Why bad products sell, good ones don’t

Anyone who has been around technology for a while can name great products that didn’t make it.

My favourite is the chording keyboard. When I first saw one (in the early 1980s) I thought it would succeed.

On the other hand plenty of ordinary products took off. Some started life as ugly ducklings, growing into swans.

We’ve learnt to love dodgy technologies despite their awfulness: while SMS text messaging is essential, the user interface is a nightmare. Other naff ideas haunt us years after they should have been put out of their misery.

Spotting good technology isn’t easy

Spotting winners and losers early is useful. It isn’t easy or straightforward. Better doesn’t necessarily mean more successful.

Some believe technically poor winners beat technically better losers because of clever marketing. There’s a grain of truth in this, but the reality is more complex.

In the early 1990s, US writer Geoffrey Moore found business technology products go through an adoption life cycle.

At the sharp end are early investors. These companies must have the latest technology, either for prestige or perceived competitive advantage. They’ll willingly pay a high price which funds further development or marketing.

Visionary customers

Next are visionary customers who need a product to gain competitive advantage or control costs. They accept immature support, absorbing technology risk. They’ll pay a premium allowing the maker to develop the marketing channels and support infrastructures required in the next phase.

The third phase is the bulk of the market. Moore calls them early majority or pragmatic customers. They look for clear pay-offs from a technology investment. They deliver the profits and locks a technology into the mainstream.

The fourth group are reluctant adopters. If a sensible case is made, they’ll buy mature, proven technologies incorporated into commodity products. The last group are those who may never adopt a technology, for example companies that still don’t use email, mobile phones or computerised book-keeping.

Crossing the chasm

Moore says for any technology to succeed it must cross the chasm from the first two phases and enter the third. It’s an Evil Knievel leap, many technologies can’t make it.

The bridge across the chasm might be technical, it might be channel organisation, support infrastructure, political matters such as establishing a standard or it might just come down to old-fashioned marketing.

If you want to improve your winner picking skills, focus on the product, service or technology’s ability to cross the chasm between visionary and pragmatic customers.

In addition to Moore’s chasm, consider common sense ideas of price and utility.

A product which meets certain key standards can sell; the number sold depends on price and function. A lower price or more functionality means higher sales. If the first two phases of the adoption life cycle allow a maker to build in enough functionality or make price reductions through economies of scale then it’s easier to bridge the chasm.

Standards are successful

Standards are a further good indicator of likely success. However you need to read the signs correctly. Many so-called standards are anything but open. And widely accepted standards aren’t always the ones which prevail, especially in the face of market dominating companies like Intel or Microsoft. The standards used in a particular product or technology are not always fixed. For example, a non-standard communications protocol can  be changed with a software upgrade.

Although Moore’s focus was originally on business technology, the principles also apply to consumer products such as DVD burners or Apple’s iPod. The rules don’t change much between the suits and the open-neck shirts but their interpretation does.

Building up a head of steam to cross the chasm is harder for makers of consumer hardware. Consumers rarely look for a return on their investment in the conventional business sense and they are less willing to pay top dollar for new products.

Complicating matters further is the way many products now straddle both markets. In some areas the consumer market influences business purchasing strategies. For example, the first customers to adopt the iPhone were consumers. Business users are still behind on the adoption curve.