What is transformation? Consider the future of the lawn mower

by Len Gilbert, dPrism COO

Does your company view selling PDF documents as proof your business is becoming more digital?

We see this a lot in the publishing and information space, and the financial results are rarely good. Why? Because PDFs do not offer additional useful functionality to customers. In fact, PDFs often offer a worse customer experience than the paper that they replace. A company that digitizes its products without transforming them is usually just adding cost and complication. And it’s not changing the customer experience in ways that will cause more customers to want, buy and recommend the product to others.

How can you make sure your company is creating transformative digital products rather than mere digitized replicas? Here is an example from the physical world that I think shows what true transformation can entail. I’m talking, of course, about lawn mowers.

Probably not the product you were thinking of, right? Bear with me, though, as I think the example is a good one. Lawn mowers have changed very little in the last 50 years. A gas engine has been added, allowing for faster and easier cutting, but the general use case of cutting your lawn hasn’t changed much. You still have to set aside time to do it. And while the engine makes it easier and faster, it costs more and requires more care. The addition of the engine (and a seat for people who like riding mowers) is the equivalent of “digitization” of the lawn mowing experience. Incremental improvement but not a game changer.

I think this is about to change, however, with the introduction of robot lawn mowers. These mowers have a wide range of digital tools inside. Computers, timers and sensors allow them to completely transform the very concept of mowing your lawn. Here are a few links that give you a quick intro to robot lawn mowers. They are growing in popularity (you see them all over Norway, for example) and I predict they will become much more common in the United States in the next few years.

Wikipedia Article

Five Best Robotic Lawn Mowers

Wall Street Journal Article on Robotic Lawn Mowers

If you look at use cases, you can see a robotic lawn mower really does “transform” mowing a lawn in ways that have not been seen in the category before.

Even marketing the lawn mower becomes a much different and interactive experience. For example, Honda has created a simulator that lets you call up your lawn on Google Maps and see exactly how long it would take to mow it and what type of machine would be needed.

Of course, robotic lawnmowers aren’t without drawbacks. Like most new products there is a real learning curve to understanding how you would use one. A potential customer needs to be educated on the concept before they can be sold on a specific model. There is also cost. These mowers range from a few hundred dollars to thousands, depending on the size and quality needed. But the mower pays for itself within several years compared to a lawn service, and could pay for itself faster if you mow yourself (depending on how you value your time).

I hope this example helps illustrate the differences between general digital product transformation vs. digitization. It’s important to try to put yourself into your customers’ shoes and focus on the work they’re trying to accomplish. Then you can harness technology to help them in ways that they can’t even imagine. Good luck mowing down the competition!

This article was featured in The dBrief, a weekly newsletter curated by dPrism’s team of digital strategy, data and technology experts. Subscribe.