The teeter of convenience, the totter of innovation

seesawEvery Christmas, as I watch everyone tear into gifts and unearth the world’s latest new hotness, I cannot help myself to fixate on innovation – what it is, what it means, what makes it successful and the key tenets of achieving wide adoption.

It always reminds me of a seesaw, the way a system is tied together and where one thing moves, another needs to give, too. This is a metaphor for innovation and need (or convenience). Is it interesting in this age of Western culture that the two words, need and convenience, seem to be interchangeable?

Anyway, according to Wikipedia:

Mechanically, a seesaw is a lever and fulcrum.
Seesaws also work as a simple example of a mechanical system with two equilibrium positions. One side is stable, while the other is unstable.

Innovation requires need. Convenience requires innovation. How is this seesaw creating instability in markets and culture?

This metaphor requires more thought, in the consideration of characteristics that are more qualitative (driven more by emotion than logic) in order to establish a definition of what “innovation” means.

There are multiple components that contribute to the failure or success of an innovation (and oddly they all begin with the letter ‘c’): choice, control, community, convenience, completeness, compatibility, cool factor, communication and cost. Using these to evaluate an idea early on can contribute to the success of a new product or service by improving adoption, reducing risk and building trust.

Convenience is any product or service that saves time and/or simplifies work. It must add to the overall ease of life or comfort therein of its users. Why is convenience essential to the success of a new product or service? There are many reasons but here are two important ones:

We are busy – we rarely feel that we have enough time to do all that needs to be done – so, a product or service holds great value when it can eliminate steps in or to an activity, thereby effectively reducing the time commitment involved in the activity – without affecting the overall quality of the experience.

We are generally resistant to change of any kind and are subject to fear of learning anything new.
Most of us are exceptionally busy. We demand that innovations offer more convenience than existing solutions.

Innovations that add significant convenience over previous tools are self-evident from the start. They require little or no convincing of their value.

For example, finding information no longer requires stacking up piles of books at the library, spending hours paging through encyclopedias is not something anyone does anymore, not since the search engine showed up. Google has saved an exponential amount of time simplifying that work. Everyone needs this. Everyone. Executives, students of all ages, stay-at-home-parents, even . Regardless of who a company’s target customer is, innovations that improve convenience over existing solutions for everyone will attract the most attention and therefore be the most successful.

For success in any market, the convenience factor of an innovation needs to be apparent from moment a user lays eyes on it. The average bear has little time and interest to learn about new products and services. There HAS to be a compelling reason: a convenience factor that is off-the-charts.

Another factor – community – is often a determining component. If a user can identify a community that has adopted the new innovation and find clear and personally-valuable evidence the innovation has value then, if the switching costs are not too high, they will be more likely to make the jump.

Disposable diapers in the 60’s were totally inconvenient and expensive. There were two choices: wash, dry and reuse cloth diapers or reply on a diaper delivery service. Either case was a drag. Washing and drying diapers created work for already tired parents; diaper delivery services, while convenient, costed parents a ton. Disposable diapers disrupted that market because of convenience, cost and community – everyone and their Aunt Jane was talking about it and, almost overnight, became the de-facto solution to catch newborn excretions.

Apple didn’t invent the digital music player but innovated on making it convenient to find, download, manage and play music. Other MP3 players still require way more time and energy. It’s all about convenience.

Books are really convenient. Inventors have tried, unsuccessfully, to replace it. A book can go anywhere, requires no batteries, is durable and offers a comfortable, familiar form. When Amazon released the Kindle in 2007, many saw it as the end of the printed book. Nah. It remains to be seen if the Kindle and its competitors will replace the book as the preferred reading media, but the Kindle still has many of the drawbacks of the older electronic book formats, namely: it requires power. In time, it may become more accepted but will it replace the book?

This concept extends to all contexts. Packaging can be more convenient by offering the same protection coupled with a more friendly experience to open, discard and/or recycle. Service innovations typically focus on how to deliver better levels of service while minimizing the time or money required to obtain them.

New innovations have to demonstrate convenience quickly and provide inexpensive (free) trials to showcase that convenience. Most people resist change and will adopt new products and services only when there is a significant benefit that requires little overhead, teetering their totter in just the right way.