Super Normal

"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. Dave Morin (CEO of Path) has done a great job of explaining the application of this model to software design. I will be repurposing a lot of his content here, so check out his original article.

Defining Super Normal

The concept here is simple - 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".

Dave goes on to explain this beautifully with a standard household metal bucket. As he describes:

"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 east to picture in your mind. We now ask the question - what are the key problems? In our bucket analogy when filled with cold water, we can define some of these as the handle which cuts into your hands, picking up the bucket which is freezing to the touch, and lastly the process of pouring out the water which is hard to control and makes you lose some of the water.

Our solutions them become easy. As described by Dave:

"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."

The product is familiar, so not foreign, but adds intuitive features that surprise and delight the user, leading to affinity. That is "super normal".

Super Normal in Software

When you view a lot of the recent successful software companies or startups, they are often working from a normal base and then adding their own innovative twist. This process of "super normal" is a key driver for their success. 

Dave provides a great list of examples:

  • Friendster was friending.
  • Myspace was friending your favorite bands.
  • Facebook was friending your college friends (and then the world).
  • LinkedIn was friending your professional network.
  • NextDoor was friending your neighbors.
  • Twitter was blogging 140 character posts.
  • Tumblr was blogging with 5 different types of posts.
  • Yammer was blogging short posts to your co-workers.
  • Instagram was sharing photos with beautiful filters.
  • Path was sharing photos with up to 150 people.
  • Snapchat was sharing photos that explode after 10 seconds.
  • Mac was a personal computer with a graphical interface enabling graphical apps.
  • iPod was an MP3 player with a click-wheel interface enabling 1000’s of songs.
  • iPhone was a smartphone with a multi-touch interface enabling multi-touch apps.
  • Tesla was a car with an electric engine (and now a multi-touch interface).

In each of these examples, there is a key "normal" object that allows the audience of customer to imagine a baseline, and then the "super normal" twist is added on top. As Dave outlines, they didn't invent the category, they added an innovation on top of it. This could be improving interaction with technology, improvement by adding a constraint, or determining that a previous constraint was no longer necessary.

Conclusion

As part of the creative process across all areas of your business, trying to build a completely new concept may be costly to time, resource and pressure. Try instead to look at the existing touch points or category conventions that are normal in your industry, and try and see how you can make things "super normal" for your users. This will not only work for software startups, but anyone selling a product or service. 


This post continues my series on Mental Models.