Product Adoption: Lessons on how to maximize product adoption and avoid common pitfalls

Imagine developing a product that encapsulated the best practices from the best minds in the business. A product that could increase your customer’s revenue by anywhere from $50,000 to $250,000 annually for only a few hundred dollars a month?

And best of all, it only took a couple of additional steps to use and could save time in the long run.

Given that type of ROI and rave reviews from early adopters, I figured marketing and selling the product would be a “no brainer.” So envisioning myself semi-retired and swirling Mai Tais on the Mexican Riviera, I signed on the dotted line, taking equity and deferred compensation in lieu of salary.

Two years later, my bank account is now a blank account—but while certainly not wealthier, I’m much wiser. So what happened? Why didn’t a “proven” product with a great ROI spread like wildfire—and instead just smoldered? There are many reasons, but the biggest reason was that the product required extra work to receive the extra benefits—and most people won’t do extra work no matter how big the potential future benefit is.

In this article, I’ll explain how you can incorporate that fundamental tenet of human nature into your product planning and marketing to increase adoption and sales.

The problem: The road to hell is paved with good intentions

We all agree exercise is good. In fact, it’s critical to our health, yet the majority of us don’t exercise enough or at all. Why? Because for most of us, it requires taking additional time and effort.

However, given the right support structures, e.g. a personal trainer, child care to watch the kids, etc. the probabilities of us adopting and maintaining an exercise ritual will increase dramatically. And soon, what was considered the “extreme” soon becomes the norm.

So what does this have to do with software?

Simple, no matter how good a new product is, if it requires the user to change their routine, it may meet resistance. And if you expect the user to take extra steps to get the extra benefit, then you must expect a large percentage of users will be unwilling to do the extra work, no matter how big the end gain.

And even if they want to change, many won’t unless you provide additional, and often seemingly irrelevant, services. So it’s critical to incorporate this knowledge into the business plan, product design, marketing and implementation process in order to increase your probabilities of success.

Technology adoption

Technology moves blindingly fast. Adoption is another story altogether.

Every product manager is familiar with the product adoption lifecycle and crossing the chasm. While the steps are the same regardless of the product, what varies dramatically is the time frame. And since time is money, the most important thing is to figure out how to shorten the adoption lifecycle.

The Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) is a great first step to understand why people adopt (or not) new software. Wikipedia ® states:

“The Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) is an information systems theory (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_systems ) that models how users come to accept and use a technology. The model suggests that when users are presented with a new software package, a number of factors influence their decision about how and when they will use it, notably:

  • Perceived usefulness (PU) – This was defined by Fred Davis as “the degree to which a person believes that using a particular system would enhance his or her job performance.”
  • Perceived ease-of-use (EOU) Davis defined this as “the degree to which a person believes that using a particular system would be free from effort” (Davis, 1989).”

In other words, what’s the benefit and how easy is it to use? Traditionally ease-of-use has always played second fiddle to more features, but per the TAM, ease of use is just as critical to adoption as usefulness—so the first lesson is keep it simple.

In fact, less is often more from a user’s perspective. While some will want all sorts of “cool” features, most people just want to get their job done quicker and more easily.

We don’t need no stinkin “Best Practices”!

Best practices can take decades to adopt. Invariably, best practices means doing things right, which usually requires more work up front, and since most of us are busy and are used to doing things the way we’ve always done them, consistently following best practices is a challenge at best.

For example, CRM/sales-force automation systems promise all sorts of benefits to the sales person and organization, but it has taken two decades and billions of dollars in failed implementations to get to a state where most sales people are comfortable with them and willing to enter their sales information into the system.

Management systems in the collision shop market are another example. Despite the proven benefits of using a management system, reducing cycle time, increasing productivity, profits, etc., it’s taken nearly two decades to achieve a 50% penetration rate.

Why? Because mass adoption has required dramatic economic and cultural/generational changes in the industry. The best practices encapsulated in the management systems had to move from the extreme into the mainstream. And for the most part, that meant people literally changing jobs and bringing the new tools and ideas with them.

In many cases, those new ideas and tools were rejected. But over time as more and more people were exposed to the new technologies and ideas, and a new generation of employees never knew that there was another way to do business, management systems have become standard equipment in the majority of the better shops.

On the other hand, think about the Web. In many cases it simplifies and eliminates the need to physically search for something, e.g. when was the last time you went to the library for a research project? As a result, the adoption curve has been incredibly dramatic.

So remember, if your solution requires significant extra work for extra benefits, know that the adoption lifecycle will most likely be long and arduous. Do anything possible to simplify the workflow and/or be absolutely indispensable.

