New post here:
The puzzling paradoxes of product management
I recently watched a video of Apple’s iBooks for textbooks announcement, and had very mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was tremendously inspiring – creating a level of interactivity and freshness to this genre could certainly boost learning. But, at the same time, I couldn’t help but think: this reminds me of a particular technology from my childhood. I had this nagging thought that a lot of this demo harkens back to two-decade-old interactive encyclopedias like Encarta or Compton’s. That we got on CD-ROMs.
What’s going on? We’ve progressed so far in so many ways since then. Heck, the web didn’t even exist yet! So why haven’t we leapt far beyond Encarta-style interactions for educational content? Why, come to think of it, does my memory of Compton’s UX make Wikipedia feel sad and drab?
A progression of needs: functional before emotional
We are just now at the point of recapturing Encarta’s user experience because, as major new forms of technology emerge, there’s a pattern to when different types of needs get satisfied. Particularly, functional needs tend to trump emotional needs when a new technology first emerges: people prioritize figuring out whether it works, is safe, and is useful, before they fully consider exploiting it as an expression of identity, an extension of self, and a tool for self-actualization. That’s why innovation around new aesthetic and interaction paradigms for nascent technologies often lags behind functional innovation. This has proven true for technologies ranging from cars to knapsacks.
New technologies emerge, others mature
Currently, Internet media and social technologies are in the midst of maturing. As they become more functionally robust, more attention can be paid to the tools for creating new types of powerful, expressive messages. To date, there’s been so much to explore in the new technology simply by porting existing media paradigms to this new domain: Suddenly, journaling became fundamentally different as it transitioned from private activity to public sphere; a family album feels very different when we post it to Facebook; and watching a TV show online has a different dynamic.
New technologies will continue to push the envelope when it comes to our current media paradigms – smart phones are changing photography, for example. Simultaneously, current technologies will mature. In certain ways, we are moving into the emotional era of the Internet. This has implications for what opportunities will flourish: As the technologies that now exist become more familiar, we’ll devote more focus to playing with them in new and interesting ways. Pinterest is taking browsing and bookmarking to new heights. Spotify, Pandora, and others will change our expectations on what a playlist, radio station, and album are. And iBooks for textbooks will take us beyond interactive CD-ROM encyclopedias.
I was surprised and honored when Fast Company named my CoDesign article on sustaining, breakout, and disruptive innovations one of their 11 best of 2011. One of the best outcomes is that more people have been asking me about how they can be more successful in creating disruptive offerings that achieve widespread adoption. Some of my thoughts are below, with two caveats:
- Don’t ignore sustaining and breakout innovations! There’s real value in recognizing what type of innovation is right for a given situation. Shooting for a disruptive breakthrough is not always the right strategy.
- I’m focusing on the product and business itself here. I plan to write about the internal systems and structures required to pull this off in a separate post.
With that, onward!
Companies are attracted to disruptive innovations like moths to a flame. But the challenges are substantial: they’re resource-intensive, require patience, and risky. Potential customers don’t necessarily see the need, understand the solution, or want to change their behavior. Here are 5 tips to get your disruptive offering adopted by the mainstream.
Simplify the need and benefit.
For sustaining and breakout offerings, the benefit of a new product is typically clear: it performs a task faster, better, or cheaper. By contrast, it’s often unclear why people would want to use a disruptive offering. That’s why they commonly start off being dismissed as toys. To progress beyond the tech fanboys who love to play with new stuff, you have to make people understand why they’d want to use your novel product. One technique to do so is to present it as though it’s for a specific pain point, even if it does much more. In other words, to sell one specific value proposition. TiVo, when it first came out, was revolutionary: It could pause and rewind live TV. It could record whole programs at the touch of a button, without the need for videotapes. The amazing machine could even recommend programming based on past shows they enjoyed. But a big part of their marketing campaign focused on a much more basic, easily understood benefit: you could skip commercials. That, people got right away; the rest, they discovered to their delight over time.
Get people to experience it – not just see or hear about it.
