Monday, October 17, 2011

Who is the archetypical user?

Hah!  Today I get to use a big, interesting word: archetype, which means "the model from which all things of the same kind are based".  This means that any random selection of a product will demonstrate the properties and attributes of every other product of the same type.  For mass produced products, like toasters or pencils, any product selected is probably a good model of any other product in the same line.

But, as innovators we don't seek to create archetypical products.  We seek to create interesting, differentiated products.  Even more to the point, when we create interesting products, we need to have customers in mind.  And often, as innovators, we use ourselves or the people we know to stand in for, or represent, the eventual users.  In many cases, this thinking leads to all kinds of problems.  Innovators often are poor choices for archetypical users.

Why?  Because many innovators see further and are willing to endure more pain and difficulty using a new product or service than the typical customer.  Look no further than Geoffrey Moore's excellent book Crossing the Chasm.  Innovators are similar to the "early adopters" who are willing to sacrifice ease of use or a completely finished product in order to gain the latest technology.  Early adopters and innovators are OK with workarounds, spotty support and occasional hiccups in the operations of their products.  The large majority of customers, however, don't reflect these values.  Using an innovator as a stand-in for an average customer is dangerous, for two reasons. 

First, innovators or early adopters care more about technology and less about what Moore calls the "whole product".  What the rest of us depend on when we use new products or services - manuals, support, interoperability - early adopters and innovators often don't use or don't value.  Consumers in the majority want to adopt technology when it is "safe" to do so, when there are plenty of other people who have "broken it in".  By then many early adopters and innovators have moved on, and become bored with the technology.  Innovators and early adopters don't reflect the needs and expectations of the large majority of your customer base.

Second, using an innovator to stand in for an archetypical user will create products that are far more sophisticated and far beyond the use of many of your potential mainstream customers, and will probably miss many of the mainstream customers' needs and expectations.  While everyone wants a new shiny object, the majority of customers are much more constrained in their spending and tend to ask themselves questions about the value of a new product or service in their lives.  Inventors and early adopters are often more interested in the newness factor and the opportunity to explore rather than the hard benefits.

Third, mainstream users don't like to learn new technologies or interfaces or change dramatically from their known interfaces or usage patterns.  Steve Jobs greatest gift to consumers was the "one button" idea on the iPhone.  Inventors, entrepreneurs and early adopters like lots of options, lots of functions, lots of services, while the majority would rather wait for a simple, clean interface that doesn't require a lot of new learning.

So, if you are innovating, who is your archetypical user?  Something you find useful, interesting and valuable may appeal to early adopters, but may miss the mark for the vast majority of consumers you need to buy your product in order to achieve financial success.  The product world is littered with failed products that many early adopters purchased but which failed to cross the chasm to the majority of customers.  Just because you are interested and find the concept valuable doesn't mean the majority will.  Who is your archetypical customer, and what do they want? What do they find valuable? What unmet or undiscovered need do they have?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:11 AM


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