Balancing The MAYA Principle
We love shiny new technology, but we also want things to be a little bit familiar. Balancing the MAYA principle – Most Advanced Yet Acceptable – is a challenge for every innovator.
How do you strike a balance between innovative and too advanced? People want to be wowed – Steve Jobs famously said: “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”. Jobs’ company went on to produce the iPhone, and with it the company changed the world of telecoms. Apple showed the world that what it really wanted was a touchscreen keyboard, while the previous king of the smartphone market, Research In Motion (RIM), clinged on to the physical keyboard on the BlackBerry.
Being stuck listening to the demands of your existing customers is often cited as a key problem for companies trying to stay innovative, but – as RIM illustrates – it’s not always that simple: “The problem wasn’t that we stopped listening to customers,” one former RIM insider told ‘The Globe & Mail’. “We believed we knew better what customers needed long term than they did. Consumers would say, ‘I want a super big very responsive touchscreen.’ [And we’d say,] ‘Well, you might think you want that, but you don’t want your phone to die at 2pm.’ We would say, ‘We know better, and they’ll eventually figure it out.’ ”.
In hindsight we know that people generally do care more about their responsive touchscreens than battery life, but it’s also easy to see why RIM thought this might not be the case; a large share of their customer base was executives. Finding the balance point between new and shiny, yet familiar enough to be useful, is an eternal challenge for every business – Raymond Loewy, the father of industrial design, called this the MAYA Principle.
MAYA stands for ‘Most Advanced Yet Acceptable’.
Credited with having “changed the shape of the modern world”, Loewy is responsible for a range of design classics from the mid-century era. Describing the MAYA Principle, he said: “The adult public’s taste is not necessarily ready to accept the logical solutions to their requirements if the solution implies too vast a departure from what they have been conditioned into accepting as the norm.”.
History has plenty of examples of innovative devices which proved to be too advanced for the current tastes. Apple’s Newton tablet, a precursor to the iPad, is one, and right now it could seem like we’re not quite ready for Google Glass. The Apple Watch may be just on the right side of innovative, but it’s too soon to tell. The same goes for the Amazon Echo, an example of the kind of screen-less user interface that is almost certainly a major component of future design, but that doesn’t mean the general public is ready to accept it right now.
One way to get people to accept an advanced design is to introduce change gradually. Jim O’Neill, creative director at Above The Fold, a user experience design firm, wrote on ‘UX Booth’: “Gradually advance your design over time, as technology and public sentiment evolve to support this advance.” If you want to push the boundaries beyond expectations you can certainly do that, as long as you incorporate some familiar patterns to people can orient themselves. An example of how this was done well is the iPod and iPhone: “Some early iPod features were, in part, concessions to what was then familiar – such as buttons that were distinct from the scroll wheel. … The iPod’s designers were able to push their product design farther and farther, losing the extra buttons and streamlining the interface,” said O’Neill. “Now, in the time of the iPhone with a full touch screen, early iPods look quaint, almost archaic. But in 2001, the iPhone would likely have been too far outside the bounds of the familiar to make any sense to consumers.”.
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