You’ve heard of being between a rock and a hard place? How about being between skeuomorphism and MAYA?

Both these terms refer to usability design concepts. Skeuomorphism means designing something in a way that feels familiar—like turning a very small computer-based notification device into an Apple Watch.

MAYA, on the other hand, stands for Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable, which means a design has to be at least familiar enough for people to feel comfortable with it.

Making a design too weird, no matter how efficient it might be, isn’t going to work well, because the learning curve is just typically too steep for people to bother with.

For example, people argue that the standard QWERTY keyboard layout isn’t efficient. But how many devices and apps do you see that use something different?

The term MAYA was coined in 1951 by designer Raymond Loewy, who was also known for the maxim “form follows function.” He called it a “tug of war between attraction to the new and fear of the unfamiliar.” His own designs ranged from Air Force One to Le Creuset pans to the Coca-Cola bottle to locomotives.

“History is full of advanced failures that the audiences at the time weren’t ready for: the Segway, Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, Apple’s Newton tablet (the ‘ancient’ ancestor of the iPad),” writes Jerry Cao in The Next Web. “Throwing something that’s revolutionary but un-relatable at users risks confusing them and scaring them off into the arms of something more comfortable. But at the same time, in a competitive market you need to set yourself ahead somehow, and there’s always room for improvement in existing systems.”

Interestingly, studies have found that products with designs that won “bronze” awards in competitions did well right away, while designs that won “gold” awards usually took a couple of years to catch on.

Let’s be honest—outside of Back to the Future, how many DeLoreans have you seen lately?

What This Means to You

You may think you’re not a designer. But if you work on software, if you work on apps, even if you work on web forms—anything that a person interacts with—you’re a designer, and you need to keep this principle in mind.

Web forms and documents, for example, often still “look” like a piece of paper—underlined blank spaces and all—even when they’re computer-based and don’t need to look that way. (Even, in fact, if they make the form more difficult to use. How often have you tried to do data entry on an online form and the letters insert and then the underlines in the blank space start moving forward and the whole thing gets all wonky?)

At the same time, the forms, documents, and other user interfaces need to look familiar enough so that users don’t have to do what they like least: Think.

“The more you burden your user with cognitive load—anything that requires effort to remember, figure out, or otherwise think about—the less they’ll enjoy the experience,” Cao writes. “And one of the most notorious strains on your users’ fragile brains is learning a new system. The inherent fault in advanced systems, aside from the users’ predilection towards the familiar, is having to learn a new set of controls.”

For example, try moving to a country where cars drive on the opposite side of the road from what you’re used to. Not only do you have to remember to drive on the other side of the road, but you’ll constantly find yourself turning on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal. (And let’s not even talk about roundabouts.)

How does the MAYA principle work day-to-day? In baby steps. Design blogger Jim O’Neill offers the example of the Apple iPod, which gradually lost more and more of its physical controls in favor of touchscreen interaction as people got more used to the idea. “Now, in the time of the iPhone with a full touch screen, early iPods look quaint, almost archaic,” he writes. “But in 2001, the iPhone would likely have been too far outside the bounds of the familiar to make any sense to consumers. Only because of the progression of MAYA do we take for granted its sleek look and feel today.”

“The iPhone was MAYA,” summarizes Paul Hewerdine of the Earnest Agency. “Google Glass wasn’t.”

Keeping familiar items in a design will help users more easily accept the innovative new features that your products, websites, and forms will have, experts write.

“Redesigning something to the point where it is not recognizable as what it is intended to be or do can be the death of a design,” design author Henry Petroski told the American Institute for Graphic Arts (along with more than you can ever imagine hearing about paperclips and vegetable peelers). “Even advertising and package design may not be able to help sell a widget that gives no hint that it is a widget.”

While users might not be ready for flying cars and jetpacks, that’s still no reason to stick with stone knives and bearskins—so limit the amount of stuff you put on an app, form, or website that isn’t functional.

“Designers should strive to eliminate, or at least minimize, extraneous cognitive load: processing that takes up mental resources, but doesn’t actually help users understand the content,” writes Kathryn Whitenton of the Nielsen Norman Group. “User attention is a precious resource, and should be allocated accordingly.”

It all boils down to, keep things simple. And it shouldn’t be news that that’s a concept we hope everyone gets behind.

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