If your new product or service isn’t gaining traction, ask yourself “What’s my California Roll?”

White dude eating sushi

I’ll admit, the bento box is an unlikely place to learn an important business lesson. But consider the California Roll — understanding the impact of this icon of Japanese dining can make all the difference between the success or failure of your product.

If you’ve ever felt the frustration of customers not biting, then you can sympathize with Japanese restaurant owners in America during the 1970s. Sushi consumption was all but non-existent. By all accounts, Americans were scared of the stuff. Eating raw fish was an aberration and to most, tofu and seaweed were punch lines, 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 USA 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.

Familiar Done Differently

The California Roll provided a gateway to discover Japanese cuisine and demand exploded. Over the next few decades sushi restaurants, which were once confined to large coastal cities and almost exclusively served Japanese clientele, suddenly went mainstream. 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.

California Roll

The California Roll was sushi’s gateway into millions of American mouths.

The lesson of the California Roll is simple — people don’t want something truly new, they want the familiar done differently. Interestingly, 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.

Apple's skeuomorphic design was the California Roll of the personal computer.  "Apple Macintosh Desktop" by unknown. (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

Apple’s early skeuomorphic design was the California Roll of the personal computer.

Quaint but unnecessary representations of the familiar became a hallmark of Apple products. As Claire Evans wrote for Motherboard, “While under the direction of the late Steve Jobs, Apple’s design aesthetic tended heavily towards the skeuomorphic. The Apple desktop calendar, famously, is rendered with accents of rich Corinthian leather; its bookshelves gleam with wood veneers, its chrome always brushed, its pages stitched and torn, its tabletop felt green.”

Now that Apple serves a generation familiar with how its products work, it can shepherd them from California Rolls to sashimi, so to speak. “We understood that people had already become comfortable with touching glass,” explained Apple’s Jony Ive. “They didn’t need physical buttons, they understood the benefits.”

Apple Passbook Wallet

Mini credit cards are Apple’s California Roll for mobile payment.

However, Apple still uses its tried and true methods whenever the company wants users to adopt a new behavior. For example, the rebranded Apple Wallet helps users feel comfortable with the technology by making payment options look just like mini credit cards. Even though there’s no technical reason to do so, Apple understands the power of the familiar.

(Un)Familiarity Breeds Contempt

As I wrote about in my book, Hooked, unfamiliar products and interfaces are more difficult to use and can impede adoption. Several psychological phenomena conspire to make us resist the atypical.

According to BJ Fogg of Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab, “non-routine” is one of six “Elements of Simplicity” — the factors that affect the likelihood of any particular human action occurring. Fogg wrote, “When people face a behavior that is not routine, then they may not find it simple. In seeking simplicity, people will often stick to their routine, like buying gas at the same station, even if it costs more money or time than other options.”

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.

Unfortunately, our aversion to things that are outside the norm is particularly hard on companies producing radical innovation — no matter how beneficial they may be. If using a new product does not feel familiar, it faces severe challenges. According Fogg, “People are generally resistant to teaching and training because it requires effort. 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.”

What’s Your California Roll?

When describing the Apple Watch, Jony Ive said his goal was to build “the strangely familiar.” The smart watch is exactly the kind of innovation that is still too new for all but the most early of early adopters. And yet Ive obsessed over the details of the Digital Crown, an esthetic adopted from traditional watchmaking. Clearly, Ive knows what he’s doing — industry analysts expect the company to sell 19 million units this year.

As the pace of innovation accelerates, human behavior, not technological restraints, will be the deciding factor of whether products are adopted or discarded. If new products and services are to positively impact our lives, they must find a gateway into our daily routines. The familiar done differently is the way to users’ minds and hearts — and sometimes their stomachs.

Here’s the gist:

  • The California Roll introduced Americans to sushi by using familiar ingredients arranged in a new way.
  • The California Roll Rule: People don’t want something truly new, they want the familiar done differently.
  • Things that are truly new need to use familiar mental models to gain user adoptions (i.e., Apple’s use of skeuomorphs.)
  • Unfamiliar interfaces are more difficult to use and impede adoption.
  • If your new product or service is not engaging users, ask “What’s my California Roll?”

What do you think?

What was your familiar gateway into a new technology or product? Can you think of other companies who have used the “California Roll Rule” to introduce new products in a familiar way? Tell me what you think in the comment section below.

Image credits: Wikipediajason saulSteven Depolo

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  • vinaeco

    This post and analogy is excellent and bang on, which can be a source of frustration for people designing new user experiences. We have learned this the hard way over a 2 year period and are now seeing success by combining two things, done differently and attached to the familiar & existing behavior. Thanks for the great post!

    • Glad you’re learning!

      • vinaeco

        Oh for sure, the last 3 months have proven to me its easier to attach a new habit to an existing behavior than to start with a completely new behavior .. our new tool for home buyers adds something to the search for property people are already doing,.. and we observe over time it becomes part of the overall behavior – onwards!

