VisiCalc founder Dan Bricklin has just published a long, splendid essay on this topic. It's one of those explaining-the-meaning-of-life bits of thinking that anyone who is in the process of developing or selling a product should read. In it, Bricklin takes the Long Tail concept a step further, explaining that what makes a product a compelling purchase is often one relatively esoteric "long tail" feature the buyer can't do without, and that they're willing to pay for. This is why broadly customizable, generic products often do better than highly specific, purpose-built products. And by extension, why product designers should aim for broadly adaptable functionality rather than trying to anticipate users' needs. He gives an example here:
You have a cell phone that can receive video and display video. Should it be tuned for the top 100 video feeds and make it hard or impossible to see the birthday videos of your grandkids or grandparents? Or should it let anybody inexpensively share content composed using any of the popular tools available? I maintain that given a choice, the latter products will win. There will be some content you need (for example, created by a loved one or on the topic of a hobby you are most passionate about) that would only be available on the general purpose system, and you know it (or will find out quickly when you find out it's available). It may be that the niche content is the reason you buy the product in the first place.
The phone that plays only some kinds of video is like a phone that only lets you call certain phone numbers. And designers and marketers get excited about highly specific applications they think are "cool"--but imagine a world wherein everyone had a cell phone, but were only able to use them for ordering pizza. No personal calls, no 911, no voicemail--I think that's exactly the kind of malformed product we're often given by companies--the world is full of pizza phones.
I look at new Web 2.0 products almost daily, and find that most of them frustrate me because they lack that customizable, generic quality. Yesterday I checked out a number of Ajax desktops, for example, and found that these products that claimed to be customizable were in fact quite limited--as in the above example. I have three gmail accounts to check, and I want all three on my desktop. None of the programs let me put more than one account on the desktop, or they did but I couldn't rename them anything but "gmail" in order to be able to tell one from the other.
That limitation alone made me lose interest in the products. But if that hadn't done it, the fact that I couldn't choose what calendar app I wanted to use would have. (A "desktop" in the bricks-and-mortar world is literally a blank slate. I can choose to load it up with any books, blotters, pens, calendars, from anywhere in the world. The variety of choice is infinite. Why can't my virtual desktop options be infinite, too? For that matter, why can't I also scribble on it? One thing I find infinitely frustrating in the virtual world is the persistent inability to scribble or doodle. I have a mouse, why can't I write on my desktop with it? Why? Why?)
On the positive side, here's another example of how my own "long tail" needs, as per Bricklin, led me to make a product purchase, at enormous cost: A few months ago, I switched from a PC to a Mac because I was working on a project that required me to conduct extensive searches in a huge list of RSS feeds; Safari let me do that kind of search exactly the way I wanted to do it. Switching saved me time, even with the learning curve and expense of replacing a nearly-new PC with a Mac. I imagine that I was using Safari in a way that very few others ever would--or that perhaps no one else but me would. But the flexibility of the program forgave me my eccentricity, and that was priceless.
Yet another example comes to mind: I bought my Panasonic digital camera for the anti-shake feature, which was designed with zoom shots in mind, but I like the feature because it lets me shoot in low light without a flash. I have never even opened the camera's manual, and know nothing about its other features, but I was willing to pay more to get the one feature I wanted.
Ebay is another obvious example of a product that is generic enough to have many tails: though Pierre Omidyar built it so that his wife could trade Pez dispensers, he didn't build in limitations ("Sorry, only Pez dispensers here, take your electronics and move along"). There's a paradox of creativity at work here, which is that it takes discipline and restraint for imaginative, creative types to refrain from wanting to imagine it all for you. How many potentially great products are killed by their creators' very overenthusiasm, I wonder? Or, put differently, how many pizza phones have fallen by the wayside because their inventors (and marketers) couldn't see past their own fetishistic visions?
The marketing lesson here is that instead of trying to second-guess your customers' needs and meet them, try to think in terms of giving them tools with which they can meet their own needs. It's a bit like teaching a man to fish, rather than giving him a fish on a bicycle.
I'm going to cross-post this item on the Engagement Alliance website, where I'm an adivsory board member. More on that new venture later.... This is also the first post I'm writing using the beta version of the posting tool from Qumana, whose slogan is: "No restrictions, no rules: where, when and as often as you like." Sounds like my kind of product.
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