Many people believe that the key to popular products and services is to come up with radically innovative ideas. However, Allen Gennett describes in his book The Creative Curve that this widespread belief is far from being true – here’s why. Novel products and services can be too new and too different from the status quo. This indicates that getting the timing of a new product or service right is crucial.
To start off, we need to understand two basic mechanisms that drive how humans react to new ideas. These go all the way back to the most fundamental human psychology that has evolved over millions of years.
Fear of the unknown
Have you ever feared something unfamiliar, for example, the first day of a new job or talking to a stranger? We’ve all been there and it’s totally natural. Humans and closely related animals (like bonobos) have an avoidance reflex to unfamiliar things, and prefer certainty to risk. Over time, we evolved to fear the unknown, seeking familiarity as a protection mechanism from potential harm.
The mere exposure effect
Interestingly, the innate avoidance reflex can be reduced by repeated exposure to a particular thing. Simply put, the more often we are exposed to something novel, the less we fear it. Let’s go back to the first day at work example. Chances are that on the second day you start to get more comfortable.
Repeated exposure not only reduces the avoidance reflex in response to the specific familiarized thing, but also to things that are similar to that particular stimuli. For example, as you become more relaxed with every sight of a red snake, you will also be calmer once you see your first green snake. However, familiarity does not directly make us like things. Rather, it makes us fear things less – it reduces avoidance. Simply put, seeing snakes repeatedly wouldn’t necessarily make you like them. The question then is – what makes us like something and drives our interest in it?
Novelty exploration bonus
The preference for familiarity has limits. People get tired of things. In a study, subjects were shown paintings with different frequencies. The subjects liked the painting that they saw 25 times far less than the paintings that they saw only once. So, where the preference for the novel comes from?
To answer that question, we need to understand the role of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Contrary to popular notion, dopamine is a motivation neurotransmitter and not a pleasure neurotransmitter. It stimulates us “to approach something to learn more about it”. Or, simply put, it triggers us to check something out, and it is not so much about the pleasure of consuming something. Research has shown that experiencing novelty releases dopamine, which makes us want to explore whatever new thing lays in front of us.
From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense. For a hunter-gatherer, an unfamiliar territory could mean a new source of food, which is worth checking out. This anticipation of potential rewards is what scientists call the “novelty exploration bonus” and it’s why we seek and enjoy novel things – whether it’s food, a new game, or an app.
This leads us to a contradiction: we just learned that humans pursue novelty, but also fear the unfamiliar.
Where have the Kevins gone?
At the beginning of the 1990s, Kevin became the number one name for newborn boys in Switzerland. Suddenly, it seemed that every parent was calling their newborn boy Kevin. However, as the decades passed, the name lost flavor. By 2019, it had dropped to the 184th place on the name popularity index, with only 43 newborns in Switzerland being named Kevin.
This is a phenomenon that is not only linked to names. The popularity of things often follows a bell-shaped curve. First, things come into favor, then they peak in popularity, followed by suddenly falling out of style.
The creative curve
Many years ago, a friend of mine told me about a song he really enjoyed. As I didn’t know the song, I asked him to play it on his stereo for me. I liked it too and asked him to play it again, but he objected. He explained that he was afraid he’d stop liking it if he played it too often.
Little did I know at that time that researchers from the University of Toronto and the University of Montreal examined this exact issue and proved him right. They demonstrated that the enjoyment of listening attentively to the same song over and over again follows a bell-shaped curve. When the familiarity through repeated listening increases, the preference toward the song grows to a point of overexposure. From that point on, the liking for the song decreases – a phenomenon that is not only linked to songs and names.
Allen Gannett identified this trend development that follows a bell-shaped curve with countless products and ideas. He named this the creative curve, which maps the relationship between preference and familiarity, aggregated on a group level of people.
If we experience something completely new for the first time, the avoidance reflex outweighs our innate desire to explore new things. As a result, we won’t buy or use it – to protect ourselves from potential (physical or monetary) harm. It’s too novel. Fringe groups might be interested, but not the mainstream.
As we get exposed to the new thing over and over again, we gradually learn that it won’t harm us. The “novelty exploration bonus” starts to overweight the avoidance reflex. Every time we see or experience it, we start liking it more, and we start to wonder if this new thing might provide value in some way. This upward slope is called the sweet spot of the creative curve. Ideas and concepts in this region are familiar enough that we feel comfortable to get in contact with them, while at the same time being sufficiently novel to spark some interest, compelling us to explore it.
