Habituation is the idea that the more we experience something, the more we get used to its quirks and inconveniences, and the less we question it. One example of this: having stickers on fruits that we must peel off before eating. In many ways habituation is the opposite of disruption and a barricade to brainstorming new, innovative ideas. “It stops us from noticing and fixing the products around us,” Tony Fadell, the product designer of the iPod and creator of Nest, said during his TED talk today on creative ignition.
Steve Jobs used to call it, “staying beginners,” or constantly recalibrating to look at products as if you’re holding and experiencing them for the first time. That’s how Fadell and Jobs first ended up deciding to have the iPod already charged when it came out of the box, a convenience that didn’t exist with electronic products before, but is now an industry standard.
As a product designer, Fadell’s constantly fighting the inclination to habituate, and he’s come up with three basic ways to avoid its trappings and manage to find and solve invisible problems.
When starting to create a product there is always a list of problems to tackle. It’s the decisions you make to solve the problems that define the final product. Looking broader means seeing how to combine or remove problems to streamline and simplify the product. Fadell exemplified this idea with his first Nest product, the thermostat. When it was first invented the thermostat had one function: changing the temperature. But people wanted to save energy, so thermostat companies added the function of scheduling, “but no one saved energy because people couldn’t predict the future,” Fadell said. Nobody knew how to best schedule their thermostats.
So Fadell looked beyond this to the larger goal of saving energy, and reverted back to the original thermostat with its one function of changing the temperature. This time, though, the machine learns the user’s schedule and programs itself—it worked. With Nest, people save energy without any programming. “Take a step back and look at all the boxes,” Fadell said. “Maybe there’s a way to combine them or remove one to make the process that much easier.”
But even while you broaden your perspective, the details remain important, even the tiny ones you may not at first notice. Fadell’s original goal with the Nest thermostat was to make a product as easy as possible for the customer to install without any extra, outside help. So Fadell and his team first decided on three screws to come with the Nest thermostat that would be used to install it. But the customers weren’t reporting back with positive experiences. The Nest team went back to the drawing board and invented their own screw. Investors weren’t pleased because they wanted the team to focus on selling product, but Fadell refused to listen and completed his design of a single, custom screw to install the Nest thermostat. Customer experience reviews shot up.
Finally, Fadell is inspired by the questions his kids ask. There are the eternal questions like, why cars can’t fly around traffic? And then others that seem like they might just turn into Fadell’s next Nest project, like why doesn’t the mailbox check itself and tell us when it has mail?
The rules of habituation state that the more we’re exposed to something, the more we get used to it and don’t question it, but since the younger mind is less accustomed to life, it asks more questions and is able to dream up more creative solutions. Fadell advises to hire young people and make sure you’re working alongside young minds. Aside from providing a fresh flow of creative ideas, it’ll also inspire the older minds in the room. “We all saw the world more clearly before habits got in the way,” he said. “Our goal is to get back there–so we can stay beginners.”