Crossing the Chasm: When should companies invest in usability?

Geoffrey Moore’s book “Crossing The Chasm” is widely considered to be the bible of Silicon Valley. What insights does the model proposed by the book have to offer usability practitioners? In particular, at what stages in life cycle of a product will decision makers influenced by the model be willing to invest in usability?

Moore presents a simple, generic segmentation model for customers of high tech products, a model that has specific suggestions for anyone trying to sell technology. The model is powerful not only because it it’s accuracy, but because it is simple and memorable. It is a powerful meme that spread quickly through the population of high-tech decision-makers once it was introduced. Since at this point most anyone in a position of power in Silicon Valley buys into the segmentation model, debate about it’s correctness (while fun!) is quite beside the point: to sell to the decision makers at high tech companies, you must understand how they think, and frame your offering in a way that will fits into that worldview.
The model
The proclivity to buy new and risky technology is distributed on a bell curve amongst the general population. Moore gives labels to the sections of the bell curve (from least risk-averse to most risk-averse) as: Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, the Late Majority, and Laggards.
Moore’s central thesis is that the Early Adopters and Early Majority are different not just quantitatively (slightly more or less risk-averse) but qualitatively: they make the decision to buy using totally different criteria. Early Adopters buy a risky product to gain a strategic advantage over their competition, and may be convinced by an effective demo that showcases the potential of the technology. Early Majority buyers, on the other hand, will insist on references from other Early Majority members from their own industry before they are willing to buy. This is a rational way for Early Majority buyers to minimize their risk: they make sure the product works for someone like them before they invest their own money in. However, this creates a an unfortunate catch-22: if everybody is willing to be the second buyer, but nobody is willing to be the first buyer, than you may never make a sale, even if all your customers want to buy your product!
The strategy that the model suggests
Moore sees transitioning from the Early Adopter to the Early Majority market as the central problem facing most technology companies. His proposed strategy for dealing with the problem is to over-invest in the acquisition of one niche market of Early Majority buyers (for example, spending $5 X to develop and market to a niche that has the potential to result in $ X profit). This niche is a “beachhead”: once it has been secured the company can safely expand into more territory on the other side of the chasm. The over-investment allows the seller to configure the product to solve the problems of the niche market, write documentation specific to the niche market, and secure useful partnerships, basically storming across the chasm using all the resources that the firm can bring to bear. If the niche market is selected carefully, it will have one or more adjacent markets (e.g. similar industries in the same geographic region, or the same industry in a different geographic region) who are comfortable with members of the original niche and will accept them as references. Once the product has successfully crossed the chasm, it can hop from niche to adjacent niche, like bowling pins knocking each other down in a cascade effect.
As multiple players cross the chasm and start selling into more and more niche markets, a tipping point is reached where the rest of the Early Majority decides, all at once, that the technology is mature enough to be useful. This is known as the tornado. All at once, finding customers or convincing them to buy is no longer the problem: keeping up with demand is the challenge!
Moore’s strategy for surviving the tornado phase is: ignore your customers needs, ignore quality, and just ship product. Let that sink in for a moment. Ignore your customers needs. Ignore quality. Ship product. Think about how you’ve seen software companies treat their customers. Does any of this sound familiar?
The reason Moore recommends this strategy is that the market dominance will not necessarily be awarded to the best product. Buyers are trying to buy the safest product, the one that’s most likely to still be around in 5 years. This will obviously be the most popular product. Moore recommends spending a majority of company resources on getting your product in the hands of as many buyers as you can, without concern for quality, specific features, or usability. Oracle used exactly this technique with brutal effectiveness during the “database wars” of the early 90s to crush competitors like Sybase, Informix, and Ingres.
After the tornado is over, the victors find themselves trying to sell technology to the miserly and skeptical Late Majority. This period of adjustment from the tornado is known as “Main Street”. While less exciting than the tornado, there are opportunities to capture value from these customers by offering a targeted solution that specifically meets their needs, something that can often be accomplished simply by providing a customized facade that provides user-appropriate labels and hides the irrelevant parts of the product. Quicken for specialized industries (Truckers, Building Contractors, etc) is an example of this kind of opportunity.
User Experience Work
User experience professionals have a couple of core roles to play at technology companies:
1) Understanding users and their needs so that products can be designed that meet those needs. This is the strategic side of usability.
2) Evaluating systems and suggesting ways that they can be improved to better meet user needs. This is the tactical side of usability.
Unlike engineering or even quality assurance, usability is not considered a mandatory part of all software development. But it is clear that building really high-quality products requires an investment in usability. When will companies feel they need what usability has to offer? When will they be willing to pay for it?
Crossing the Chasm
The services that usability professionals can provide are obviously useful to a technology company trying to cross the chasm. At this stage the quality demands are very high: the product has to be good enough to convince the first member of the Early Majority in the “beachhead niche” to buy without a suitable reference! This means that the vendor has to intimately understand the problems of the target niche. This also means that any usability problems may kill a sale. Therefore, it makes good business sense to invest money in usability at this stage.
The Tornado
Conversely, companies that are inside the tornado are (if they are following Moore’s advice) making a conscious decision to ignore quality and product suitability. Even traditional software engineering values like quality assurance are dropped by the wayside during this phase. Managers who perceive themselves to be operating in a tornado are very unlikely to invest in usability. A firm that spends extra money and time improving the usability of a product before releasing it risks losing out to a less quality-concious rival.
Main Street
After the tornado is over and all of the Early Majority have purchased the product, a vendor can take a step back and look for opportunities in the Late Majority market. Selling to Late Majority customers requires some of same kind of targeted design work that necessary to sell to the “beachhead niche”. You can’t make “Quicken for Truckers” without a detailed understanding of the kind of accounting tasks that truckers engage in, the constraints that they operate under (Do truckers have laptops? How often do they update their books? Do truck stops have WIFI yet?), and the terminology that they use (should we rename “Accounts Payable” to “Money I Owe People”, or is that condescending?). User research and usability testing will be able to answer these questions, allowing the firm to sell targeted solutions to specific unexploited niche markets.
It makes most sense for technology firms to invest in usability while attempting to “cross the chasm”, or sell to “main street”. And it makes sense for firms that sell usability products or services to target firms that are in these stages of their product cycle. Usability may not be the best investment during the “land rush” hypergrowth that happens in a tornado. But a responsible investment in usability is advised to any company that hopes to cross the chasm and enjoy such hypergrowth.

2 thoughts on “Crossing the Chasm: When should companies invest in usability?

  1. Ron Zeno August 20, 2004 / 8:56 am

    Moore is wrong, or more correctly, he’s a marketer trying to dictate how products are developed based on an imagined “adoption lifecycle”.

  2. jon August 20, 2004 / 5:14 pm

    Hey Ron!
    I think you’re missing the larger point. It doesn’t matter if the model doesn’t describe reality (though I happen to think it’s actually pretty useful as models go).
    If technology decision makers all believe in this model, than it’s impossible to sell to them on plans of action that violate the suggestions of the model. Trying to sell investment in usability to a manager who believes he’s “in the tornado” is a waste of time.

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