Venkatesh Rao argues in his essay about the “Manufactured Normalcy Field” that people, when presented with new experiences, will work hard to maintain a “familiar sense of a static, continuous present.” This is likely an adaptation mechanism employed by the mind to ensure that behavioral differences are minimized. For example, my grandmother refuses to learn how to use a computer simply because it feels weird to her.
This “normalizing” is done in one of two ways: by “mapping” strange new experiences back to familiar things through stories and metaphors, and by purposefully making design choices that de-emphasize strangeness. As an example, Rao highlights the inherent “strangeness” of flying in a commercial airplane, stating that a great deal of effort is put into the plane’s design and operation to ensure that passengers don’t realize they’re sitting in an aluminum tube 30,000 feet in the air, and that sensations they might perceive while they’re hovering in brief periods of zero-g feel no more discomforting than traveling in a wooden wagon on a bumpy road. The argument is that while passengers are flying, they’re in a manufactured normalcy field.
Given this, Rao argues that successful products do not attempt to alter a user’s experience noticeably, even if the underlying technology has changed significantly. He says that the role of the designer is to ensure the product is integrated successfully into the Field, and that even radically new and innovative products should be “normalized.” Consider the Wii Remote: an innovative game controller that feels simply like an extension of one’s hand.
I see the cause for this argument. If I have a virtual reality headset on, and my peripheral vision is consumed entirely by a digital world, my experience would be ruined if a “Battery Low” message were to flash on the screen. A lot can be said about immersing the user into an environment by ensuring that the experience feels as natural as possible. But I also feel it’s necessary to draw a line here, and make the distinction that radical advancements in technology DO alter a user’s experience noticeably, and it is precisely BECAUSE of these radical shifts in our perceptions that we respond to a product so positively that our experiences begin to take shape around them (the reverse is also true, and it’s how bad products die and stay dead). This is why my younger sister, who grew up with computers (and whose Normalcy Field already contains a computer), doesn’t find the concept of using one strange, even though my grandmother does. The “normalizing” occurs naturally via gradual (or not so gradual) integration into our daily lives, and a successful designer would be selling himself short by designing around the constraint that a successful product should be designed to fit into some comfortable box rather than to extend beyond the limits of innovation.
Consider the Segway: there’s nothing natural about riding one of those things. And didn’t humans (maybe) used to have tails before we stood upright? Well, we adapted.