Understand the market

How often have you heard or said “How can we go wrong, it’s a virtually untapped $X billion market?”

I know I’m guilty of that and have personally paid the price. The real question is, what percentage of the market is realistically likely to adopt your product? And are you automating the exceptions or the norm?

For example, you’ve created a great new window-washing tool that can clean windows 50% faster and 200% better than your standard squeegee!

Every house in America has windows so just imagine the incredible market! But how many Americans regularly clean their home windows? Not many. You really have two markets.

  1. The window washers of the world: They already believe in the virtue of clean windows and regularly spend time cleaning them. For this group, you’re subtracting from their work and therefore giving them the gift of time and delivering better results in the process.
  2. The rest of us: I know I should probably clean my windows more often but heck they’re going to get dirty anyway. (Yes I’m married and drive my wife nuts with this kind of logic.) First, you have to persuade me of the value of sparkling clean windows and then you’ve got to convince me your product is the best for the job. And finally, you’ll most likely need to cajole me into actually using the product since it will require “extra” work on my behalf.

And that was the problem we ran into with our product. For the 1% of the shops that regularly double-checked their work, the product both simplified and improved their processes.

For the other 99%, it was a much more challenging sales and implementation/adoption process. In some cases, the users took to it like fish to water and now can’t imagine not having the product. But for a large percentage it took endless cajoling and handholding, and then as soon as we left, they stopped using it.

Better versus good enough

Growing up, I thought whip cream only came out of a can. Then I tasted homemade. One creamy spoonful and I swore I’d never go back to the can.

Now, three kids later I still love fresh homemade whipped cream, but sadly 80% of the time I rely on the can because it’s quick and easy and lasts forever in the fridge. I know my pie or hot fudge sundae would taste better with the “real” stuff, but I usually don’t want to take the extra five or ten minutes to make it and clean up. Besides, my kids, the primary consumers, don’t even notice the difference.

Even though the stuff that comes out of the can is clearly inferior to the homemade, I use it because it’s good enough and requires virtually no effort to use. And, since it’s a should have (some would even claim a nice-to have) I’ll often skip the extra benefit altogether rather than take the extra time and effort.

The same is true with software. Users will often choose “sub-optimal” solutions because they’re easier or not use anything at all because they don’t like the extra work –even if it makes the difference between just okay and great.

Product design

The most successful software combines extra benefits and eliminates steps. The spellchecker in Microsoft ® Office Word is a great example. Why? Because the product highlights the errors as I’m writing so I don’t have to take the extra step to run the spellchecker.

The lesson is to eliminate as many steps as possible and provide the tightest, most seamless integration possible that delivers benefits sooner than later. One of the most common errors is the creation of yet another application that the user has to launch.

This is especially true in the business intelligence/management reporting space. All too often, these companies expect the users to launch the application and then spend their time querying the system to get the value they paid for.

What typically happens is that the software sits unused like countless pieces of gym equipment gathering dust in homes across America. As one user remarked after we showed him our reporting software:

“I’m busy. I’ve got ten things I absolutely need to do. Twenty I really should do – and at the end of the day, I’ve only done three or four of them. So just email me a report that tells me what’s on fire today and how to fix it. And if you can eventually tell me what’s going to catch fire tomorrow and what I can do to prevent it, great! If not, I don’t want it and I’m not going to use it.”

Whenever possible, push the information directly into an existing application so the user doesn’t have to actually do anything to receive the benefits, e.g. instead of forcing the user to launch a separate reporting application, deliver the reports right into their email.

Sometimes what people want is really a service rather than a product. So if you can convince people of the end value, but you can’t get them to actually do the work required, you may have more success bundling it into a service. After all, isn’t that why people hire window washers?

Piggyback marketing

Once you’ve built the product, focus your marketing and sales efforts on the most likely early adopters. The best way to do that is to find prospects that are already practicing what you preach. Otherwise, you’re going to waste a lot of money and time on unqualified prospects who even if they buy your product may actually never use it.

I recently had this challenge with a client that has a really great product for analyzing open-ended feedback. The company believed we should try to convince everybody of the value of collecting customer feedback and then why open-ended comments were more valuable than closed-ended structured data. Under that scenario, a sales person would spend a lot of valuable time convincing a prospect why they should implement best practices in customer feedback—and then how our tool could improve the process. Talk about a long and arduous sales cycle!

My recommendation was that the company should identify companies that had already adopted best practices and focus their efforts on selling how the solution could simplify and improve what they’re already doing. Instead of trying to create an entirely new initiative, the company could piggyback upon an existing corporate project that already has executive sponsorship, corporate buy in and committed resources.

