What do the Coca Cola bottle, Air Force One, and NASA’s first space station have in common? These iconic products were all were designed in some way by Raymond Loewy, the father of industrial design. Even if his name doesn’t ring a bell, you are most likely familiar with his work. Loewy’s innovations helped to shape the landscape of American culture in the 20th century, and his secret was based upon a universal principle that can be applied to design across all fields.
That theory is called the MAYA Principle, which stands for “Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable.” It is the notion that users are attracted to products that are similar to what they already use and know, but just novel enough so that they feel excited about it.
“To sell something surprising, make it familiar; to sell something familiar, make it surprising.”
Taken from a modern psychology perspective, that makes a lot of sense. We know that humans find comfort in familiarity. This is explained by the “mere-exposure effect.” Studies over the years have shown that people prefer shapes, sounds, images, landscapes, and ideas that are familiar to them. The phenomenon even applies to the thing that we know best — our own face. We’re so used to seeing our reflection in the mirror that we often prefer that reflection to our face captured in a photograph. From an evolutionary standpoint, the explanation is simple; the more you come across an animal or plant, the less likelihood of it being lethal to you.
However, our preference for familiarity isn’t without its limitations. People will get tired of a song that they’ve played on repeat or a favorite outfit that has been on constant rotation in their wardrobe. Thus, familiarity is most effective when it’s least expected.
The same is also true for the reverse. The unexpected is embraced when it comes with a familiar element. Take for example, the success of the Spotify Discover Weekly feature. Initially, the concept for Discover Weekly would comprise of only new songs that listeners had never heard before. However, a bug in the algorithm introduced a few songs that listeners already heard. After this bug was resolved so that every track would be entirely new, engagement with the feature plummeted. The lesson was that listeners were more likely to trust these new songs when they recognized old ones in the mix.
“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.”
It turns out that great design solutions play to these two opposing human instincts — the longing for comfort and the curiosity of the new. As a designer, it’s natural to want to push for the most unique and innovative solutions. In order to create effective products for people, it’s the designer’s job to balance those new concepts and features with the users’ present, so that they will successfully embrace the change.