Lessons from the "Super Normal" Japanese design philosophy, and how this can be applied to digital products and tech.
When we discuss design, we often get into an argument about subjective tastes. Good design can have many defining features, but the reality is that often the hallmark of good design is its invisibility.
"Super Normal" is a Japanese design philosophy pioneered by Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison that is a great way to describe the process of industrial design and aesthetics. An object becomes super normal when it moves from simple visual aesthetics into an anticipatory state. It contends with how the object will be engaged with, the problems it is trying to solve, and how it can more readily fade into the background.
Super Normal as Analogy
Dave Morin, CEO of Path outlines a great analogy of this concept through the lens of a common household bucket;
"The design we know today has evolved over the years to include a few simple features. The bucket is made of durable metal for longevity. It has ripples on the sides to make it easy to grasp with the hands. It has a curved metal handle making it possible to carry with one hand. The bucket design of today serves its function well."
This is our baseline "normal", and is very easy to picture the object in our minds. A super normal designer will now ask the question, “What are the key problems?” We can immediately see cases such as picking a bucket up that is freezing or hot to the touch, grabbing a handle that cuts into your hands, or a shape that is hard to control when poured that makes you lose some of the water.
"In thinking through these problems we can come up with some simple innovations that would make the bucket better. First, we can add a wood or plastic wrap to the metal handle, creating more surface area and thus a more comfortable carry. Second, we can wrap the entire bucket in a thin layer of plastic creating insulation when carrying hot or cold water. Third, we can add a spout to the side, making it easy to control the pour, causing you to lose less water.
When we finish our design, and put it in front of our customer, the bucket looks like a bucket. It is comfortably familiar and ordinary at a glance. But as the customer interacts with the bucket, what is familiar fades away, and what is left is something new. The customer is delighted because we have changed their perspective of what a bucket can be."
Super Normal and Product Design
What we can extrapolate from this concept is that when you set out to create a new product, you don’t start by thinking of something completely new. Instead, think of a product that is already “normal”, and then try and make it better or “super normal”.
“People don’t want something truly new, they want the familiar done differently.”
We have an inherent bias and a natural natural resistance to learning new processes. As outlined by BJ Fogg, the go to expert on behavioral change;
“People are generally resistant to teaching and training because it requires effort. This clashes with the natural wiring of human adults: We are fundamentally lazy. As a result, products that require people to learn new things routinely fail.”
The trick is to work from an established benchmark, and use this as analogy, easing the user into the change so they don’t feel a sense of alienation.
Super Normal and Tech
When you look at the new breed of technology companies that have come to dominate the digital landscape, they are often working from a normal base and adding their own innovative twist. This process of “super normal” is a big contribution to their ability to rapidly drive user acquisition and scale.
So what are some examples when they launched?
The Mac famously was a personal computer with a graphical interface enabling graphical apps. These were built on the idea of Skeuomorphic design - a folder looked like a real world folder, for simple association with users.
The next generation of digital startups continued this trend;
- Facebook was your phone book, that let you update everyone in it on your status.
- Twitter was blogging, with 140 character posts.
- Tumblr was blogging, with five simple post types.
- Instagram was a camera with simple to add filters.
- Snapchat was status updates that exploded after 10 seconds.
- The iPod was an MP3 player enabling 1000’s of songs.
- Tesla was a car with an electric engine.
Interestingly, in each example, the company didn’t invent the category, but rather they built a new innovation on top of it. This could be improving an interaction with technology, improvement by adding a constraint, or determining that a previous constraint was no longer necessary.
Peter Thiel calls this phenomenon “Last Mover Advantage”. Traditional business theory often talks about the advantages of being the first mover into any market (often referred to as Blue Ocean Strategy), which allows you to capture significant market share while competitors scramble to get started.
First mover advantage however is a tactic, not a goal.
It is often much better to be the last mover - to make the last great development in a specific market. You do this by dominating a small niche, and then scale up from there, building towards a dominant long-term vision that allows you to outrun the existing competitive set.
As an agent of your innovation and design efforts remember that trying to build a completely new concept may be costly to time, resource and pressure, and could ultimately be extremely hard to teach to new users. Instead try to look at the existing touch points or category conventions that are normal in your industry, and see how you can make things "super normal" for users. Adding a new twist on the familiar can be a big key to product success.