What is Novelty Effect and How it Affects Your Digital Hygiene?
Every Apple keynote feels like a blockbuster movie. Theatrical staging, visual effects, and overused words like “awesome and incredible” amplify the novelty effect. The effect can be used for good and evil, and I want to explore it today.
The novelty effect is the tendency for performance to initially improve when new technology is instituted, not because of actual improvement, but in response to increased interest in the new technology. This is relevant to Apple Watch 6 review by Verge:
Apple didn’t screw anything up. But that’s not the same thing as significantly moving forward, either. The Series 6’s updates comprise a bunch of very minor updates that will be unnecessary to the vast majority of people who will buy it. …it’s not the best deal you can find for your wrist, but it justifies its cost by offering a ton of value — just not enough value compared to previous generations that you’d notice it. It’s an iterative update…
I bought that Watch, but I owned none before, so it felt like a good deal. If I’d upgrade from a previous generation - I’d be disappointed. And to me, those iterative updates hurt both companies and users. Then why do Apple and other companies invest money and time into marketing an “iterative update”?
How is this relevant to digital hygiene?
We can categorize technology upgrades into two groups: 1) technological improvement and 2) iterative update. For example, Apple’s latest upgrade to the M1 processor on a MacBook is a technological improvement with longer battery life and better performance. In contrast, a purple iPhone with straight edges is an iterative update. We see many iterative updates when companies rely on the novelty effect of colors, shapes, and marketing. This makes your next phone a fast fashion item. And it may be an intentional decision, as explained in this video from Veritasium.
I’d argue that it’s bad for your digital hygiene because:
Financial aspect: you purchase an expensive item with the functionality you don’t need and spend money that you could invest elsewhere;
Time aspect: you invest your attention in learning a new redesign of the service. This attention could be used for your hobby or time with friends;
Emotional aspect: your initial excitement vanishes eventually and you feel disappointed with technology, but you spent money and time trying it;
Complexity aspect: as companies create more services and tools, they try to sell them together. When you purchase something you don’t need, you increase your workflow complexity and need to manage more things.
Iterative updates should get less attention, marketing budget, and media coverage. The ideas can be validated with less effort and attention from consumers. Instead, that time can be invested in building innovative products. One argument made in the video is that frequent replacement of services and products helps fuel economy where more revenue allows hiring more people, and those people can create more products. I am not an economist, yet I want to know if we can change this system to make more impactful products and sell them for a higher price. Not everyone will buy that product on day one, but they will eventually since it has value. A similar idea was explored in Matt D'avella's video:
Novelty effect is not evil
You may feel that the novelty effect is evil. But it’s a tool, and like any tool, it can be used for good and evil. Here are examples of good use like when teachers used new technology to increase student engagement in the classroom or employers can use novelty effect to help people feel more joy at work. After learning about this tool, you can use it for good. Here is a checklist I rely on. I ask myself these questions every time I feel like the novelty effect kicks in.
As a consumer buying a product:
What problem will X solve for me?
How is X better compared to what I have?
Can I try that for free before purchasing?
How long will it last for me?
As a product manager creating a product:
What problem are we solving for people?
How many people are affected by this?
How is our solution better than what users have? Is that value higher than switching and learning costs for them?
What’s the easiest and fastest way to test if our solution is viable?
If you can’t stop thinking about the new thing, try to test it without purchasing. But remember, regardless of how awesome the new thing is, it’ll become a default experience eventually.
In search of a balance for novelty effect
If you heard product managers talk, you could hear a story like: “we changed the button color, and it increased purchase conversion by 3%”. Everyone in the room awes and goes out to change the colors of their buttons. But few people tell the rest of the story when in a month that increase disappears. That’s a novelty effect, and it backfires for companies.
Sometimes it feels like companies change the button's color instead of building a new feature. It’s sad as we risk having less innovation in the long term. It’s not to say we need to stop iterating on the products and share them with users for feedback. In fact, that’s counterproductive in a software world where there is little cost for sharing a new version with a user and incredible value in hearing their feedback. I argue we should be more selective with our attention to what we change. It may take the same time to build a prototype for a new feature and change the button's color in multiple places. But the new feature will last while the button won’t. I hope that our habits and demands will eventually inspire companies to focus on actual technological improvements.