Adapt, Exapt, or Reapt Product Features?
The Quest to Achieve Market Fitness
“That gum you like is going to come back in style,” the elderly room service waiter (Hank Worden) famously said in episode 16 of the 1990s TV series Twin Peaks. This line is not only game-changing for the plot, but it also predicts the emergence of a reaptive event.
We all know that some features need adaptation to be fit for purpose. You may also know that innovation is often the outcome of exaptation. However, we often forget that reaptation is a third way to fit the market.
Adapt and Exapt Features
Inspect and adapt may well be the most emphasized principle in the Agile community. By reviewing feedback from what we have previously created and shipped, we learn how to adapt our product to fit users’ needs. The more often we review, the smaller and easier adjustments we need to make.
Exaptation is as important as adaptation in product development. A feature that used to have purpose A proves to be useful for a completely different purpose B. The feathers that birds evolved to stay warm later proved useful when they started to fly.
It is not just nature that innovates exaptively. This happens all the time in the business world:
- Many established medicines have proven to be excellent at curing completely different diseases. In 1987, for example, the cancer drug zidovudine became the first FDA-approved drug against HIV.
- Duct tape was created to keep ammunition cases dry during World War II. Now, it pragmatically solves all sorts of sudden problems.
- Traffic signs, bicycle reflectors, and safety clothing all take advantage of retroreflection. Strangely enough, the same technology is now used in clothing that makes you seem invisible.
The syllable “apt” in adaptive and exaptive has been around for more than half a millennium. Its meaning is “fitted, precisely suited, and possessing the necessary qualities for the purpose.” A third, and sometimes more feasible approach to achieve market fitness is to rediscover and emphasize an old feature that was untilled for a while. This is where we may find the neologism “reaptive” (/riˈæptɪv/) to be useful. Reaptive denotes being “apt” — possessing the necessary qualities for the purpose — again. This temporal popular–unpopular–popular phenomenon is not unusual, and we may intentionally take advantage of it to solve thorny problems.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, vinyl dominated as a medium for distributing pop music. Tangible and intangible digital formats then took over. However, in 2006, the vinyl comeback began, and growth has since continued. MRC recently reported that in 2021, over 40 million vinyl albums were sold in the US. That is, sales figures are up more than 45-fold in 15 years. It wasn’t that the vinyl album product was adjusted to meet newly discovered needs (adaptation), nor did this piece of synthetic material find a new purpose (exaptation). The purpose of the vinyl album — distributing music — was the same in 1960 as in 2020. Market fitness was first high, then low, and now high again.
Do you remember bell bottom jeans? Some fashion statements fall in and out of favor. But there are also other ways to make room for reaptation:
- Alert users to an underestimated feature: In a digital product release that included many new features, one was not noticed as much as it deserved. Adding an icon or otherwise highlighting that feature might help users rediscover it.
- Remove a restrictive constraint: A new law, like the Chinese school tutoring ban, may suddenly eliminate a viable market. If that law is later removed, the market may reemerge.
- Go from uniformity to diversity: An enterprise implements a broad transformation of its ways of working. Everybody is forced to follow the new process. However, because of the nature of their tasks, some teams appear to work more effectively using the old methods.
- Add an enabling constraint: An influential personality’s voice may gain broad popularity for an older product or product type. The influencer may be an industry thought leader or another product, like the popular Netflix series that helped Kate Bush reach UK No 1 after 37 years.
- Strengthen the ecosystem: The last five years have seen the programming language Python, created in the early 1990s, gain enormous popularity. The language and its purpose are unchanged, but a plethora of independent frameworks have added new support.
What can we learn from all this?
- We risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater when we change too many things at once.
- We tend to overgeneralize the value of successful change. Fit for purpose is not a context-free property.
- Highlighting the features we already have in our products can sometimes be a more feasible approach to achieve market fitness than developing new features (adapt) or repurposing old features (exapt).
Staffan Nöteberg is the author of The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated, published by The Pragmatic Bookshelf.
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