Familiarity: leveraging what is known


While exploring different resources addressing the issue of change, the theme of familiarity was discovered. This was discovered in different fields that introduce a new product, helping someone overcome personal change like smoke cessation, and also organizational consulting. While product design considers familiarity as something that can help a design be adopted more readily, consultants and counselors understand working within the context people are already familiar with is a more successful approach when addressing change. As Academic Health Centers employ innovative thinking, leveraging what people are already familiar with can help organizations more readily adopt new methodologies.

A few posts ago, I introduced Raymond Loewy’s MAYA (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable) principal. In short, Mr. Loewy states that no matter how sound the reasoning for a new idea or concept, if it is a great leap beyond what people already know, it will not be embraced and is more likely to fail. This perspective comes from a designer who is responsible for several successful designs including the same logos we still see today for Shell, Exxon, the US Postal Service as well as consumer goods like the coca-cola can and the Avanti automobile.

There are several phenomenons that occur when there is a lack of familiarity. As a person encounters a new product for the first time, the strength of the design determines how well the individual understands the intended use. Poor designs can lead individuals to misinterpreting a design and falsely blaming themselves for the failed interpretation. This situation can lead to a user developing a sense of “learned helplessness.” This occurs as a user is repeatedly unsuccessful at interpreting a design but is aware of others be able to successfully understand that same concept. The result is an individual being convinced that a concept will never see success as long as they are part of the equation.

The issues of misuse and learned helplessness can be avoided by minimizing the gulfs of execution and evaluation. The gulf of execution is the difference between a process is intended to be used and how a user executes a process. The gulf of evaluation is the difference between a concepts intended, successful use and how a user interprets whether or not the use is successful.The burden of creating a concept that minimizes the gulfs of execution and gulfs of interpretation falls on the shoulders of the designer. As concepts are created that resemble something a user has see before, these gulfs inherently become minimized. This allows users to refer to previous experiences to interpret intended use and application of designs. Leveraging familiarity with the introduction of a new concept can make change seem more incremental and less revolutionary.

This type of incremental change is reinforced by the “Ways to Grow” matrix. This matrix shows there are new and old users and goods. Successful designs typically fall in the evolutionary quadrants while radical ideas fall in the revolutionary quadrant. A good example of a revolutionary concept that failed is the Segway. The Segway offered a personal transportation to people who were not already using personal transportation. It was a new offering to new users.

Ways to Grow

The Power of Habit acknowledges that “to market a new habit, you must understand how to make the novel seem familiar.” This reinforces that if you dress something up in something familiar, it is easier for the public to accept it. Charles Duhigg likens this to a radio DJ’s sandwich technique used to make a new song a hit. This technique takes a song that is unpopular and plays it between two songs that are already hits. This “sandwich playlist” is used over and over again until the song catches hold. The method is so effectives that is credited for Outcast’s “Hey Ya” receiving a grammy. The song originally had 26.6% of listeners changing the channel. Within three months, that number dropped to 5.7% by disguising the song with songs that were familiar. The song eventually sold 5.5 million albums.

Success in both individual and organizational change can be greatly improved by leveraging what is already familiar. Designs should keep this in mind when introducing new processes in existing cultures. This approach can help ease the process of change.


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