The Novelty Effect

Why a new high-tech tool makes you suddenly more productive or creative — until it doesn’t. 

Here’s my adoption curve for a new high-tech tool:

1) I stumble across an intriguing new piece of software, hardware, or social service.

2) It offers me some curious new ability—a new way to communicate or get work done—so I give it a whirl.

3) The new behavior is awesome! I’m using it all the time. I’m having a blast! Then …

4) … at some point, maybe weeks or months or even years later, I suddenly drift away. I find myself picking it up less and less. Eventually I stop entirely, and the app or gewgaw grows dusty with disuse, until I delete it out of its misery.

What’s going on here? My behavior is governed by what psychologists call “The Novelty Effect” — the short-term boost in performance that comes from changing the environment around you. The fun part is, you can actively use it to make your life better.

But it also explains why even the most successful digital services and tools are inevitably doomed to fail. Facebook, for example, is leaking users to newer services not just because of its design and business decisions, but because the inexorable, entropic force of the novelty effect.

Psychologists have noticed the novelty effect for decades. Back in the 1930s, the Hawthorne Works factory decided to change the lighting for its workers to see which would improve productivity: Higher levels? Lower levels? It turned out that it didn’t matter which way they went — any change in the workplace produced a temporary boost in productivity. Scientists call this the “Hawthorne Effect”, and while the historical record of Hawthorne is still being scrutinized, the novelty effect it epitomizes is seen all over science. Indeed, many scholars suspect novelty effects are behind some “positive” results in social-science experiments. A bunch of researchers will say Hey, let’s experiment with giving elementary-school kids individual laptops! and lo: The children do better! Except the improvement might be not because of the tool itself, but merely because the kids’ world becomes different and interesting, temporarily.

“Temporarily” is the key. A change to our environment can invigorate us, by changing the intellectual furniture of our everyday lives. But as soon as we become habituated to the new, the improvement fades.

FC Dallas stadium (photo by Miguel Angel Nunez)

Corporations wrestle with this dynamic all the time, because much consumer culture is predicated on novelty. Mississippi State University professor Adam Love studied the attempts of various soccer franchises to improve game attendance by building new stadiums. He found that a new stadium gave a quick boost to attendance: Success! But things quickly faded. For example, in 2005, FC Dallas — the city’s pro soccer team — moved into a new, state-of- the art $80 million stadium. Over the next two years, games drew 66% more fans, with an average of about 15,145 attending each game. Over the next few years, though, as the novelty of the stadium diminished, some of those new fans began drifting away, and average attendance slid to 12,440.

One could roll one’s eyes at the novelty effect — regarding it as another dreary example of mass marketers or Silicon Valley app-makers creating Don-Draperian manufactured desire for shiny new objects. That’s certainly true when it comes to buying more physical stuff we arguably don’t need. (“NEW AND IMPROVED!”)

But when it comes to technologies we use for thinking, socializing, creating, or just plain doing? For experiencing the world?

In those cases, the novelty effect isn’t an illusion. We often really do experience a fun little jolt to our everyday behavior. The novelty effect in high-tech tools is, I’d argue, often delightful and good.

For example, when my friends first picked up Instagram, most of them quickly got hooked. They enjoyed having a global audience for their pictures. They appreciated its simplicity and single purpose. They liked playing with the filters to re-see familiar things through alien eyes, and the way the square frame goaded them to frame pictures in different ways. So the novelty effect kicked in. They started snapping tons more pictures — and far better ones than I’d ever seen them take in the past.

After a while, though, the experience stopped being novel. It no longer excited their interest, and thus no longer boosted their performance. They drifted away; when I check their Instagram feeds these days, the last photo is April 2012 or something.

I’ve also seen this in music. I’m an amateur musician, and amateur musicians are famous for buying some new piece of gear — a new guitar, a new pedal, a new software plug-in — that temporarily energizes their playing, and there’s a temporary renaissance in their songwriting. But once the novelty of the tool fades, so does the boomlet. Me, I frequently try out different smartphone synthesizer apps. Each time, I’m at first totally excited by the kooky new sounds I can achieve, so I start composing melodies while riding the subway … until one day I feel like I’ve reached the edges of the experience, and I put it down.

Calendars and productivity apps have the same effect, as many people I’ve interviewed have told me. They learn about some new to-do app on Lifehacker, give it a whirl, and boom: They become much more organized — for weeks, and if they’re lucky, for months. The new way of viewing their tasks seems to sharpen their focus (or perhaps their desire to focus) on work. But after the new app stops feeling unusual and fresh, the focus goes away, the tasks pile up, and disorganization creeps back in.

The point is: The novelty effect isn’t a sham. It’s not an illusion. We really do experience genuine bursts of creativity or productivity from trying out some new tool. It’s just that the burst cannot sustain itself, because novelty cannot sustain itself.

Like I said, one can easily be cynical about this. But personally, I enjoy this world of temporary, evanescent gains. Once you know about the novelty effect, you can use it as as form of existential judo. When I start a new writing project I’ll download a new word processor specifically to trigger the effect, knowing in advance that it’ll only last a few weeks or months, but what the heck—it’ll be fun while it lasts. The novelty effect is a blast for tool users!

But it’s terrible for tool makers. They might think they have a big hit on their hands, when millions of people swoop in and enthusiastically start banging away on their new service. But once the thrill of enhanced productivity or creativity or sheer time-wasting-“WTF” evaporates, everyone moves on — often abruptly, decamping from the service en masse, leaving it like an abandoned space station. Social networks try fight this natural rate of decay by continually adding new features, tweaking and retweaking, attempting to inject novelty into the experience. The really big services like Facebook or Twitter wield lock-in and Metcalfe’s Law as a sort of social extortion, to try and prevent people from leaving.

This works in the short run. But not in the long. They can fight the novelty effect for a long time, but it will always eventually win.