Once we get to know an idea or concept better it starts to become very familiar, and consequently, the “novelty exploration bonus” gradually decays. At the point of cliché, we become overexposed, becoming less and less interested in it. After the point of cliché, ideas become a follow-on failure. If you launch a product that falls in this category you might initially have some success as people are still somewhat interested, but after a year or so it likely will experience an abrupt drop in popularity.
Ultimately, an idea gets out of date and unpopular. If you open a store selling yo-yos in 2021, you may attract a small group of buyers, but nothing more. Products or ideas with the objective of attracting a large audience that fall in this category should be abandoned.
When creating a product or service, the key is to find the sweet spot between familiarity and novelty – a concept that Raymond Loewy, a famous industrial designer, also strongly believed in. He sensed that consumers are torn between two opposing forces: neophilia, the curiosity about new things; and neophobia, a fear of anything too new. Loewy called his theory the “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable” – MAYA. His formula was: to sell something surprising, make it familiar; and to sell something familiar, make it surprising.
Uber for …
Some startups recognize this success formula (consciously or otherwise). To make products or services more appealing to consumers and venture capitalists, they get branded as a fresh spin on familiar successes. The home-rental company, Airbnb, was once called “eBay for homes”, as people were familiar with eBay. Uber and Lyft were initially considered “Airbnb for cars”. Once Uber became a household name, new startups started to call themselves “Uber for …”.
When Less Is More
CampusNetwork, a social network, had launched at Columbia University a few weeks before Facebook became a success at Harvard. CampusNetwork was a bit earlier and also significantly more advanced than Facebook. While Facebook essentially was a virtual directory, with basic profiles, friends, and a function called “poking”, CampusNetwork already had many features that Facebook would integrate much later, such as photo sharing, the wall, the activity feed, and comments. Despite all its advanced features, CampusNetwork soon stalled, while Facebook strived. What if CampusNetwork failed to a large extent because of the density of its advanced features?
When CampusNetwork and Facebook launched in 2014, people had a much different view about identity and privacy. We were not used to sharing private photos and posting what we are up to publicly – which was what CampusNetwork asked their users to do. Wayne Ting, co-founder of CampusNetwork, admits that “We were asking them [users] to make too many leaps at once.” By contrast, Facebook gradually added new features to their product as users became more familiar with sharing personal information publicly online. In a BBC interview, Ting said: „What Facebook did that was incredibly smart, was to hook them with the friending and the poking and then they learned with their users and added functionality slowly over time as users became more comfortable.“ Facebook was following the creative curve. They successfully balanced the familiar with the novel.
When Elon Musk unveiled Tesla’s first electric pickup in late 2019 its design certainly surprised many people. Once the car becomes available in late 2021 (as planned), sales numbers will give an indication in which phase of the creative curve Tesla’s progressive car concept can be placed and if it has enough familiar components to spark more than just some fringe interest.
Clearly, the chances of the Cybertruck being successful would have been much lower a decade ago. Electric cars were not as widely accepted as today, and the brand Tesla did not yet have its strong standing. Launching an electric car, with a weak brand and an unconventional design, would have placed the car on the far-left tail of the creative curve. Over the past years, people have become familiar with electric vehicles and Elon Musk’s progressive ideas – so much so that Tesla dared to make a big leap.
It’s a balancing act
When we first come in contact with something new – an app, a website, or a physical product – two things happen in our brain: the unfamiliar makes us want to avoid it, but our desire to explore new things is also triggered. Products have a much higher chance of becoming successful when they balance the familiar with the novel. Something too novel scares people off, whereas something too familiar does not drive interest. You want to work on products and ideas that are rooted in something we already know. The perceived familiarity will make potential customers feel comfortable enough to get in contact with it. At the same time, a product needs to include some novelty that is intriguing enough to spark interest.
This article is adapted from Allen Gennett’s book, The Creative Curve
Joël Sonderegger is the Founder & Managing Director at Voa Labs. He helps his team strategize, design, and engineer products that enable businesses to transform their ideas into digital solutions, while energetically steering all aspects of Voa Labs’ operations.
Previously, Joël was a VP of Product Management at Sygnum, the world's first digital asset bank. Prior to that, he worked at Zühlke and IBM, where he gained his passion for agile, high-tech environments in which creativity and collaborations are proactively encouraged.
Joël holds a Master of Business Innovation from the University of St. Gallen (HSG) and a Bachelor of Business Administration from Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW).