ne·o·phyte (/ˈnēəˌfīt/) noun
a person who is new to a subject, skill, or belief.
(from the Oxford Dictionary)
As a person who is trying to start a career in product design, it would seem like an obvious conversation: what is your favorite digital product and why? I’m going to be honest, though. This is a question that I struggle with.
First, it’s deeply personal, isn’t it? So much can be gleaned from the contents of one’s Home Screen — age, status, personality, personal interests, good and bad habits. In a time where data is worth more than its server’s weight in gold, I feel like I am constantly struggling to maintain a single shred of privacy. Second, by asking about my favorite app do they actually mean the one I use the most or the one that best projects the identity I’m trying to cultivate? I speak of course of the legion of aspirational downloads languishing behind an iCloud icon (I’m looking at you, ten-billionth wellness app I have downloaded in the past year).
If pressed, I’d have to say my favorite app would be the one that brings me the most delight. Most of the digital products we use daily are pretty mundane, though, I‘ll wager. It’s probably something like this: Wake up and check your email, the weather, your texts- all while still in bed. Later, distract yourself with Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Reddit, Lily’s Garden, and LinkedIn. Close Facebook on your phone, get back to work on your laptop, only to find that you have Facebook opened there too. Repeat the morning routine in reverse until you fall asleep. Am I close? Maybe you don't use Facebook. My social media habits date me. As Facebook’s popularity wanes with Gen Z, my elder-Millennial habits become more starkly contrasted. It felt too cumbersome to build an identity on Snapchat when I already invested so much time in Facebook (after already saying goodbye to MySpace and LiveJournal before that). I do use Instagram as a respite from the rage-loop that my Facebook newsfeed has become, so I’m not completely out of touch. (No need to remind me that Facebook bought them out. I guess it was good while it lasted.)
This is an irony of product design, which encourages habituation as a sign of business success, but eventually heralds its own demise.
From that last paragraph, you might surmise that Facebook is my favorite app, or maybe Instagram. The truth is, the more I use these apps- or more precisely, the more habituated I have become to them- the less I like them. They have steadily become less about the joy of connection and more about the pain of comparison; less about creation and more about compulsion. This is an irony of product design, which encourages habituation as a sign of business success, but eventually heralds its own demise. The features that were once novel are relegated to muscle memory, often used when we’re still half-asleep. Delight fades.
Or maybe not. I have found Instagram to be a bit more robust than Facebook in its ability to remain delightful over time. In trying to think why that is, I can’t help but compare it to playing musical instruments. Why, after years of playing one instrument, don’t I just get tired of it and toss it aside for another? Instead, my joy in one instrument seems to increase with proficiency and, instead of replacing one instrument for another, I want to add to my enjoyment by knowing even more instruments. Joy in one doesn’t completely displace another because they all help me to express the music I want to play. And I want to play that music because it is beautiful or resonates with some emotional need that I have. Is Instagram a better instrument for expressing what I find enjoyable? Is Instagram a flute or guitar, while Facebook is a birthday party goodie-bag kazoo? Or is it that the “music,” or content, compatible with each platform is so different that one might not be considered music at all? Maybe it’s both. I’m not saying that all digital products have to be delightful, but the ones that set out to entertain us probably should be.
So what does this all have to do with my favorite digital product? Well, as a person who love-hates social media but uses it more than anything else, I find myself at a delicious inflection point. I am now at a place where my frustration with the apps I’m habituated to is beginning to outweigh the perceived pain of jumping ship and starting over somewhere else. It’s exciting. I’m awash with possibility: a neophyte in tech land, once again! Somewhere out there is a team of developers building an instrument that I want to learn, with the capacity to produce the music I want to play. That will be my favorite app. For now, long live Lily’s Garden.