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Digital patina

We can see patina on our teapots, doorknobs, levers, switches, rangefinders,…—almost an endless list. Some of us love it, many hate it. The patina tells us how those objects are resilient to usage over time.

Do digital products have patina?

I think it does. In the minds of users. We see it when a user accomplishes a task in an app without any mental effort, instinctively. Do you see it,

  • …when a child changes videos on YouTube app?
  • …when you use phone to call our beloved?
  • …when you pull-to-refresh your Inbox?
  • …when our grandparent forwards a message on WhatsApp?

The mental effort may not be the same for the first time, but once learned it will feel effortless.

For a product designer that digital patina is a sign of success.

One example of incorporating similar thinking in product development is seen at Apple.

…while developing the iPhone X, members of the team would typically carry two phones with them: a prototype iPhone X they could use, but (of course) not while in the presence of anyone who wasn’t disclosed on the project, and an older iPhone they could use in front of anyone. These team members would spend time, every day, using both phones. They knew they were onto a winning idea with the new interaction design for the iPhone X when they started instinctively using the X-style gestures on the older iPhone, and never vice versa. When a new design is clearly better than an old one, it’s a one-way street mentally.

John Gruber, The 2020 iPhone SE

Like we paint over patina on real world things, we update apps with new interactions. If done right, the patina will come back.