Upgrade Culture

October 02, 2012

I've wanted to get this thought out there for a while now. It's something that has always irritated me about our industry. Or really, it's more like our entire culture/human nature. This idea that newer equals better is such a lie. I know it obviously can be, and it's great when it is, but it's never a given nor necessary even when it is. This upgrade culture isn't a healthy one.

I'm going to do my best to stay strictly in a designer's world with this post but I believe the issue is deeper than that. I think it is human nature to want things to possess and the more the better. And if one can acquire a newer thing then by default it is perceived as better than the previous thing. This is true of relationships, place of living, homes, vehicles, computers, phones, software, apps, etc. If it's newer it must be better.

I mentioned it briefly in my opening but I just want to be clear here. There are obvious cases of newer being better. It happens all the time. The whole concept of improvement is based on newer equaling better. The new you is a better you. And so on. All I am challenging is the given. That it's not always there. In some cases newer is worse. We see this happen all the time as well.

My first thought is on why upgrade we upgrade. Trying to stay in the realm of our industry, we upgrade for various good reasons. "My computer is 5 years old and slowly dying on me" is one. Perfectly good reason to upgrade to a newer model. Your computer is your livelihood and if it's failing you, it's time to better that situation. One of the worst reasons, in my opinion, is "because an upgrade is available". I see this happen a lot with Apple products. Macbook, iPad and iPhone lines get upgraded about once a year. There's no way you can tell me you have to upgrade after one year. Your current device is in perfect working condition and still mind-blowingly better than what 95% of the rest of the world is using. But because you can get some incremental improvement now being offered, you've got to have it.

I'm not sure if it's a "coolness" factor that helps drive those decisions or what. Just realize that just because you now have a retina mac, you're no better of a designer than you were before. It may be a newer tool, but it's still just a tool.

My second thought is challenging the concept that newer equals better. If we're going to upgrade we at least expect to be receiving an improvement. We know this isn't always the case though. For those who were lucky enough to use Gowalla when it first came out will remember how awesome it was. It was an incredible app. Well designed and amazing interactions. Those who loved Gowalla will also remember the day it died. Not the day they closed down their site and service after being acquired by Facebook. No, this was the day they released their big upgrade.

It changed just about everything the app did and was. We were crushed. I remember it well because I was down at Disney World when it rolled out. For the first few days I was checking in at every park and every ride and attraction. I could see spots I still needed to visit to complete trips, etc. I knew this big upgrade was coming and I was excited to see how it was going to improve my checkin's while on this awesome vacation. It ruined everything I had spent the prior couple of days doing. It couldn't even find any of the spots I was standing at.

A big change being talked about right now is Apple's maps. This was an upgrade "forced" upon us who got iOS 6. We knew this change was coming but we anticipated that something new from Apple would have been better than what we previously had. It's not the case and most people are left feeling pretty frustrated. We know it'll get better eventually but at the moment things went backwards.

My last thought on this is to be content with what you have. It doesn't matter if you have the latest this or the latest that. If you're an awesome person or an awesome designer, that will shine through no matter what you're working with. And if you're a complete jerk, the same will be true in that case. We really should stop using the word "upgrade". It's not always a given. The better phrase is just "new" because that much is true, we just don't know if that's new for the better or new for the worse. I just get tired of listening to people act like they're somehow better now that they have this new thing. Their old thing worked just fine for them before too.