January 28, 2016

The bento box is an unlikely place to learn an important business lesson. But consider the California Roll.

Sushi consumption was all but non-existent in America during the 1970s. For most Americans, eating raw fish was an aberration, and tofu and seaweed were punchlines, not food.

Then came the California Roll. While the origin of the famous maki is still contested, its impact is undeniable. The California Roll was made in the United States by combining familiar ingredients in a new way. Rice, avocado, cucumber, sesame seeds, and crab meat — the only ingredient unfamiliar to the average American palate was the barely visible sliver of nori seaweed holding it all together.

The California Roll provided a gateway to discover Japanese cuisine and demand exploded.

Today, sushi is served in small rural towns, airports, strip malls, and stocked in the deli section of local supermarkets. Americans now consume $2.25 billion of sushi annually.

The lesson of the California Roll is simple —people don’t want something truly new, they want the familiar done differently. And this lesson applies just as much to the spread of innovation as it does to tastes in food.

For example, the graphical user interface, a milestone in the popularization of the personal computer, used familiar visual metaphors like folders, notepads, windows, and trash cans to appeal to mainstream users terrified by the command-line interface (perhaps even more than the thought of eating raw fish).

The computer underneath was the same; however, the familiar veneer suddenly made it accessible.

Quaint but unnecessary representations of the familiar became a hallmark of Apple products.

Apple still uses its tried-and-true methods whenever the company wants users to adopt a new behavior. For example, the rebranded Apple Wallethelps users feel comfortable with the technology by making payment options look just like mini credit cards.

Apple understands the power of the familiar.

Of course, we also have a love for “new and improved,” but in relatively modest proportions. “New and improved” is great for things we are already familiar with — like cereal and dish soap — but not for products where we lack a frame of reference.

“People are generally resistant to teaching and training because it requires effort,” says BJ Fogg of Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab. “This clashes with the natural wiring of human adults: We are fundamentally lazy. As a result, products that require people to learn new things routinely fail.”

As the pace of innovation accelerates, human behavior, not technological restraints, will be the deciding factor of whether products are adopted or discarded.

The familiar done differently is the way to users’ minds and hearts — and sometimes their stomachs.

Sushi, Culture, Nir Eyal, food

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