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customers are great innovators

September 6, 198

no user serviceable parts inside

This familiar warning label, alerting users to some unmentionable peril lurking just beneath the Phillips head screws, symbolizes everything that is wrong with today's customer relationships. By discouraging users from experimenting on the "inside," companies undermine their greatest source of competitive advantage.

      Business pundits implore us to listen to the customer. Especially the "early adopter," who is often portrayed as the "mine canary" of new product development.

Yet the customer's view of the future are not really trusted. Even one of the best articles summarizing modern customer survey methods (Dorothy Leonard and Jeffrey Rayport's HBR article [Nov-Dec 1997 p. 102] "Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design") echoes a common, paternalistic view:

      "People can't ask for what they don't know is technically possible.. (their) imagination, and hence their desires, are bounded by experience."

In other words, people do and experts think. Yet for every designer, engineer and marketer busy thinking, there are a thousand times as many customers using their products under real-world conditions. And maybe, just maybe, a small percentage are as creative as any expert. So why aren't customers viewed as the primary source of new product innovation?

      Because their hands are tied. Too many companies undermine their customer's ingenuity by thoughtlessly or arrogantly withholding the right set of tools -- tools which let them innovate as peers of the experts.

Consider the origin of the PC:

      No one designing mainframes in the 60s expected customers to master the arcane technology of "big iron" computing. Then, in 1969, the Computer Terminal Corporation of San Antonio, Texas shipped the Datapoint 2200.

The Datapoint 2200 was basically a display, keyboard and modem, intended for remote mainframe data entry. But manufacturing a line of so-called dumb terminals to attach to all possible mainframes was expensive. So the company wisely designed the 2200's circuits for flexibility; emulating a broad range of dumb terminals though software.

      A month after shipment the CTC engineers were frantic. Why had so many 2200s stopped dialing up the computer data center?

Turns out those pesky users made a seminal discovery. The damn thing was programmable! Happily ignoring the "no user serviceable parts inside" - label, they quickly wrote their own payroll, accounting and factory automation software.

      Computing was now personal, and the mainframe suddenly redundant.

Just as importantly, Computer Terminal contracted with Intel to replace their board full of transistors with a custom integrated circuit. Later offered commercially as the 8008 microprocessor, this circuit was the direct ancestor of the Pentium.

      Ingenuous users, accidentally handed the right tools, envisioned the future of computing nearly a decade before the rest of the industry. Following George Bernard Shaw's observation, "The Reasonable man adapts to nature. The unreasonable man seeks to adapt nature to himself. Therefore all progress is made by the unreasonable man," these determined users should be called "Early Adapters."

When Early Adapters have the right tools they can out-innovate any company. Early Adapters strapped shopping carts to their luggage years before sturdy wheels were integrated into suitcases. Years before focus groups brought Early Adopter luggage preferences to the attention of experts.

      On the Internet, communications tools are freely available. So it should come as no surprise that a lone physicist, rather than a communications company, invented the World Wide Web for sharing documents with his colleagues. Rampant user innovation is the principal reason the Internet market continues to grow three times faster than the PC industry.

There is a lesson here for astute companies. Why not harness untapped user innovation by systematically providing tools, technical advice and feedback to their customers?

      Automobiles are an example of a tightly engineered, closed environment ripe for change. Ever try to find a convenient niche to store your briefcase without arm-twisting contortions? Or modify the automatic transmission shifting pattern to fit your driving style?

Imagine the leverage a forward-looking automotive company might gain by setting aside a removable portion of the dash for customer innovation. Sure, they would sell fewer CD players. But, think of the increase in car sales to users eager to install portable offices, a custom dashboard, or a microwave oven. Not to mention potential license revenue. Or increased customer loyalty.

      The same is true for the VCR. How many customers would design a VCR to blink 12:00 long into the night? None, of course. But given control over the VCR interface, they'd immediately snap in a clock with real hands and knobs for setting the time. Or a clear door to confirm a tape is loaded. Or yet another microwave oven for popcorn.

Early Adapters are eager to speak -- but first they must be given a voice.

   Author's note: Some users do modify critical engine components, despite a lack of support from Detroit. For example, you can buy a replacement microprocessor for your car (generally, a microprocessor controls engine timing, shifting patterns, security systems, etc.) with much improved performance. These computers are mostly intended for racing enthusiasts, but can also be modified to improve city driving as well. For example, HyperTech or AutoThority.

   There also is a recent (1/1/99) article from the New York Times on new trends in car design called Plan-It-Yourself Cars and Other Predictions. Although the emphasis  is mostly on increasing the variety of options available to the consumer (options still controlled and created by "professional" automobile designers), a little choice is better than none...


Copyright Greg Blonder, Genuine Ideas


Contact Greg Blonder by email here - Modified Genuine Ideas, LLC.