Breaking Barriers In Product Innovation: The MAYA Principle

From medical devices to vacuum cleaners.

James Dyson's success story began in the late 1970s when he became frustrated with his vacuum cleaner's poor suction power. After discovering that the bag in his vacuum cleaner was clogging the airflow, he started designing a better solution.

Many great businesses have come by founders simply applying one principle:

Observe the products you already use and figure out how to make it better.

So began James quest to invent a better vacuum cleaner.

During the 1970s and 80s, the vacuum business was dominated by two brands: Hoover & Electrolux.

However, most vacuum cleaners relied on the same technology that had been in use for decades.

The companies let a status quo bias creep into their workplace causing unvoiced frustration to grow within their customers.

James Dyson spent five years developing 5,127 prototypes until he finally created the world's first bagless vacuum cleaner, the G-Force. This invention used cyclonic separation to separate dirt from air (don't ask me about the science of it), eliminating the need for a filter bag and increasing its suction power.

However, it was not an instant success, as manufacturers were skeptical of the new technology.

The Evolution of The Vacuum Cleaner

Dyson was initially unable to secure backing from any established companies, which forced him to set up his own manufacturing plant. Going direct to consumer instead of the traditional route.

When he did this things quickly changed because entrenched professionals resist innovation far more than the private consumer.

Although, James failed to understand how innovation happens in an industry in the beginning.

Causing him decades of headaches. After almost 20 years of being in business, he barely had anything to show for his efforts. The business was barely keeping the lights on.

Innovation is not a revolution, it's just iteration.

Consumers were buying the vacuums in Japan, but they viewed them as artist pieces rather than functional appliances.


People weren't familiar with a bagless vacuum, it seemed more like a concept than reality.

Any growing market has room for innovation. Founders just need to bring that innovation to market in the correct way.

Very rarely is there a revolution within markets. They always happen in gradual steps.

Even Steve Jobs, known for his innovation, had to learn this the hard way when Apple was working on selling their first product. A mistake he would never make again as he relentless obsessed over design.

Building a new product requires knowing the right place for it on the spectrum.

Raymond Loewry, coined the term "MAYA" to establish a guiding principle to build on top of. Loewy had more influence in shaping the aesthetics of 20th-century American culture than anyone else on the planet.

MAYA stands for "Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable". As a founder, builder, or maker it's your job to find out where this equilibrium exist on the spectrum between acceptable and advanced.

Consumer have a frame of reference they apply to your product when evaluating whether they'll purchase it or not and this needs to be taken into account when designing, positioning, and selling your offer.

“The main goal is not to complicate the already difficult life of the consumer.”
- Raymond Loewy

Customers look forward to new things that make their lives better but have fear of anything too new.

Derek Thompson explored Loewy’s idea of MAYA for the affect it has on society, saying, “[The] preference for ‘optimal newness’ … [is] a powerful force in the evolution of our own identities."

People like things familiar to them. The difference identities cause them to fall into one of the 5 stages of adoption that exist:

  • Innovators
  • Early Adopters
  • Early Majority
  • Late majority
  • Laggards

Designing for the future must be met with a respect for the present standards set by companies in the market today.

A product that is to new, breaks away from the norm suddenly, increasing the degrees of risks involved. Being first to market works against the business most of the time.

There may be some initial buzz and hype around the offer, but that will quickly die out when the early majority find it to be too complex to learn.

Look at blockchain and you can clearly see the adoption by consumers abruptly ended despite trying to root it into peoples everyday lives. The reality was the technology was too foreign for people to understand, leading to a "winter" for companies building products with the technology.

As a founder you have to be able to determine how risk adverse you want to be when building. Building too far into the future increases the gap between the innovative product and accepted norm. You can be right about what consumers need, but the timing is wrong.

For a large company, they create newness through small changes to their product. This sets the standard and small startups have to assume the creative risk when their products depart too far from these norms.

Often when pitching their ideas, you'll hear founders say something along the lines of "We're the Uber for X" or "It's like Airbnb but for Y". Without even knowing it they're adhering to the principle of MAYA.

So the next time you go to design something new (a brand, product, or offer) think about what exist out there today that you can anchor the idea in, saving yourself from the struggle of educating and selling at the same time.


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