Novelty and Innovation: UX Design for Long-Term Results


Want people to choose the stairs over the escalator? Make the stairs fun. How do you make stairs fun? Turn the steps into a piano. Right?

If you want repeatable results, maybe not.

This video from 2009 has been viewed over 21 million times, and for good reason. It’s fun. It’s novel. The video claims that “66% more people than normal chose the stairs over the elevator.” Co-workers and professors use it to ask, “How can we make our systems more engaging and effective?” That is a great question to ask and this video does a great job of putting the question on people’s minds. This video, however, is not the best example of both engaging and effective.

Why? This is an ad, not a case study. This video was part of a brilliant marketing campaign by Volkswagen called The Fun Theory. This was one of five guerilla fun projects that existed to associate Volkswagen with:

the thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better. Be it for yourself, for the environment, or for something entirely different, the only thing that matters is that it’s change for the better.

People loved the video and shared it. Success for Volkswagen. Was it a success for Stockholm and its push to encourage people to use the stairs?

No. The piano stairs aren’t there anymore, and they haven’t been there for years. The brilliant design has inspired replicas in malls around the world, and you can even rent piano stairs for your city’s subway. But for daily commuting, this would just be annoying. I would love to use the stairs a few times, but within a week or two I would dread the noise and people hopping up and down on one stair, blocking my path.

What design to encourage people to use the stairs has stood the test of time? Painting encouragement onto the steps.

Source: inudgeyou.com
Source: reddit.com/r/mildlyinteresting

These designs are far less fun and exciting than the piano stairs, but they can stand the test of time — the results are repeatable. The piano stairs are great the first time, but get old quickly. The painted steps can reinforce the choice to take the stairs every time a person uses them.

The big principles at work here are novelty and habituation.

Novelty is defined as “The quality of being new, original, or unusual.” The word may bring to mind trinkets in old magazines, but the desire for the novel is why you exist today. Your ancestors who had a thirst to learn everything they could about the world were the ones to survive and pass their genes on to you. Humans love discovering new things because it provides evolutionary and social advantages: knowledge is power. Applying brainpower to a novel situation, in fact, releases dopamine that acts as a reward for your mental labor. Once the knowledge or experience is familiar to us, however, the novelty wears off and we become habituated to it.

Habituation is defined as “The diminishing of a physiological or emotional response to a frequently repeated stimulus.” We get used to hot water, loud noises, impressive facts, and pretty faces. Habituation has also been helpful for evolution — wouldn’t we go crazy if we never got used to painful situations?

Habituation is indeed a fact of human psychology. That’s one reason we like novelty, including different cuts of jeans. — Virginia Postrel

The motivational steps can suffer from habituation as people stop noticing the words, but they offer something more than novelty. The motivational steps offer to change the way people view the world, which keeps its value even after the novelty wears off.

How Novelty Fits Into Innovation

Horace Dediu has written about a hierarchy of creations:

  • Novelty: Something new (example: gold-colored iPhone)
  • Creation: Something new and valuable (example: new movie)
  • Invention: Something new, having potential value through utility (example: formula for Coca-Cola)
  • Innovation: Something new and uniquely useful (example: Amazon logistics system)

Novelties can shift someone’s attention, but creations, inventions, and innovations can shift an industry.

When something is merely novel, the first time people see it they are interested, and the second time they see it they don’t care. When something is useful, people are less excited the second time they interact with it, but they care about it and would be upset to lose it. Novelty can help a good idea get noticed in a busy world, but an idea must be useful and repeatable to succeed.

Novelty can help a good idea get noticed in a busy world, but an idea must be useful and repeatable to succeed.

As a UX designer seeking to create long-term value, consider novel ideas as well as tried-and-true classics.

Novelty and UX Design

Let’s imagine you are designing the new remote and screen interface for a TV. Which of these should you prioritize?

  • Novelty: an experience that is different from anything the customer has seen before
  • Fun experience
  • Beautiful experience
  • Natural, intuitive experience
  • Usefulness: the TV does what the user wants it to do
Novelty is a concept of commerce, not an aesthetic concept. — Eva Zeisel

I would argue that usefulness is the priority and nothing should trump it. Beauty is necessary and boring designs should be rejected or revised until they are beautiful. If an input isn’t intuitive, there should be an overwhelming reason why, as well as an intuitive way to discover how to use the input. Fun should be added in whenever it doesn’t get in the way of usefulness (as long as “fun” is part of the product’s brand and positioning). If any of this happens to be novel, that’s fine, but novelty should only be a byproduct. If the design borrows from classics and doesn’t break any new ground, but is effective, beautiful, intuitive, and fun, then it is a great design.

“This Changes Everything,” or, Novelty Heralded as Innovation

Source: apple.com

This picture isn’t here to pick on Apple but to highlight that our culture prizes the novel above nearly all else. Tim Klapdor writes that:

If we actually think about it, it’s distraction rather than disruption. Silicon Valley isn’t the hub of innovation — it’s a perfect model of the Novelty Factory churning out vast quantities of “new”, but affecting little real change.

“New” gives the marketing and sales teams something to talk about, but the product management and design teams should spend more time thinking about the customer than monitoring competitive press releases. Real problem solving comes from studying the customer’s problems, environment, and mental models, and creating solutions that don’t care about novelty.

Simple, But In It For the Long Haul

Designers at IDEO sought to tackle the problem of dreading Mondays. Their solution would need to be something with more than just novelty appeal so people would use it every week. One of the four products they created asked, “could we turn the tables on Monday and design it to be something that brings you joy instead of dread?” Their solution was Sincereley:

Sincerely is a new ritual of gratitude designed to chase away any end-of-the-weekend gloom. On Sunday nights, the Sincerely app will prompt you to record a simple “thank you” message to someone you care about. Then, on Monday, you get some love back when your friend responds. Boom! Double-joy whammy!
Source: bringjoy.ideo.com

This product strikes a balance between novelty and repeatability. It's different enough that when people hear about it, they take notice, investigate further, and perhaps buy the product. The product, however, doesn’t rely on novelty to be effective and works best when it becomes part of a long-term routine. This meets both the business needs and user needs.

We have a disturbing cultural appetite for novelty. — Louise Gluck

Let’s wrap up by going back to the piano stairs. Are they fun and a brilliant idea? 21 million views and copycats in tourist locations around the world would suggest an emphatic yes. Are they effective at getting people to use the stairs at a commuter subway stop for the long-term? Let’s install one in my hometown of Boston and I’ll let you know! It may not get me to use the stairs every time, but it would fun every now and then.