In my last post about product development, I wrote about involving people in the process of defining your idea framework. It built on the premise of working with market research and asking people how they are experiencing existing products. It is a fundamentally important element of building products in general, not only if they are following principles laid out in Ash Maurya’s “Running Lean”.
The path I laid down works well for the majority of new products out there. In most cases, a product, such as new hardware, a game, a flight booking website, a hiring platform or a mattress Web shop are building on top of existing experiences. They are not drastically shifting people’s perception. At best they are introducing new features and improving the overall experience.
What if you are planning for a revolutionary product? Do the same iterative development principles apply? Do you still need to ask people about their experiences? Or can you rely on your vision?
Basically the same principles do apply. You still need to figure out what people want to use. The other question though is:
1. What makes a product revolutionary?
It may surprise you when I say that most products or services you may have perceived as revolutionary, or were touted to bring drastic paradigm shifts, were in fact children of a greater development. They were often the solution to a trend, rather than its initiator. In fact, most products or services that turn out to be actually revolutionary, have only shown that quality on the long run. You see their impact in relativity to everything surrounding them. A breakthrough product has the power to shift an entire industry — like the iPhone did in 2007 — but fulfilling this potential may take years or decades.
A truly revolutionary product very rarely changes everything in its first iteration.
Okay, but what if your product is in fact very different than everything before it? Does that account for revolutionary? And how do you differentiate a truly revolutionary product from one that has great, innovative features?
Even if you don’t think you have that kind of product, it may be breaking with a paradigm of existing solutions, thus breaking with people’s expectations. The truth is, many founders of startups didn’t know the extent of the paradigm shift they were initiating. Sometimes the effect took them by surprise.
If this was not the case, MySpace, Facebook, the Mac and the iPhone, just cameras in phones, or landline phones a 100 years earlier, cars, even electricity itself, would not have found the broad acceptance that led to breakthrough shifts in technology, economy and society. These things were shifting paradigms fundamentally, but they did not achieve that in one product iteration.
Avoiding bias and thinking your product is going to change an industry is more than taking a humble perspective. It is healthy to assume this position, and it enables you to identify the signs of true paradigm shifts.
How do you know beforehand if your product is going to change an industry? There are four factors involved here. One, the technologies itself. Second, how an industry works and third, markets, how the economy model works. The fourth element is people, it is likely the most important element of them all, because none depends on the other as much as all depend on this one alone.
2. Is a breakthrough technology necessary?
If you look at existing breakthrough technologies, one thing becomes apparent: they were not breakthroughs through technology alone, but what they enabled as part of a bigger picture.
Take the Compact Disk. The CD was first introduced as heavy, LP-sized golden disk that was used to store movies. It was expensive, required a new proprietary player system and it was called Laser Disc.
The Laser Disc was not used for music at first. Only once it was minimised and CD players were built into stereo systems, and after Sony and Panasonic started building portable CD players for the mass market, the CD became a mass market breakthrough technology that changed the entire music industry. It didn’t just have a direct impact, technologically, or even economically. It changed the financing model for music, the idea of an album, the way people listened to music in cars. Like the music tape before it in Sony’s “Walkman”, the CD was a predecessor necessary culturally, to make a bed for the iPod as a “music everywhere”-device.
When Phillips invented the Laser Disc technology, they didn’t understand what they had at their hands. So they ended up making a lot of wrong decisions. They were afraid of disrupting their own well going tape and long-play record market. The entire industry wanted CDs only to be an addition, they did not aim to turn around their own industry.
Figuring out what technology can do to bring a paradigm shift is an essential element to implementing it in revolutionary ways. However, it is extremely dangerous to be distracted by shiny technology ideas and lose the view for what will improve people’s lives. It is far too easy to build products with seemingly great features and then try finding a market for them.
Look at Virtual Reality: This technology has been around since the early 1990s. Proponents of VR argue that never before today it was so perfect, with such high resolution, generating such a perfect, nearly immersive experience. Yet no one has figured out yet how to implement this technology in a way that will become an integral part of their lives.
Technology is always a mediator, an enabler. It makes things possible, and perhaps these things were not as easily done before that technology came to be. Like writing, which has evolved greatly since the age of quill and ink. Still, people wrote books back in those days the same way they do today, by figuring something out and writing it down.
