September 6, 198
user serviceable parts inside
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.
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:
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
the origin of the PC:
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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
is a lesson here for astute companies. Why not harness untapped user
innovation by systematically providing tools, technical advice and feedback
to their customers?
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
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.
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
Greg Blonder, Genuine Ideas