For customers to understand a new solution, a helpful rule of thumb is that for sustaining products, you need to hear it, for breakout products you need to see it, and for disruptive innovations, you need to experience it. When Twitter first came out, most people who heard about it didn’t get it. Even when friends showed them what it was and how they used it, to many it just seemed like a weird, boring diversion. Why would I care what random people had for lunch? This sentiment still persists for many. Only when people sign up and try it out do they typically “get it” – the breaking news, the subtle feeling of connection to strangers, the discovery of cool content, the chance encounters. That’s one reason why lowering the barriers to experience is such a priority for Twitter – from the logged out user, to distributing shared links broadly, to the more approachable new redesign.
Minimize the behavior change required.
Adopting a new technology can be daunting. When you’re the creator, it’s easy to forget that disruptive offerings are, well… disruptive. Habits, current systems, and the status quo are powerful and comforting. The less jarring a new innovation, the better. Take cars with electric engines. People are reluctant to adopt a new type of vehicle that requires them to plug it in, and that doesn’t allow them to just pull into a gas station for a quick fill-up. Gas-electric hybrids, which require minimal behavior change for users, are a much easier sell.
Mask it as something familiar.
The more revolutionary the product, the more familiar you should make it appear. That’s why microwaves look like toaster ovens, CDs evoke LPs, and early cell phones bore resemblance to walkie-talkies. The trick is striking the right balance – for innovations that are more easily understandable, you can and should play with form more to highlight its differences from existing offerings. It does little good to have your new, lighter broom look like just another broom.
Appeal to non-users first.
By default, companies compete with each other for users. But if people have an existing solution, it can be harder to convince them to switch solutions than to garner adoption from people who have traditionally fallen outside a technology’s core user base. Square has done an amazing job of targeting such fringe users. They’ve focused on embedding themselves into farmer’s markets, craft fairs, and food trucks – merchants that haven’t traditionally accepted credit cards. They’re successfully borrowing a page from Clayton Christensen’s work. Such a strategy allows disruptive new entrants to sneak up on incumbents by appealing first to segments they neglect – groups of people who don’t already use their product and have a different set of requirements.
Companies rightfully seek disruptive innovations to create lasting growth and competitive advantage. But they need to find ways to minimize the disruption to users. Hopefully these tips will help.
Dennis Ritchie and John McCarthy, two of the fathers of Computer Science, died recently. Reading about their lives put me in a reflective state of mind. I spend most of my waking hours thinking about startups and corporate innovation. Here, I want to celebrate a different form of innovation, one that undergirds much of these other advances.
While studying CS at Stanford, I had the privilege of rubbing shoulders with intellectual titans like McCarthy, Donald Knuth, and Terry Winograd as they roamed the campus. Though I was too naïve (and overworked) to appreciate it at the time, every Stanford CS student was blessed to be able to bask in the warm penumbra of their luminary thinking.
Plenty has been written about Stanford and Silicon Valley’s power as a startup hub. And I’ve obviously personally bought into this unparalleled engine for entrepreneurship. But there’s also a less visible, though equally powerful, force working to create the fundamental breakthroughs that make the development of these companies possible. The work of Ritchie, McCarthy, and others spawn not just companies, but entire fields and professions.
We are taught to stand on the shoulders of giants. To not reinvent the wheel. In software, that’s taken to mean that we should build on top of existing APIs, standards, frameworks, languages, and protocols. Doing so allows developers to make incredibly quick headway. I love both the pace of innovation this produces, and the democratization of programming this enables.
On the flip side, I do worry that all of these powerful tools at our disposal means we’re not re-thinking the fundamentals. Building on top of all this groundwork allows us to make visible progress amazingly quickly. But sometimes, we need to re-invent the wheel. Dennis Ritchie developed the programming language C and helped build the UNIX operating system in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Variants of C are still how people develop most applications today. UNIX is still the bedrock behind everything from the servers that power the Internet to Apple’s iPhone, iPad, and Mac. It’s weird to me that, in an industry that changes so quickly, we’re still using an OS originally developed in the 1960s.