  • James Griggs

    This is a really good post and I totally agree. And it is very hard to balance the California roll with innovation. The best way to find that balance is to have an actual plan of what the product will be in future iterations. Some do not have the patience to hold back on some of the innovation in order to first achieve adoption.

    • That’s so true. Many times we build features because we can, not because we should.

  • I also fully agree. At first, we tried to get companies to adopt a mobilty budget for their employees instead of i.e. company cars. This was a far stretch. Now we use our know-how and innovative platform to optimize their public transport arrangements and travel expenses reimbursement. Making the familiar easier, more efficient and cheaper to do. This works!

  • Brian Liebler

    I couldn’t agree more. It’s easy to get lost in over-thinking what you see as a solution to a problem that ultimately creates a new problem. You’re vivid metaphors are my favorite thing about Hooked.

  • johncampbell

    So true. My current obsession in terms of excitement for coming technology – self-driving cars are the perfect example of this. We have self-parking cars and little by little, the technology for autonomous driving will trickle into cars and we’ll become more and more comfortable with it. For autonomous cars, technology is the limiting factor, but its gradual introduction fits your observation.

    As Richard Dreyfuss told Bill Murray in “What About Bob” – baby steps.

    • Very true. The term “self-driving cars” evokes a reaction because it’s very new and different. However, in many ways the functionality is already here and has been for years. For example, see this video of a Mercedes S Class and a can of soda: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kv9JYqhFV-M (the can of soda tricks the car into thinking the driver’s hand is on the wheel.)

  • Baefsky Consulting

    Seems like something to keep in mind as it pertains to performance management when developing new initiatives. “New” very often alienates employees and results in pushback and inefficiencies, as it is a natural inclination to protect one’s self in the presence of change.

    • That’s interesting, I hadn’t considered this principle in the context of Organizational Behavior.

  • Ilana Golan

    Great article. Whatsapp was a classic example of a California roll with a really good sauce 🙂 It was the same good old text message with a simple interface, free and included groups. Thats all. There are many others I can think of. Hope to get my own sushi roll tasty 🙂 Tx Nir!

  • jokim1

    Nice post and good insight. Very similar to the concept of a strange attractor in entertainment industry: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/JosephKim/20150520/243320/The_quotStrange_Attractorquot_in_Video_Game_Design.php

    • I hadn’t read that before, that’s an interesting take.

  • Enjoyable read. It made me think that the introduction of Windows 8 was a classic example of how not to change a product that people were familiar with (getting rid of the Start button). And of course they had to bring it back with Windows 8.1. But of course they had annoyed most of their users in the mean time and now it will take them a few years to recover even with Windows 10. Which does have a Start button.

  • Hi Nir, I really found a lot of value in this article, and it all makes sense. Thanks for sharing and this is definitely great to keep in mind as a developer, especially as one at a small start-up!

  • Sumita Chugh

    It was a great read! Thank you for the insightful and intuitive thought, makes you rethink your actions to act more consciously with the concept of familiarity.

  • Great post. Adoption of the new always takes time with the public, even with a visual assist like skeuomorphism. This thinking is especially relevant to the tech industry. With so many companies trying to be an early player in “The Internet of Things” it’ll be really interesting to see how they each try to gain traction with general consumers.

  • I guess the question I have for you @neyal:disqus is how do products that seem like they are breaking though old paradigms and implement almost totally new concepts overcome this wiring we humans have to ‘stick with the familiar’. Snapchat is an example that comes to mind – it’s no california roll, you can say it invented a new protocol for communication and has become very successful. Why did users overcome the ‘this is completely new’ barrier? Twitter when it first came out is another example I believe.

    • Good question @gkrinker:disqus . In my Hook Model, I propose that things that make the “action phase” easier to do increase velocity through the hook cycle. Products that are “familiar done differently” do exactly this — they send users through the 4 steps of the Hook faster. I think both Snapchat (photo sharing) and Twitter (reading and sharing) took fairly familiar concepts and added new twists.

  • Aaron “A.A.Ron” Thompson

    In my line of work, I find this to be true – clients can be unbelievably defiant to adopting new-and-improved methods/tools, even when what they are doing currently is outdated and clunky. And it all has to do with the idea that breaking the routine is a bigger obstacle than learning a new technology.

  • whitehawke

    RE: New isn’t always better

    If we could only get Windows, Paypal – and I am just getting over the new Moz – to adopt this ethic. Whenever you feel you have a grasp on a fast work flow – everybody changes their user interface to new and “improved” – jeeze ,-[

  • abhinavsoni

    Very true makes our mind is a Bayesian machine and new designs (innovations) are nothing but mutations of what is already there but is now available to be copied and be spread

  • Praveena DM

    Very useful article. I wonder how do you get these thoughts?

  • Милен Маринов

    Good read!
    I can relate this concept to the way lots of companies (including mine) now offer digital solutions for scrum and kanban – originally applied by moving physical cards on a board. You make analogies like digital cards, digital boards and so on.