Want change? Start with this paradigm.
Tech history, and history in general, is littered with the good-looking remnants of great ideas that never made it. From flying cars to Segways and any number of better mousetraps, there’s no shortage of inventions that looked awesome on paper, but proved less impressive when that paper had some P&L numbers printed on it.
A failure to take off, whether it’s a device, a platform or an app, is hardly ever about the tech. You could even say that a lot of failed tech ideas have had a bit too much tech – too much focus on the widget, and not enough on the widgeteer.
But there’s more to it than that. Simply saying that inventors need to get their heads out of the lab and look at who their customers are isn’t much use to anyone.
More useful, I reckon, is to look at three factors that between them make all the difference to whether something flies or dies. Together, I call them the sweet smooth suck*.
You don’t always need to score 10 out of 10 on all three. And as we’ll see, being off the scale on one might make up for middling scores on the other two. But taken together they’re a handy insight into the forces at play and go some way to explaining why some new ideas sell like cronuts, and others don’t.
Sweet. This comes first not because we’re both thinking about cronuts right now, but because it’s the first and often only element we think about when promoting a new technology. What’s great about it. How fast it goes. What colours and flavours it comes in. Maybe how much sweeter it is than the competitors. That’s often as far as it goes. And a lot of the time, that’s not enough. It’s marketers looking in a mirror rather than through the window.
Smooth. In the real world, people don’t clap their hands three times and replace whatever it is they’re using now with whatever it is we’re selling. They need to find somewhere to buy it. Work out how much it costs. Perhaps compare that to what they’re currently paying. Then they need to actually make the switch.
If we’re talking the switch from a boring old bagel to a sweet and toothsome cronut, the switch isn’t too much of a mission. Changing internet providers or banks? More so. So the more we can both make the process smooth and – just as importantly – make people believe it will be, the more emphatically we will have ticked that box. Selling a bank on sweetness is a pretty hard job. Waiting for someone to get pissed of with their current bank then make it super-easy to switch? Maybe a little bit easier.
Suck. Your cronuts can be the sweetest cronuts to ever decay a tooth, and they might be sitting right there in the same cabinet, at the same price, as those boring bagels, but if your customer loves those bagels like white dog hair loves black pants then she’s going to be hard to shift. The status quo needs to suck for someone to think about shifting. That HDTV needs to start feeling a little blurry. That toilet bowl needs to start looking a little grubby. Whatever.
No dissatisfaction, no action. Suck is in the eye of the beholder, though, so perception counts big time. Take a look at Telecom’s recent Ultra Broadband TV ad. Those frozen scenes? The “waiting is over” end line? All about the suck.
Whatever behaviour you’re trying to shift, all three factors will be in play to some extent. I can’t speak for inventors, or entrepreneurs, but as an ad guy it seems to me that understanding how the customer sees the problem, then knowing which leg of the tripod to focus on is a pretty sweet first step towards creating something that works.
*The thinking that led to the Sweet Smooth Suck is based in part on a 2006 Fast Company article The Change Function, by Pip Coburn. Thanks also to Pete Griffin for introducing me to it.