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Design Defined: How Does “Amara’s Law” Inform Design Strategy?

(This post is based on the video, “Amara’s Law,” in the Design Defined: Design Principles Explained series.)

There’s a good chance you’ve used Uber or Lyft to get from one place to another, or opted for an Airbnb over a hotel room. You might have even had packages delivered into your home, thanks to Amazon Key.

While these all seem commonplace now, if someone had told you ten years ago that one day you’d be comfortable getting into a stranger’s car, sleeping at a stranger’s house, or having a stranger unlock your front door to deliver your groceries, you wouldn’t have believed them.

New technologies are subject to the highs and lows of consumers’ expectations. We embrace them, doubt them, and underestimate them. While this adds complexity to the work of product designers, there are frameworks that can help predict how people will respond to emerging technologies both now and ten or more years into the future.

The Peaks and Valleys of Product Adoption

It might seem like Uber and Airbnb are overnight success stories. That’s because humans have a cognitive quirk that makes it hard for us to comprehend how long it takes for a new technology to begin to snowball. Remember that before ridesharing, we had taxis with GPS. Before Airbnb, house-sharing trendsetters were “couch surfing.”

Our response to new technologies is characterized by the Gartner Hype Cycle. It’s a methodology that helps us understand our relationship with new technologies.

First comes our wildly excited reaction, which quickly reaches a “Peak of Inflated Expectations.” This soon gives way to a “Trough of Disillusionment” when years go by and nothing much seems to happen.

Slowly, people advance along the “Slope of Enlightenment,” as they begin to understand how they might incorporate the technology into their lives in a meaningful way. Lastly, we reach the “Peak of Productivity,” in which mainstream adoption takes off and we consider this technology or product the norm.

From end to end, the Gartner Hype Cycle oscillates up and down before it plateaus. It’s not a straight line, and it’s a reminder that users’ attitudes toward new technologies fluctuate.

Amara’s Law: How Our Expectations Take Us Over-Under

Scientist and futurist Roy Amara took this one step further when he recognized this quirk and immortalized it sometime in the 1960s or ‘70s as “Amara’s Law.” The law states, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate it in the long run.”

It’s a very simple statement, but it touches on an interesting peculiarity. People are better at visualizing linear, algebraic growth, but technology’s growth is geometric before it plateaus. And the average person has a limited ability to figure out the compounding numbers of exponential growth.

In other words, people expect a new technology to have a linear trajectory. At the same time, we tend to have high expectations for brand new technologies, even when they still have lots of kinks to work out.

Then, by the time those tools are commonplace, we’re just as likely to underestimate them.

Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, and GPS, According to Amara

We can see this in action when we look at artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), and autonomous vehicles — new technologies that we currently overestimate.

Everyone’s currently buzzing about AI, VR, and autonomous vehicles, but according to the Gartner Hype Cycle, over the next few years, people will likely become frustrated and disillusioned with these technologies when they perceive progress to have slowed. Then, per Amara’s Law, by the time AI, VR, and autonomous vehicles have truly transformed our day-to-day lives — by the time we’re all traveling in autonomous flying vehicles — we’ll be underestimating them.

Over the next few years, people will likely become frustrated and disillusioned with AI, VR, and autonomous vehicles when they perceive progress to have slowed.

We can see this from the other side when we look at GPS navigation. It started out as an exciting Cold War technology, sparked by Sputnik. But when it didn’t have a tremendous immediate impact on our lives, people lost interest. Fast forward to today and GPS is what makes our smartphones so powerful. It enables much of our daily lives, yet we take it for granted.

The Amara’s Law Sweet Spot

As economist and writer Matt Ridley points out, “Between the early disappointment and the later underestimate there must be a moment when we get it about right.” What he means is there’s a kind of sweet spot in Amara’s Law.

We can see this in the human genome project. When it was first released as a draft sequence in 2000, prominent figures including Bill Clinton proclaimed that it would eradicate cancer. When ten years passed and the project hadn’t delivered any novel medical use, critics began to dismiss it. But another decade later, we’re starting to see gene therapies that are actually making an impact on cancer treatment and other chronic diseases.

Before gene-based therapies become so commonplace that we take them for granted, there might be a brief moment when people appreciate the technology for what it does — nothing more and nothing less.

Using Amara’s Law to Drive Design Strategy

There’s a good chance that 15 to 20 years from now, we’ll take for granted something that seems totally wild today. (Space tourism, anyone?) Which is why it’s important to consider Amara’s Law when you’re doing product design strategy work that looks ten or more years into the future.

This is especially true if you’re working with concepts that hinge on an emerging technology. An innovation introduced today might be overhyped in the short term and underestimated in the long run. How will that inform your approach? Can you balance the initial hype with the imminent underestimation?

Also consider Amara’s Law if your concepts will live in an environment that is at all affected by an emerging technology, or by a technology becoming obsolete. Are you developing a product to be used inside a car? Will it still make sense in autonomous vehicles?

Forecasting technological change is almost impossibly difficult, but Amara’s Law and other frameworks like it can give us a new perspective.

Learn about more product design principles when you download our free eBook, Design Defined, vol 1