Jason Pontin wrote an interesting and somewhat-skeptical review of Pip Coburn’s new book, The Change Function which distills the reason why certain technologies/startups fails is because forget to overcome the following formulation:

The Change Function = f(perceived crisis vs. total perceived pain of adoption)

Technologists think their business is the creation of cool technologies loaded with wonderful new features. They think this because they are engineers who thrill to the idea of change. By contrast, Coburn says, “technology is widely hated by its users,” because ordinary folks loathe change. Therefore, any new artifact, no matter how much its various features might appeal to technologists, will always be rejected by its intended customers unless “the pain in moving to a new technology is lower than the pain of staying in the status quo.”

Basically, Coburn is fighting for user-centric products that give people what they want (not what’s cool). It’s a sentiment that’s not exactly new, but nice to see re-iterated. To think that changing to a new technology requires crisis, however, is something I haven’t really thought about. Probably explains why Firefox adoption exploded when pop-ups and viruses created crises for millions of IE users at home. While I don’t think every successful new product requires real crisis to get user adoption, marketing one in terms of the crisis it avoids is probably a good strategy. I mean, it seems to work for informercials—everyone looks so miserable before the GinsuChopoBBQ 2000 fell into their hands!

Coburn also acknowledges that this obviously doesn’t pertain to early-adopters and trendsetters—I guess he’s lumping all of them under ‘technlogists’ too. Coburn’s solution, however, I found completely ridiculous:

To discover what people really want (something Pip concedes we hardly know of ourselves), he proposes that technologists employ “sociologists, anthropologists, communication consultants, change consultants, professional observers, futurists, and folks who just study change a whole heck of a lot.”

What?! Nevermind that the statement is an obvious plug for his consulting company, Coburn Ventures, but to think that a company or startup needs to staff up with a liberal arts A-team just to figure out what users want is a little absurd. That’s what the mega-corps do and I feel like it just gets them farther away from the people they’re trying to connect with (Heisenberg Principle anyone?). People in garages and dorm rooms do it everyday and if you have any number of users, they’ll tell you right then and there if you ask—sort of. What I feel most startups have a problem with is stepping back, truly listening and affecting the appropriate changes.

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Kevin Hale

The Change Function by Kevin Hale

This entry was posted 4 years ago and was filed under Notebooks.
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· 1 Comment! ·

  1. Mike Stenhouse · 4 years ago

    If you subscribe to Malcom Gladwell’s views then a crisis might just be a shortcut to making the idea to tip into mainstream… Either way, this is the classic problem addressed by Crossing the Chasm. Early adopters and the world at large don’t often think the same way.

    I’m not entirely against the involvement of liberal arts folk though. I’m working with an Ethnographer who specialises in social networks at the moment and he’s got a very different perspective on the product we’re working on. It makes for an interesting mix but we’ll have to wait and see whether the product actually succeeds!