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Lindy Effect and The Design Process

Lindy Effect and The Design Process
Clock IconFebruary 5, 2021DividerWeb DesignWeb DesignDividerLeave a CommentLeave a comment

“Use laws that are old but foods that are fresh.”

– Periander of Corinth

The young take over the aged. The new take over the old – Or at least that’s what we believe.

But does applying the same laws to perishables and non-perishables give us a better view of the future? Or just create optical illusions?

Let’s discuss that today.

In the case of a perishable item, the life expectancy decreases over time as the item ages.

An example that Nassim Taleb provides with respect to this is:

Let’s assume the sole information I have about a gentleman is that he is 40 years old, and I want to predict how long he will live. I can look at actuarial tables and find his age-adjusted life expectancy as used by insurance companies. The table will predict he has an extra 44 years to go; next year, when he turns 41, he will have a little more than 43 years to go.

For a perishable human, every year that elapses reduces his life expectancy by a little less than a year.

For a non-perishable item though – something extremely opposite might apply.

“If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But, and that is the main difference, if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years. This, simply, as a rule, tells you why things that have been around for a long time are not “aging” like persons, but “aging” in reverse. Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy. This is an indicator of some robustness. The robustness of an item is proportional to its life!” – Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

This is known as the Lindy Effect.

What is the Lindy effect?

The Lindy effect is a heuristic (a rule of thumb) that says that the future life of few non-perishable items like a book, a technology, or an idea is directly proportional to its current life.

3 things to learn from this:

  1. The Lindy Effect applies only to a few non-perishables.
  2. It’s the relation between the current life of a non-perishable and future life expectancy.
  3. The future life expectancy of the non-perishable is directly proportional to its current life.

Benoit Mandelbrot elaborates:

For the perishable, every additional day in its life translates into a shorter additional life expectancy. For the nonperishable, every additional day may imply a longer life expectancy. So the longer a technology lives, the longer it can be expected to live.

Proof of The Lindy Effect:

To understand the proofs of the Lindy Effect it’s important to be able to differentiate between perishables and non-perishables. The perishable is merely an item, but the non-perishable has an informational value to it. A car is a perishable object, but the automobile technology behind it is non-perishable. A copy of a book is a perishable object, but its content is non-perishable.

Houses are perishable, but the architectural science behind them is non-perishable.

User-Centered Design and The Lindy Effect

While designing a user-centric product it’s important to know the factors that adhere to the Lindy Effect. 

Let’s take the example of a technology that requires typing. The keypad has progressed from hard typewriters to feather touch keypad on our smartphones. The one thing that is existent since the 1870s, that both the typewriter and a smartphone have in common though – is the QWERTY keypad. 

According to the Lindy Effect – A rearranged typing keypad will not take over the QWERTY keypad. And the QWERTY is expected to be existent for the next 150 years to come (or at least till the art of typing is known to humanity).

One of the factors that might hold the Lindy Effect true is the learnability attached to a concept or a technology. Learnability is the time and number of repetitions users need to be proficient in a task. Once the user has become proficient enough and has reached a point of optimal saturation with existing technology – it’s difficult to get accustomed to a new technology that fulfills the same task with no additional benefits. 

Even if additional benefits are added to a rearrangement of existing technology (a keypad structure other than QWERTY)  – are those benefits worthy enough to break the user and design relationship built over the past 150 years?


Lindy’s Deli in New York where the Lindy Effect was conceived. (Image Credits – Sheldon’s Software)

At the end of the article, I’d like to mention 2 things:

  1. The Lindy Effect is a heuristic and not a law stated in stone. Situations and concepts might defy it.
  2. Understanding the difference between the perishable and non-perishable will provide a much clear picture of the application of the Lindy Effect.

This article is a part of a series of articles based on UI/UX. To read more, click here.

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