Analogously, from a conceptual point of view, John McCarthy coined the term “Artificial Intelligence” in the 1950s, when computers were in their infancy. He built a fruitful career researching and advancing this field. Over 60 years later, we’re still in the early stages of working through the implications of this intellectual construct.
I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we devoted more energy to fundamentally re-thinking underlying architectures, and freely pursuing fantastical ideas. But such work can be even more hit-or-miss than startups, and the timeframe more distant and uncertain. Unfortunately, this means that the resources and attention devoted to such topics is dwindling. Instead, university research is becoming more specialized. Corporate labs are in long-term decline. Quick hits and early exits are lauded.
These days, most of what passes for “disruptive” and “revolutionary” is narrow and incremental, or worse, pitch and bluster. There’s a lot of angst that current entrepreneurs are not swinging for the fences – too interested in making little apps to create the next Google. But I’m talking about an order of magnitude beyond that: where is the next “Internet” is going to come from, the next UNIX, the next “AI,” the next C? Maybe it’s the circles I frequent, but I don’t encounter as many people striving to create the next Internet as the next Google.
I would like to believe that this is not an either/ or proposition, that we can both build on the existing wealth of knowledge and question it in fundamental ways. Startups are typically rewarded for making quick progress by using current frameworks as scaffolding. They question the status quo and seek to solve scoped needs while driving towards a larger vision. That is what I and others in the community prize, day-in and day-out. Today, I want to spend a moment to celebrate this other group of status-quo-questioners, those that spend their careers creating the fundamental leaps forward that make most startups possible. Here’s to the Dennis Ritchies and John McCarthys of the world.
Twitter needs to distinguish between the different uses of its service
“I don’t use Twitter because I don’t care what random people are having for lunch.”
I hear this quite a bit. But by this point it seems clear that such a statement ignores the power of Twitter. It obviously has much more to offer than mundane updates. In fact, my big problem is that it fulfills too many distinct purposes. And in trying to keep the service simple, it’s funneling too many use cases into a single view and feature set. The result is that users have to sift through a mountain of posts, whether they want to or not. At its worst, it feels like stopping by a garage sale, hoping to find a hidden gem. Better separation between different types of posts could lead to dramatically more use of the service.
Twitter has at least 5 key uses:
Content curation and discovery: Links to articles and videos.
Real-time news dissemination and commentary: For an event or a brand.
Connecting with folks you otherwise wouldn’t: Be they individuals or brands.
Sharing what’s going on with you: Closest to the “lunch” phenomenon. Encompasses Foursquare check-ins, weather laments, Seinfeld-ian observations, celebrity sightings.
Personally relevant brand-building: Many use Twitter for this reason via some combination of the above. But this also includes announcing articles you wrote, industry observations, speaking gigs, and events you’re hosting.
The problem is that all of these uses get pushed out of a single update box, and jumbled into the same stream.
Creating lists and filtering by person doesn’t really work, because Twitter’s dominant paradigm is that each person has a single handle where they’re “building their social media presence.” This leads to a low signal-to-noise ratio, even if you’ve put in the effort to create finely tuned lists.
Different startups are beginning to tackle this problem from various angles, but by-and-large the issue remains. For now, users have been working around these limitations, because Twitter is the leader for publicly broadcasting bits of information. But in tech, it’s dangerous to assume that such dominance will continue.
I’ve heard the argument that Twitter is just a stream you dip into when you have a bit of time, a place to pop in and serendipitously discover interesting tidbits. If you miss some posts, so be it. But that limits its utility, in my opinion. If I have a few minutes, I may just want to get a clean list of breaking news items, not waste time sifting through the other types of posts. Sometimes, I don’t want the “intellectual flea market” feel.
Flipboard shows how powerful Twitter can be as a mechanism for content discovery. Hashtags are a partial, kludge-y hack for breaking news. Twitter should do a better job of facilitating each of its key, distinct uses. That’s how they can maintain their position as the dominant public social broadcasting mechanism.