The Novelty Trap

This post is the second part of my series that breaks down my guide on decision making. I wanted to briefly share our natural tendency to favor novelty and how that can introduce challenges when assessing technology in our systems. The goal is to ensure we are aware of this attraction, understand its power to feed learning, and to make sure we balance our motivations with safe introductions of technology.

As a technologist, we are always in a pursuit for technologies that can help solve our business problems. It is enjoyable to learn about newer technologies and different things we haven’t used before. Through this discovery, it is easy to start to favor these newer findings over things we have used before. It is important to recognize that our learning is drawn through this attraction of novelty. It keeps us hungry to learn and find new things. However, we don’t want to forget that it is easy to form a bias that values newer things over older things. Therefore, when assessing a technology that is new, you may automatically associate more value to what is new without considering all the costs that it might bring. As a result, newer things gain these bonus points in our internal merit system, and can cause us to continue to favor it even after we assess it strengths and weaknesses.

Attraction to Novelty

I like to reference this talk by Dan McKinley: Choose Boring Technology. In this talk, he highlights the cost considerations of introducing something new into your system. While it can be valid to pursue a new option for solving your problem, you should be extremely sensitive to these newer costs and ensure you are limiting your concurrent intake of “new things.” I don’t think we generally like to pursue boring things; however, I have learned to like the label of boring technologies as it highlights one extreme of this spectrum of choices. We are wanting to favor proven technologies that are well established. Therefore, I see boring as a powerful word that we recognize in this spectrum (it has emotional ties when you think of it). As a result, I think it assists in reminding us of our tendency to get lost in this desire of using something new and shiny. When we get lost in these new and shiny things, we can lose sight of these overall costs that they bring. I like how Dan highlights this point in the following statement:

Costs to operate a technology in perpetuity tend to outstrip the convenience you get by using something different.

We want to seek options that lessen the operational concerns of living with that choice. When you want to introduce something new, recognize you should limit how much can be introduced in your system due to the larger costs that this change will bring. Recognize that you may be favoring something new, and giving it more value simply because it is “new.” If you find it is the right thing to introduce, ensure you have a plan to remove what may already exists that this would eventually be replacing. Operational cognitive load (something that Matt Klein often refers to) is a real cost that can easily grow in your system if you are allowing newer things to be introduced, but not managing away what it replaces.

Understand that we have an appeal to novelty, and that appeal feeds our hunger to learn and try new things. However, don’t allow this appeal to negatively affect your decisions on technology, as it is easy to lose sight of the costs that newer things can bring.