Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable

The occasional necessity of patient paradigm shifts.

Sometimes the humblest artifacts hold the most interesting lessons. For example, behold the Apple menu in the top-left of the modern Mac OS:

Single-click the Apple logo, and the menu remains open until you click elsewhere. Just like you’d expect. Now let’s rewind back to its infancy:

Looks much the same, right? But in the late 80s, WIMP interfaces were a novelty. People were much less accustomed to the behavior of mice, menus, and these nascent symbolic representations of data. And thus the behavior of the menu was subtly different: you had to hold your mouse down in order to keep the menu open before releasing your mouse over the item you wanted to select, forming a canonical quasimode (a mode maintained by constant user action, like using the shift key as opposed to caps lock). This design decision meant menu navigation required more physical work and mouse gymnastics, but avoided mode errors and an early usability issue for a society unfamiliar with menus: “this thing is open, how do I get rid of it?

Times have changed, though, and an average person’s familiarity with computing has evolved with it. Now the tradeoff is no longer that powerful, and drop-downs and menus tend to exhibit the full-modal single-click-and-it-stays-open-until-you-click behavior. (In a display of brilliance, though, most drop-downs and menus now support both behaviors; for example, try striking the aforementioned Apple menu with a single, quick click, and you get the modal behavior. Then try a prolonged and pronounced click-and-hold, and it becomes quasimodal. Its behavior personalizes itself toward your expectation, which the system cleverly intuits based on the action you choose to trigger the interaction.)

In 1951, Raymond Loewy (known for the maxim “form follows function”) also coined a slightly less commonly known adage: “most advanced, yet acceptable.” (Or MAYA to be short, not to be confused with the design firm named after it.)

Our desire is naturally to give the buying public the most advanced product that research can develop and technology can produce. Unfortunately, it has been proved time and time again that such a product does not always sell well. […] 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.

Loewy tended to describe this in terms of taste or style and talked about a “tug of war between attraction to the new and fear of the unfamiliar,” but MAYA entails more than just surface-level whims of the public; it reaches deep into the functionality of the product. And it means that sometimes we need to make slow progress towards novelty and reevaluate even the smallest tradeoffs and design decisions as the world changes. The evolution of that menu micro-interaction is the smallest example of making a terrifyingly new paradigm just the tiniest bit more acceptable, more aware of its users’ world… and as that world adapted, so did the design.

On the larger scale, MAYA may partially explain the failure of many products that dared to tread too far over the line without doing enough to make themselves approachable and acceptable (hello, Google Wave). And on the flip side, it also explains why I’ve witnessed many colleagues achieve success by starting with the tiniest, incremental improvements initially, then slowly taking small yet revolutionary steps toward something truly novel, eventually revealing the grand scheme they had in their heads all along. When the situation calls for it (and, of course, it doesn’t always), this can be a rewarding strategy for those who are patient and far-sighted enough.

That four-letter principle, which I don’t hear in product planning nearly often enough, carries so many implications: that novelty introduces tradeoffs of its own; that cultural expectations rapidly shift and thus even the most impeccable design may seem silly in 10 years; and that sometimes sudden revolutionary novelty is the best answer, but every now and then, patient and intentional evolution is a necessary part of our work as designers. Because form follows function, but even function follows societal context.

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