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Will your product be a hit or a flop? This simple rule can help you decide.

Concept of new ideas and innovation
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

What makes something a hit or a flop? Sit and ponder that one, and you’ll find it’s a stumper.
At first, the answer seems obvious: popularity. That’s not quite right though. First, what qualifies as popular varies depending on what we are referencing. A bestselling book needs to move 25–30,000 units, while a blockbuster movie would need to sell 40 times that number of tickets. Plus, saying something is popular is saying it’s a hit. Our definition is circular and therefore unhelpful.
Another potential answer would be merit—the best of the best rise to the top. We know this isn’t true either. We’ve all seen shoddy craftsmanship propelled to popular status, while expertly crafted art and products go underappreciated. Think of all the exercise equipment that sells incredibly well but provides zero benefits.
At this point, we may be tempted to chalk the whole thing up to happenstance. But that’s not only unfulfilling; it’s also incorrect. 
Intangible as it may seem, there’s a quality that hits share and flops lack. It’s called MAYA. 

In this video lesson, writer Derek Thompson explains what MAYA is and how we can use it to direct how we think about our offerings.

MAYA: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable

  • People are torn between neophilia (love of new things) and neophobia (fear of things that are too new). Making hit products is about combining familiarity and surprise.
  • To sell something familiar, make it surprising. To sell something surprising, make it familiar.
  • Star Wars sells a surprising world (jedis, forces, creatures) in a familiar narrative setting (the monomyth).

When ideas, products, and entertainment become hits, they balance MAYA perfectly. They manage to feel both instantly familiar yet surprising. When they flop, they tend to fall to one side or the other. (Though this definition sets aside the behind-the-scenes mismanagement that can topple an otherwise fruitful idea).

Famous Case Studies from the Tech Sector

The Hits

  • For the first Apple McIntosh, Steve Jobs famously wanted the screen to say, “Hello”, like a human face. Jobs took a novel product category and sold it through familiarity (the personal computer as friend).
  • Similarly, Amazon Alexa was created with a pleasant female voice. The idea was to make an AI assistant sound like a human assistant.
  • The Apple iPhone, the most profitable product in modern history, did not look new. It looked exactly like a product the company already had. Apple took a well-known information ecosystem and added new features to it.

The Flop

  • Google Glass looked like normal spectacles but had a huge cube on the frame. According to Google employees, the glasses were basically a prototype for nerds sold as a product to consumers. Ultimately, they looked and felt too novel. Google didn’t properly understand the habits and familiarities of the people they were selling to.

Let’s explore Thompson’s MAYA concept further with some additional case studies.
The Segway springs to mind as something surprising but too alien. It sported impressive technology in its tilt and gyroscopic sensors, but it never made much sense. Why motor about at the speed of a brisk walk when you could, you know, walk? While Segways ultimately found their niche, they never became the revolution they were propositioned to be.
Conversely, we have Zune, the music player that was as familiar as plain rice and just as exciting. Microsoft released its iPod competitor years after customers had grown accustomed to Apple’s popular device. The Zune looked like an iPod, it worked like an iPod, and it had no features to differentiate it from an iPod. So then, why not just buy an iPod? Or use the iPod you already own? And that’s exactly what customers did.
We need to strike a balance between surprise and familiarity, but we won’t always get it right. When we don’t, we need to adjust. To demonstrate how to manage that pivot, let’s return to Google Glass.
Google Glass was a famous flop. The computing eyewear was released in 2013 to a whirlwind of concerns and controversy. Pundits fretted over invasions of privacy, recording video without people’s permission, or uploading private conversations onto the internet. People questioned whether it was safe to operate a motor vehicle with a computer screen on your face or whether face-to-face interactions would deteriorate when you could always be on social media.
Pressing as they may be, these concerns aren’t what sank Google Glass. Similar worries have been lobbed at smartphones, virtual assistants, and the array of products making up the Internet of Things. What sank Google Glass was that it felt too novel. You couldn’t use it in public without people looking at you inquisitively. It was a Segway for your face.
But Google Glass isn’t dead. Google learned its MAYA lesson, pulled back to reconsider Glass’s use cases, and slowly worked to hone a balance of familiarity and surprise.
Today, Google Glass is Glass Enterprise Edition. Google markets the product to professional enterprises in which both eyewear and data are commonplace. Doctors, manufacturers, and logisticians can access their documents, record information, and utilize augmented reality overlays while keeping their hands free.
Granted, they still look like nerds wearing them, but if you’re going to market a “prototype for nerds,” to borrow Thompson’s phrase, you could do worse than pitching it to doctors and logisticians.
Add that MAYA luster to your next project with lessons ‘For Business‘ from Big Think+. At Big Think+, Derek Thompson joins more than 350 experts to teach development strategies and design thinking. Expand your team’s innovative resources with lessons such as:

  1. Starting with Why: Be Your Own Competition, with Simon Sinek, Ethnographer and Author, Start with Why
  2. From Hunch to Reality: Why Prototyping the Problem Beats Harvesting Ideas, with Luis Perez-Breva, Director, MIT Innovation Teams Program, and Author, Innovating: a Doer’s Manifesto
  3. Systems Thinking 101: The Value of the Holistic View, with Geoffrey West, Theoretical Physicist and Author, Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth
  4. Solve a Global Problem, with Peter Thum, Founder of Ethos Water
  5. Stretch Your Team’s Imagination: Cook Up Thought Experiments to Inspire Conceptual Thinking, with Susan Schneider, Philosopher and Author, Artificial You

Request a demo today!

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