Technology will make your great, revolutionary, visionary product possible. But it won’t be the reason why it is going to be a breakthrough product. It is rather its implementation in people’s lives that will prove it is paradigm changing.
3. What makes an industry work?
Twitter disrupted the media and news industries, but only after it had grown a critical mass of user base it was able to do that. And even then it was a side effect they stumbled over, not something they had targeted during their search for monetisation of the service. But once they knew this, they changed the product experience drastically, under pressure of their investors, to accomodate to advertising as their business model.
Uber disrupted the individual public transport industry. To be fair, it was served to them on a platter, invisible but in public view. No one else realised the true potential of it as a multi-billion dollar industry, if it were to be unified into a streamlined, equalised experience. But Uber recognised the potential of a paradigm shift, spurred by previously successfully implemented crowd sharing models used by Airbnb and the like.
What did all these services figure out about the industries they were approaching? They learned that, while these industries were well organised, well covered with existing technology and service models, no one was daring enough to question the essence of how they work.
You often hear this, even in today’s economy: “This is how the industry works.” It is presented like a warning, or a “do not disturb” sign on a hotel room. For you this should be a clear indicator to ignore the sign and look what is behind the door.
4. Can you make people want new features?
As many products have shown before, it is possible to build a completely new experience based on a vision — if this vision is implemented in a way that makes it easy for users to adopt the new patterns. It can work if the numerous positive moments people are experiencing add up to a conviction that it is worth changing their old habits. Naturally, this is rarely a conscious process. It happens autonomously, often in small incremental steps, alongside of using the product and increasingly liking that experience.
Because it’s a sub-conscious process, experienced individually, it is hard to identify what kind of product is going to be truly revolutionary, if not evolutionary, and what will have the power to change people’s behaviour for good.
Quite a lot of products are attempting to do that, and, at least in my experience, this effort is nearly always underestimated. I have witnessed products being born with great ambitions, and they died a slow death because they were not able to convince users to try a new path, a user journey that crossed with their set of expectations. Teaching users something new, something that will improve, but only if they start using it regularly, is the hardest thing to do.
Whatever the reason for a product failure is, it is not the fault of the user. It isn’t that users are not ready for your great vision. They just didn’t have a great experience. Too often we rely too much on this vision, almost blinded by an idea we want to be true. We are holding onto it despite all indicators pointing into a different direction.
You can’t make people want something they don’t want. And that means however great you make your product experience, if they don’t have a triggering motivation to try it in the first place, they will not want it. However, you can make something so rewarding, so they might try it out and then understand the effect by experiencing it.
5. What do people really need?
Think about this for a moment: When you are learning about what people say they want, is that what they really need?
There are many more or less contradicting quotes from leading figures like Steve Jobs, about asking people what they want. Aside of the pithy argument that people don’t know what they want, the truth of the essence here is that they can’t know what they want before they have been using it over time.
As humans we live on a timeline that goes in one direction. We don’t know what the future brings, so all we have to compare a potential future with is the past. And as it turns out, scientifically studied, we are terribly bad at that. We are great in dreaming up ideas about our future, but we are bad in predicting its actual implementation and the effect it has on our own lives.
Dreaming up an idea is not all that entails a great vision. You need to have an understanding, at least an idea you can check and prove (a hypothesis to validate), that you are on track of something bigger.
Your job as a visionary, a startup founder with an idea for a revolutionary product, is to look at that idea from the other direction, taking the perspective of people and understanding what it is that makes people do the things they do. Your job is to identify crucial systems and perceptions that make entire markets and industries work.
Like Uber did with cab drivers. Like Airbnb did with the hotel industry. These companies came up with idea frameworks, but then they went on to learn everything about the industry and markets they were entering. They went on to learn everything about what makes people trust a product or service, after having experienced it. They knew, that all the growth hacking or trying to implement features wouldn’t work if they hadn’t learned these first crucial parts: what do people really need, not what they say they want, but what actually changes and improves the way they live.
Don’t be afraid to ask the big questions, but have respect for the results you may be finding. Ask how it works and do everything you can to learn about that potential, that there might be a better way. Then you are onto something.
Henning von Vogelsang is consultant for product development and user experience. His work involves psychology, motivation and social behaviour. Henning has worked with startups in San Francisco, London, Sydney and Barcelona, and his passion is to help companies to create and improve services and products that are more in touch with the people who are using them.