The Aversion to Innovation

There is a restaurant that never changes its menu. Every month it has fewer and fewer customers but the regulars like getting exactly the same thing every time they visit. Without the ever-dwindling number of regulars the whole place would go under. But of course it is already going under, slowly but surely.

Restaurant sign

To someone on the outside the solution is obvious. This restaurant needs to update their menu to something from this decade and bring in new customers. But to the restaurant owners it isn’t that simple. They know their regulars, they trust them to show up on schedule and any changes might disrupt that comfortable cycle.

Humans have a natural aversion to change. Change is frightening and change that comes with any element of risk is even more of a psychological problem. In psychological studies, subjects have been observed to choose the course with the minimum of risk, even when it eliminates any possibility of reward. Fear is a paralytic, it overwhelms the rational desire to make necessary changes and leaves you serving out the design equivalent of fondue.

In larger organizations these problems persist. In more complex corporate environments they worsen, especially when nobody is aware where responsibility for innovation falls. There’s a tendency to assume that coming up with solutions to the obvious problems is someone else’s job. Another set of psychological studies describe this as the “bystander effect.” The more people around who can take action, the more likely an individual is to absolve themselves of all responsibility. When you introduce formal structures like a corporate hierarchy, this effect is amplified by the assumption that decisions are either made higher up the chain of command or are the responsibility of some other branch.


We find that organizations often need to bring in outside consultation to make changes even though they already have all the necessary skills and information to resolve their issues within their own house. It is also the reason that an empowered executive, a Chief Experience Officer, is being added into organizational charts across the world with a remit to make the vital changes required.

Outside perspective and expertize are only some of the things that a team like Sutherland Labs can offer, we also provide a sense of safety while changes are being made, a roadmap to the new pattern of events. Change still sets off a primal reaction in our brains. There is no way to avoid the fact that as a species we hate to see familiar patterns being disrupted but, with immersive research and thoughtful design, our experience designers can predict the patterns that will replace them. Giving peace of mind as well as qualitative improvement.

Experience design is all about understanding human nature, so pretending that people are going to act against their nature isn’t an option. Once you realize that you are bound by the same constraints as the people that you are researching, it is possible for you to start making changes to your menu.

Communications Director

Sutherland Labs
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