Should you cross the chasm or avoid it?


I recently came across a white paper covering Ten Reasons High-Tech Companies Fail. I’m not sure that I agree with all of them, but the discussion of continuous versus discontinuous innovation really rang true.

Crossing the Chasm is a classic bible for technology marketers, focused on how to move from early adopters to the early majority in terms of the technology adoption lifecycle. It describes the gap between them as a chasm because what you need to do to sell to the mainstream is often wildly different than what it takes to get it adopted by customers who are more open to change.

What the white paper highlights is that this ‘valley of death’ in the adoption cycle only happens when the technology requires a change of behavior by the customer, in his terms is discontinuous. Innovations that don’t require such a change are continuous. They don’t have such a chasm between innovators and the majority because the perceived cost of behavior changes is a large part of the mainstreams resistance to new technology.

This articulates one of my instincts I’ve been trying to understand for a while. I was very uncomfortable during one of the Defrag open sessions on adopting collaboration tools, because everyone but me seemed to be in the mode of ‘How do we get these damn stubborn users to see how great our wikis, etc are?’. They took it as a given that the answer to getting adoption was figuring out some way to change users’ behavior. My experience is that changing people’s behavior is extremely costly and likely to fail, and most of the time if you spend enough time thinking about the problem, you can find a way to deliver 80% of the benefits of the technology through a familiar interface.

This is one of the things I really like about Unifyr, they take the file system interface and add the benefits of document management and tagging. It’s the idea behind Google Hot Keys too, letting people keep searching as they always have done, but with some extra functionality. It’s also why I think there’s a big opportunity in email, there’s so much interesting data being entered through that interface and nobody’s doing much with it. Imagine a seamless bridge between a document management system like Documentum or Sharepoint and all of the informal emails that are the majority of a company’s information flow.

Of course, there are some downsides to a continuous strategy. It’s harder to get early adopters excited enough to try a product that on the surface looks very similar to what they’re already using. They’re novelty junkies, they really want to see something obviously new. You also often end up integrating into someone else’s product, which is always a precarious position to be in.

Another important complication is that I don’t think interface changes are always discontinuous. A classic example is the game Command and Conquer. I believe a lot of their success was based on inventing a new UI that people felt like they already knew. Clicking on a unit and then clicking on something else and having them perform a sensible action based on context like moving or attacking just felt very natural. It didn’t feel like a change at all, which drove the game’s massive popularity.

I hope to be able to discuss a more modern example of an innovative interface that feels like you already know it, as soon as some friends leave stealth mode!

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