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Novel vs. Neat vs. Useful

October 8, 2017

In academic research, where I started my career, novelty trumps everything. First and foremost, papers must be novel; the kiss of death for a paper being considered by a program committee is for someone to argue that all of the ideas in the paper have been previously published elsewhere. After novelty, reviewers (and committees) look for neat: is the idea cool and interesting? Whether or not an idea is actually useful is rarely, if ever, been considered. In fact, I served on program committees where committe members argued that it was not the job of the committee to determine whether an idea was actually useful. And this is for HCI conferences, where you’d think that being useful for real people would be a primary consideration. In practice, not so much.

These days I live and work in Silicon Valley, where neat reigns triumphant. You’d think that for companies trying to actually make money that providing utility that people will pay for would be paramount. Sadly, too often Silicon Valley (and the tech press that covers it) assumes that neat means useful. Virtual reality is neat, there it must be the next big thing. What’s it good for? Who knows, but it’s neat, therefore it must be useful. Conversational agents are neat, therefore they must be useful. It’s neat to ask for the weather two Tuesdays ago at 2 PM near the Golden Gate Bridge. Is it useful? Did we mention how neat it is? And most recently, through-the-lens augmented reality on phones is neat, therefore it must be useful. You can measure things and see what furniture looks like in your home (which is about the limit of what Tango came up with after 3-4 years); sure that’s neat! Never mind that you probably don’t redecorate your house that often; it’s neat!

There are companies that do focus on useful. Apple, for example, tends to focus on it, even if it means that they’re not first to bring a particular technology to market. In fact, Apple tends to get dinged by pundits for not focusing enough on novel or neat. People will pay for useful, but it’s hard to generate lots of clicks for advertising revenue from it. Novel and neat make much better clickbait.

Useful is where I personally like to work. Useful means bringing real value to people, giving them their money’s worth. Useful isn’t antithetical to neat or novel; if you can get useful and neat or useful and novel, or all three, even better. But I’ve seen too many products or features make it to market because they’re neat and demo well and nobody bothered to think through (or care about) utility. And then they (unsurprisingly) get derided as gimmicky. Yes, our products do need to appeal to consumers. But if we want to build lasting relationships that keep them coming back, we need to providing value that lasts beyond the first use.

From → Musings, Technology

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