So whenever possible, identify “hot” best practices methodologies that already have significant traction and integrate your product and marketing into that existing market. Now instead of competing for attention with Six Sigma ® or NetPromoter, you’re an enabler that can feed into the larger ecosystem.

It may take you years and decades to focus on marketing “best practices” to industry influencers and thought leaders in order to grow the potential market for your product.

Implementation

While it would be wonderful to sell only to incredibly motivated customers and users that don’t need any assistance, the reality is a large percentage of your customers will both be implementing your software and best practices for the first time.

It’s not enough to train users how to use the software—you need to show its value and get their buy in.

In fact, I learned a very painful but important lesson during my first product management job:

Success of product/project = quality of the product/plan x the % buy in

So if you’re going to force change on an organization or users, here are a few suggestions:

  • Get the buy in at both the top and the bottom. It’s not enough to think that getting the CEO to buy in will lead to user buy in. If enough users squawk and the CEO begins viewing your product as too disruptive, the product will usually be ejected.
  • Start slowly. Don’t overwhelm the users with too much in the beginning. Help them get comfortable with the basics. It’s important that they feel they’re getting as much pain-free value as possible.
  • Move the cheese. Talk is cheap, compensation is golden. If you want your users to do something different, compensate them for the perceived extra work. Nothing guarantees failure faster than when an employee is told to do one thing and rewarded for something entirely different.
  • Change the org chart. New technologies require new processes and positions to leverage and support the new infrastructure.
  • Create standard operating procedures. Work with the users to create new standard operating procedures that they agree to and can easily follow. Don’t expect them to magically figure out how best to incorporate the new technology into their organization.
  • Be there. People hire personal trainers because they know that particularly in the beginning, a little extra push and encouragement to overcome their inertia is needed.

Empathy

I’ve worked in seven different verticals at four different companies, and I always hear the same complaint from product managers and engineers. “Our users aren’t like other customers. They’re technologically unsophisticated laggards.”

As a result, I’ve come to the conclusion that our users aren’t the ones who are different, we just happen to be in love with computers and our products. So every time I hear complaints about our users’ IQ and how easy our product is to use, I ask, “Can you explain how to forward a phone call?”

In all my years, I’ve only met a handful of people who actually know how to forward a phone call. Most of us just tell the caller, “Uh, I’ll try, but if I lose you, call his direct line.” and then we press some buttons and hope the call went through.

So remember for product success, have empathy for your users and don’t expect them to be as enthusiastic as you are about your product and willing to go the extra mile (or inch) to make it work.

The bottom line

Just because something is good for you, doesn’t mean people will do it. Don’t get blinded by the potential ROI of your product. Get out from behind your spreadsheet and start thinking like a typical user who’s got a thousand things to do and just wants to get home to see their kids.

And remember:

  • The Road to Hell is paved with good intentions which is why people often say one thing and do something entirely different.
  • Understand whether you’re automating an existing standard or enabling a yet-to-be-widely-adopted process to accurately identify the size of your market.
  • Subtract, don’t add to your user’s work, otherwise you’ll increase your implementation costs and reduce your adoption rate.
  • Piggyback your marketing and sales efforts on existing methodologies and markets instead of trying to position your product as something entirely new.
  • Change takes effort above and beyond just teaching people what buttons to press, so be prepared to provide professional services.
  • Be empathetic. Try to imagine yourself in your customer’s shoes and ask yourself, “How can I make their life easier?”

And finally, while it’s hard to be dispassionate about the benefits of fresh whipped cream, realize that for most people “fresh” from the can is good enough–and as a result better generally loses to easier in the marketplace.

Check out the presentation for a few laughs and more tips!

Let me know what you think! Drop me an email at kevin@myrepresentatives dot com or a tweet @kevinjmireles
Thanks!
Kev
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5 responses to “Product Adoption: Lessons on how to maximize product adoption and avoid common pitfalls

  1. Kevin,

    I have been in software sales/marketing for over 30 years and this is absolutely the best “hit the nail on the head” article I have ever read! Very insightful and useful — should be required reading for any software development and marketing organization that wants to succeed. Thanks … I will be making it mandatory reading/studing throughout Hanford Bay Associates, Ltd.

  2. Thanks Kevin for your response – The patent was not to be an answer, just a tool to test the idea among the many available. In Australia we can get a patent examination response in 10 weeks & in New Zealand it is a matter of days. You can always test your idea in other jurisdictions if it takes too long in your own.

    All the best

  3. Pingback: Don’t Make me Work! Product Development & Design for a Lazy World | Kevin Mireles

  4. timeless – and timely for me as i work on an adoption plan. thanks.

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