The shift in technology design

“If you want simplicity, if you want to be seen as an innovator, then it’s the mainstream customers you should be aiming at” is a fundamental shift in technology design

Back in 2006, I wrote a summary note about the excellent book by Geoffrey Moore – Crossing the chasm. It highlighted the cycle that most new technologies go through and the sizeable gap that exists between early adopters and the mainstream that is the difference between success and failure:

The book identified the most common approach in the design of new technology solutions. First target the innovators. Play to their wants and needs – make it cool! Once an initial foothold has been established and proven the product basically works, focus development towards enabling some form of strategic or competitive advantage. That will attract the early adopters, the visionaries. But then comes the biggest challenge of all:

The transition from early to late majority can get stuck if too much effort is required to use the product/service. The early majority will put in effort to learn, the late majority expect it to just work

Fast forward to the present and last year I read a book – Simple and Usable, by Giles Colborne – that aligns with this cycle but from a different perspective

If you want simplicity, if you want to be seen as an innovator, then it’s the mainstream customers you should be aiming at

This is a fundamental shift in thinking and highlights the difference between Apple and most other technology vendors, and where Microsoft continues to stumble. Apple designs for the mainstream from the start. Microsoft sacrifices mainstream simplicity for extra features to keep the experts and willing adopters happy.

To briefly summarise Giles Colborne’s argument, the market is made up of three types of user: expert, willing adopter, and mainstream user. (These align to the ‘innovator’, ‘early adopter’ and ‘majority’ in Geoffrey Moore’s book). Experts typically represent just under 10% of the total market, willing adopters take up around 20% and the mainstream represents the majority, usually around 70% if not more of the market.

Experts love new stuff. They are always first to experiment with new technologies and will invest time in exploring and stretching its limits. They will want to tweak it, enhance it. Experts are all about the art of possibilities. And they are usually enthusiastic and vocal. In the past, playing to their tune was a good strategy. But whilst it can help to engage their egos when launching a new product, don’t listen to what they want.

Why you should ignore experts: Experts often want features that would horrify mainstreamers

Willing adopters are more practical minded. They don’t jump onto the bandwagon just because something is shiny and new. They need to see the potential first. They have a lower tolerance for learning compared to experts and are more demanding of what they consider essential features to be included for the product to be worth using. But such demands are still in the minority and often lead to compromises that detract from general usability. Trying to satisfy willing adopters risks taking the path to mediocrity and killing truly innovative ideas.

Willing adopters: People still waiting for an expansion slot to appear on the iPad so that they can increase its storage capacity are in this category

The vast majority of people just want to use technology to get a job done. There is little or no tolerance for learning. If it can’t be figured out in 30 seconds, the product doesn’t work. And that makes this category by far, by a long long way, the hardest group to design for. Because it’s all about simplicity. Eliminate or hide everything that detracts from the core purpose. Optimise the usability at every single possible step of every process and interaction. Make it look elegant and you are on to a winner, if you can make it affordable too…

Historically, mainstreamers have not been well served by the technology industry. Most technology has been frustratingly difficult to learn and use. Nobody wants to create ugly complicated bloated software, but the focus has been on creating solutions that provide features and capabilities for as wide an audience as possible, from experts to laggards and everyone in between. For every different possible want and need. The challenge always with software design is that the only boundaries are time and money. What may have started out as a great idea ends up being a mediocre product because of all the compromises made to satisfy too many different needs and wants.

But Apple changed that.

Every product launched by Apple in the last 15 years has initially received negative feedback from experts and willing adopters. And every time, the critics have missed the point. They have been courted for the media coverage but the product has not been designed for them, it has been ruthlessly designed for the mainstream.

Comment (2001): “No wireless. Limited storage. I don’t see many sales in the future of iPod”
Reality in 2010: 240,000,000 iPods sold

Microsoft has recently taken some big and rather bold moves in the redesign of its products to try and grow market share in the mobile and tablet arena. But they are still catering for those influential, and very vocal, experts and willing adopters. Windows 8 has a radically new ‘Metro’ tile-based user interface for organising and launching applications. But along comes compromise. For tablets, PCs and tablet-PC hybrids, the original desktop user interface is still there, in the background, just in case you don’t like the new start menu. Some applications launch in full screen mode, similar to how other tablets work. Other applications launch via the desktop background, similar to how PCs work. Simplicity flies out of the window. Interest remains limited to experts and willing adopters.

You need to make a billion people happy and pizza is the only option. What toppings do you include? – Steve Sinofsky (then head of the Windows division at Microsoft)

The correct answer is: Margherita. You make a cheese and tomato pizza. Microsoft just couldn’t leave out the pineapple…

Simplicity is incredibly hard, expensive and time-consuming to achieve. Problems always look easy after they have been solved. The effort involved cannot be emphasised enough. It is partly why the majority of technology solutions available today remain overly complicated and unintuitive to use. But Apple has shown that simplicity isn’t just possible, it’s preferable and popular for the majority of people now. Mainstreamers expectations have been shifted.


  • Simple and Usable Web, Mobile and Interaction Design by Giles Colborne, published 2011
  • Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey A. Moore, published 1991
  • Crossing the Chasm, Joining Dots blog post, 2006
  • Chasm Microsoft, Joining Dots blog post, 2006

Still here…

A side note. The Chasm Microsoft blog post from 2006 makes for fun reading in retrospect. Particularly the comments about smart phones and tablets, given they were written a year before the iPhone launch and several years before the iPad arrived on the scene. From the original post:

Tablet PC

Just not sure about this one. It’s being generous to place it in the early adopters space because I haven’t seen a huge take-up within business. Portability and battery life are big issues for the types of users most likely to want a TabletPC, and those features don’t seem to have been much of a priority for many of the TabletPC vendors. To attempt to cross into a mainstream market, TabletPC needs to focus on a niche and do it very very well. Handwriting recognition is not that niche, despite being the obvious choice. Writing digitally is still nowhere near as easy or useful as writing on paper. Form-filling, searching for information and reading it on the go are where TabletPC offers benefits over traditional laptops