then that was a good sign as it had not killed us yet. As a colleague would say, and that’s a good thing. Most modern human behaviour results from our habits and copying others. It makes sense that we should prefer the familiar. An illustration of this relates to our own faces which are slightly asymmetric. We prefer our mirror image (what we see most) to our photographs (the way others see us). This is an example of the exposure effect, where we are biased to like familiar things.
This is a challenge for companies and creatives who want their new products and ideas to be taken up. Clearly, humans have embraced change, otherwise we would still be living in caves. When a new mobile comes out, we want it because it’s different from the one we have now. So we do like some novelty.
Most Advanced Yet Acceptable
To sell something surprising, make it familiar; and to sell something familiar, make it surprising. - Raymond Loewy
Raymond Loewy, a French immigrant to the US in the 1950s, became known as the father of modern design. In his 50-year career, he left his mark on industrial, architectural, interior, product and graphic design, including the Greyhound bus, Shell’s logo and the interior of NASA’s first space orbital (featuring a window). While he worked across many disciplines, his guiding philosophy was MAYA (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable). It’s in the Goldilocks Zone between the familiar and futuristic, where comfort and surprise come together, to create something that’s interesting to people.
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. - Max Planck (Theoretical Physicist)
The following examples illustrate the idea of MAYA:
Spotify’s Discovery weekly playlist downloaded 30 new songs to a user’s phone. A software bug allowed a familiar song through. When the bug was fixed, engagement dropped significantly.
Academic research proposals optimise their chance of funding by being slightly novel. Scientific visionaries struggle to get their ideas accepted. Historic casualties in computing include Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace.
Pop songs often use the same four chords with a new hook.
I enjoy reading books and blogs, most of which build upon what I already believe.
Minecraft is much like Lego without the detailed build instructions.
I describe my mobile game Scarper as Tetris meets Candy Crush.
The Science of Popularity talk by Derek Thompson
Making Our Ideas Contagious post by Phil Martin
My 5 Step Idea Generating Process post by Phil Martin
We have Raymond Loewy to thank for MAYA and the iconic photographs of Earth taken through the window on the Apollo space station.