Novel user interface ideas are public goods

One core challenge for Tools for thought is that their core insights are generally expensive to produce but cheap to duplicate. For example, Adobe developed countless interactions and metaphors in Photoshop and Illustrator which Sketch and Figma could copy and improve without paying for years of R&D. Apple spent years developing modern multi-touch interfaces; Google copied them in under a year and suffered little in the ensuing lawsuits. A novel interface idea is roughly a Public good: they’re non-excludable (Excludability), modulo the relatively smaller costs for a competitor to duplicate the idea. Happily (for society), such ideas are non-rivalrous (Rivalry) or even anti-rivalrous.

But competitors’ appropriation of novel interface ideas does discourage production efforts. Since anyone can free-ride on the initial investment into interfaces, it’s hard for companies to justify spending much on R&D in this space.

Adobe does manage to defend their position, of course—but not because of their interface ideas. They’ve established a careful lock-in marketing strategy. So they understandably don’t invest as much in new interface ideas as they do in, say, sales and training.

Conor White-Sullivan makes a good counter-point: sure, Figma is making inroads against Adobe. But “they had to be 10x better in an underserved domain to get 1/4 stake—after 30 years!”

But: Video games can profit from novel user interface ideas


Matuschak, A., & Nielsen, M. (2019, October). How can we develop transformative tools for thought?