Why People Adopt Or Wait For New Technology

Jared Spool

December 21st, 2011

On the Quora, Alexia Tsotsis asked an interesting question: What are the key differences between “Normals” (normal mainstream users) and tech early adopters? Here’s the answer I posted:

I’ve been thinking about this question for a while now. Something was bothering me and I think I’ve figure it out.

Instead of thinking about ‘early adopters’ and ‘normals’ as if they are two homogeneous groups, I think it’s better to look at the motivations that trigger someone to buy into a new technology or solution at various points in the release timeline.  Here’s some of our research findings, as we try to understand when people take to new stuff:

People Who Are First

In our research, we’ve found three main reasons that someone adopts a product or service early on.

Being First to Gain Social Status

Many of the answers describing early adopters are talking about a select group of people who are the first to acquire new technologies and solutions — those with the motivation to be amongst the first. In our research, there are common themes of drivers for this motivation. 

These individuals tend to drive their social status by knowing the latest-and-greatest in what’s happening in the tech space. The people we’ve interviewed tell us they enjoy the thrill of having something before others, of knowing details about what’s happening, and of partaking in the ‘insider’ community of the tech world.

For these individuals, it’s a passionate avocation, sometimes professional, to collect and promote their newest items. They don’t need the products for what they do, they just want them to be at the leading edge of use. You can think of it like movie reviewers — they go to practically every movie, to serve as an informed authority for others in their influence circles on how good it is and what the salient features are.

These folks aren’t very loyal customers. In our research, they infrequently use something once another item comes out to replace it. (Plus, if they develop enough of a reputation, they are often given the first version, so they don’t even provide the initial revenue.) They are, in effect, an extension of the marketing machine for the product.

Being First as Product Research

There’s another group we found in our research: those folks who want to be first because they need to keep up for professional reasons. They are almost always in the tech community (or in fringe communities, like financial analysts that study the tech world). They buy the new to understand the core of the innovations that are happening.

Their interest isn’t in use, but in reverse engineering, on some level. They want to see what makes it tick and how to exploit any good ideas for other projects they may have.

These aren’t very loyal customers either. They don’t really care about the product or the company that made it, beyond what salient innovations they can take away.

Being First to Solve An Active Need

Unlike the other two categories above, this group jumps at a new product or service because it promises to solve a need they find very pressing. For these folks, they’re currently feeling pain and the new product or service is a solution.

Recently, we’ve seen this with the Toyota Prius (need: be more environmentally friendly and reduce gas consumption), Apple iPod (need: have music more available), Apple iPhone (need: a better mobile experience), TiVo (need: time-shifted television watching), Dropbox (need: share files across devices and with colleagues), and Cirque du Soleil (need: a grown-up circus).

What’s interesting is the folks who buy into these products early on don’t typically buy into just any products early. They have a real need and are willing to take the risks of the early product to resolve it.

This group isn’t responsive to brands per se, though a successful outcome will strengthen brand engagement. They don’t automatically buy other products from the same brand. (For example, most strongly-pleased iPhone customers didn’t purchase Apple TV, even though it’s a sister product.)

In some cases, the active need is because their existing solution is slowly killing them through what we call the “death of a thousand cuts.” They are feeling increasing pain with their existing solution and are looking for any compelling reason to move away.

Of the three groups I’ve mentioned so far, this is the only one who actually uses the product for more than experimentation. Unlike the other groups, the folks in this group’s successes and pain points are similar to what you’ll see with later groups. These are the folks to design for.

People Who Wait

What you’re calling the “normals” are people who wait to purchase after a new product or service is introduced. Like the folks who buy immediately, our research has shown there are several types of these people.

Waiting Because Unaware of Latent Needs

Like the folks solving for an active need, these people also have a need for the product or service. The problem is that they don’t realize that need yet. They are experiencing the same pains, but they haven’t actively identified that a solution exists, let alone the product or service that’s on the market.

Often, it isn’t until someone close to them, who encounters the same pains, shares how they’ve solved it with the product or service. Since they aren’t looking for the solution directly, they often are immune to any marketing beyond word-of-mouth. Even then, they might have to hear it from several members of their cohort before they act.

For these folks, the design needs to help convert the latent need to an active need. Once these people see the benefits from the point of view of an active need, they’ll be more likely to try out the product or service. The first interactions with the product or service need to address that need directly, without any friction or interference.

Waiting Because Of Perceived Cost Of Change

Change is costly for folks. For that reason, many typically approach it cautiously. Since people remember pain more vividly than pleasure, the pain of their previous changes are often upmost on their mind. A new product or service has to talk directly to the pain from that change to reach these people.

The cost of change comes in many forms. There’s the monetary implications of purchasing something new versus keeping the old thing. Free trials and other “try me” promotions can help with the money, but don’t get over the other forms automatically.

Also, there’s a cost of moving data and procedures to the new thing. For computer-based products, people have a ton of data they’d need to migrate over. They also have routines and rituals in their life that make the transition difficult. (For example, someone moving from one email client to another has to adjust their morning-check-and-reply rituals.) Designers who plan out this transition do much better than those who leave it to the user to figure out.

Another cost of change is the loss of competence with the new product. Using their existing solution, they’ve accrued a comfortable competence level that lets the product or service disappear, while the new one they have to learn everything all over again. (One of the smartest things Microsoft ever did was, when releasing Excel 3.0, creating a separate manual called Microsoft Excel for Lotus 1-2-3 Users. This guide directly translated the competence of the Lotus user to the new product.)

Waiting Out The Product Lifetime

A small, but firm group are the folks who, once have a working solution, will refuse to change until the product or service completely dies and is no longer an option. These folks will resist any new product or service until whatever they are doing just can’t be done.

5 Responses to “Why People Adopt Or Wait For New Technology”

  1. Rochelle Says:

    There’s also the variation on this where the individual within companies is at odds with the company policy. The individual may want to be an early adopter due to a need to solve an problem urgently or for research, but can’t fulfil the need because the company policy means it always waits, sometimes for a very long time, due to perceived costs.

  2. Marketing Day: December 22, 2011 Says:

    […] Why People Adopt Or Wait For New Technology, http://www.uie.com […]

  3. Adam Connor Says:

    I wonder if there is a fourth category in the “waiters” segment: people who wait until the social/peer pressure is too great to resist any longer.

  4. Scott Ryan Says:

    Two more reasons *NOT* to be an early adopter:
    You mentioned “cost of change,” but there is also plain old COST! The first VCRs was $1000. Not only do competition and efficiencies in mass production cause the price to drop, the first generation of a cool new product is often released in limited supply (PT Cruiser and New Beetle to name two), which is done to increase the product’s cache and/or because manufacturers can’t meet demand. Low supply and high demand equals higher price.

    The second reason not to be first in line is awareness of corporate logic. A new product requires years of initial investment so they are eager to finally get positive cash flow. They develop a product to the point of marketability and start selling it, then they use the profits from V 1.0 to prime their pumps for further refinement. Sure the first iPod was just what the world had been waiting for, but it was downright clunky in comparison to later versions. iPhones now have voice recognition. eReaders are now in color. Many early adopters prove to be impatient suckers. Good things, no, BETTER things come to those who wait.

  5. Why People Adopt Or Wait For New Technology « interaction design Says:

    […] Spool, consultant with UIE, posted a nice article on why people adopt or wait for new technology. He identified the following categories for the different […]

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