Too Far Ahead of the Curve

One would need an ungodly number of fingers and toes to count the times that a ground-breaking new technology has been brought to life as an inferior product and rightly, has catastrophically failed in-market. It never ceases to amaze me how many brilliant technologies are so terribly fumbled by organizations, only to be picked up by a rival and turned into a game-changing product. In the face of countless successful products that rise from the ashes of their failed predecessor, we must ask what causes so many initial launches to flop and why their later manifestations succeed?
Engineers, scientists, programmers, technologists and other analytically minded types continue to produce novel, unique and awe-inspiring inventions. Yet somewhere in the development process, it seems a change occurs in the roles of the inventor and the technology. Instead of the inventor soberly pushing development forward, guided by a grounded product definition, the technology takes on a life of its own and begins to dictate its own evolution. Developers fall in love with their products and become blinded to the true objectives and consumer needs they set out to solve. Think of the MS Tablet PC, Apple Newton, GM’s EV1 – all products that were innovative, yet became too trapped within their own mythology to create a meaningful product.
I’m as guilty as anyone; in my past life as an engineer, I often spent days working on designs that would later be scrapped when I returned to the initial problem I was trying to solve. Like death by a thousand cuts, I understand all too well how easy and addictive it can be to let a design creep away from its initial intent, feature by feature.
However, like a zombie rising from the grave to feast on the brains of the masses, many of these technologies are given a second chance when picked up by another company, often years later. In these instances, I’m reminded of the quote, “the early bird gets the worm, but it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese” – it takes an initial failure so that a product innovation may learn from prior mistakes and succeed.
Or does it?
With the benefit of hindsight, we can look to classic technology failures and their subsequent comebacks to see where they went wrong. The MS tablet tried to emulate a traditional PC and forced the user into specific scenarios by trying to replicate Windows in a touch environment. Apple was able to succeed because the iPad software was designed specifically for touch and was a drastically different environment from their MacOS. Apple’s Newton on the other hand, tried to replace too many features of a traditional computer instead of augment them and instead was an oversized PDA that did too many things poorly. Palm came back years later with the Pilot: a smaller, thinner, cheaper, more advanced PDA that synced well with PCs, instead of trying to replace them. Lastly, General Motor’s EV1 was an electric car from the mid-90s that had usage-limiting daily and annual mileage restrictions, long recharge times, cost far more than combustion models and could only be leased, not bought. Recent years have seen a host of electric cars – Tesla, Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, Focus Electric – that while still not massive commercial successes, are doing better due to increased range, fast recharge and decreased costs.
While some of the issues above may seem like technology limitations, at the core, all 3 examples were failures in meeting people’s needs. Apple realized that a different interface required a different operating environment. Palm understood their PDA as an extension of the computer, not a replacement. Modern electric cars don’t force a drastic behavioral change in the automobile experience. The difference in all of these examples? The companies started with, and maintained throughout, a view to what people wanted and needed.

And as simple as it sounds, this human-centric approach continues to be elusive to organizations around the world. The Segways, Google Waves, Zunes and TiVos of the world continue to hit the market. And while I’m all for the pursuit of pure science and creating technology for technology’s sake, if you are a corporation trying to sell innovative products, do not expect that the breakthrough inventions of your R&D team will be commercial hits without first aligning them with human needs rooted in behavioral insights. Instead, why not start by asking, “what can we do for people?” not simply, “what can we do?”