Illustrate the Application
Product developers can use a particular application to dramatize the benefits of their new invention.
Product developers can use a particular application to dramatize the benefits of their new invention. Rather than speaking about the power of a technology in the abstract, these test applications help developers to make their vision tangible, and get immediate feedback. Such an activity can be considered “demand side” exploration, and it’s as important as any technical research that can happen on the supply side.
When Alexander Graham Bell thought about where he wanted to install the first commercial tele- phones, he came up with two unlikely spots: hotels and lunch counters. A savvy marketing executive might have pointed out to Bell that neither of those applications represented a particularly attractive market segment. Lunch counters are the kind of niche business that most companies stay away from if their goal is to pursue the mainstream consumer market. Nevertheless, Bell didn’t have access to that kind of advice. What he did have, though, was an inventor’s understanding of his product and its capabilities.
Bell realized that the telephone was going to be big. He also realized it would have to be to justify the significant infrastructure investments that were required. But Bell also knew that widespread adoption by everyday folks was going to be the primary obstacle to success. No one would understand what the new machine was for and why it was any better than a telegraph. It was for that reason that Bell chose the apps that he did. Lunch counters, after all, were a place where working-men in the newly burgeoning middle-class came every day to eat. By putting a telephone there, Bell could put on a public demonstration before a captive audience.
Bell’s experimentation is a great example of how product developers can use a particular application to dramatize the benefits of their new invention. Rather than speaking about the power of a technology in the abstract, these test applications allow developers to make their vision tangible, and get immediate feedback. This kind of activity can be called “demand side” exploration, and it’s as important as any technical research that happens on the supply side. While application development is a whole practice unto itself, Bell’s experience, and those like it, offer a few pointers that are immediately useful for any new product development team, even those who may not be working on something as radical as Bell’s telephone.
The most distinctive aspect of Bell’s work is his choice of target groups. He didn’t focus on a mythical “average user.” Instead, he specifically sought out people who, by virtue of their location and condition, were most amenable to his new product. Take, for instance, Bell’s choice of hotels. People that were away from home would have a chance to try the new device in their rooms, if only to call down to the front desk. Additionally, vacations represent a great new product adoption opportunity. Those of us who have been on a diet know that vacations can be a “moral holiday,” a time when we break the rules and have that extra piece of cake because, “Hey, I’m on vacation.” Vacations are an environment that encourages experimentation. Such a choice highlights a point that Tom Peters makes: too often companies focus on their largest customers rather than on their most interesting ones.
Thankfully for millions of telephone users to come, Alexander Graham Bell made his points through physical artifacts, not through PowerPoint slides. In doing so, he leveraged one of the most power- ful abilities of product development: the power to make an idea tangible. Giving his complex notions material form allowed people to wrap their heads around the idea and respond to it. In the last few years, there’s been a lot of good work describing the power of prototypes –– particularly their ability to give form to an idea and to receive feedback on it. Prototyping within the narrow confines of a predefined application also helps to illustrate a possible future reality, in a way that’’s tangible and desirable to ordinary people. Even in its crudest form, a prototype can provide sufficient cues to make someone sit up and say, “I’d really like that.”
Illustrating a technology within a particular application can help to define an appropriate level of performance for the final product. Too often, products are asked to do everything because no particular applications have been isolated. The measurement of success then reverts to a technical ideal. With a particular application in mind, development can instead focus on the requirements of that app. Bell’s phones didn’t need to be the “be-all and end-all”. They just needed to be good enough for a lunch counter.
In the aftermath of the telecom bubble, one can’t help but wonder how things could have been different. The last decade saw massive investment by both telecom giants and startups alike. However, most of that investment was on the supply side of the equation. Companies took it as an article of faith that new applications – ones that would make proper use of the increases in capacity – were just around the corner. In his day, Bell didn’’t have the luxury of making that assumption. Like Bell, today’s companies might have done well to invest equally on the demand side, making physical experiments in interesting, but niche, applications, where ordinary folks could be exposed to and react to the myriad of technicalpossibilities. Without that tangible illustration –– that application –– most of us have a hard time understanding what we’’re missing.