Why Nobody Cares That Your Product is Better

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” But a better product is only half the story. History is littered with products that were superior to their competition, but never made a dent in the market place.

Take for example the Dvorak keyboard. In the 1930's, Dr. August Dvorak designed the Dvorak keyboard with the sole goal of building a better keyboard. The dominant keyboard at the time was the purposefully awkward QWERTY keyboard (the reason the QWERTY keyboard has such a strange arrangement of keys is because it was designed specifically to slow the typing speeds of early users in order to prevent early typewriters from jamming).

But, Dvorak was fed up with this non-sensical arrangement of keys. He wanted to make a keyboard that embodied the popular idea of efficiency. He re-invented the keyboard by placing frequently used vowels on the left side and frequently used consonants on the right side; this commonsense arrangement dramatically decreases hand movements.

This makes the Dvorak keyboard not only more efficient, but also decreases hand stress and lowers the likelihood of carpel tunnel syndrome and repetitive strain injury. Three quarters of a century later, modern professionals could still benefit greatly from using a Dvorak. Unfortunately, the Dvorak keyboard never replaced QWERTY as the standard, and to this day we're still stuck with a keyboard that was designed to be inefficient and hard to use.

The reasons the Dvorak never spread are simple. Most people are comfortable with the QWERTY keyboard. There's no pain point to cure. People are perfectly content using a less efficient keyboard, because they already know the QWERTY layout. The relative advantage of switching isn't worth the pain you'd go through as you relearned how to type. Even if it would only take a few weeks to learn, people are generally reluctant to switch to another product if it requires significant work.

Furthermore, the Dvorak keyboard isn't a highly visible product and has little social status attached to it. Visibility is directly correlated to how quickly a product/innovation spreads. Typing is largely a personal activity and keyboards are therefore a low visibility product. This means that there is little social motivation to buy a Dvorak. Even if one person is committed enough to use the product for its practical benefits, they are unlikely to spread the product to anyone else because no one will see them using it in a noticeable manner.

In order to succeed, it's not enough to just have a product that performs better than the competition. Consumers don't care about performance if the product is hard to adopt and use. If the product isn't easy to adopt and highly visible (along with being a better), chances are it won't spread.

Written by Chris Allison on April 21, 2010


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Chris Allison