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Entelligence: Close to the edge


Entelligence is a column by technology strategist and author Michael Gartenberg, a man whose desire for a delicious cup of coffee and a quality New York bagel is dwarfed only by his passion for tech. In these articles, he'll explore where our industry is and where it's going -- on both micro and macro levels -- with the unique wit and insight only he can provide.

There's an interesting debate that I've had recently. Should product designers aim for the enthusiast or "edge" cases when designing products, or should they instead target mainstream users from day one? It's an interesting discussion, but I believe that those that say "aim for the edge" and the enthusiast aren't correct, at least in the long run.

Now if you're reading this, chances are you're a bit of an edge case -- or at the very least a gadget enthusiast. That's cool, I'm one as well. In fact, over the last few years I've coined three rules that I've come to refer to as Gartenberg's Three Laws of Consumer Electronics. For those of you not familiar with them, they are:

  1. There's a world wide market of 50,000 for any device sold to enthusiasts and early adopters.
  2. If Gartenberg sees a product at a demo and doesn't offer his credit card for purchase immediately, the product is doomed.
  3. Even if Gartenberg does offer his credit card, the product may well still be doomed -- as Gartenberg is part of the 50,000 enthusiasts that will buy (almost) anything.

(If you're in the NY area, come on over some time and I'll show you my collection)

There's a techie market that will buy anything. I'm part of it. There's about 50,000 of us who will buy anything. If it's cool, we buy it and then we move on to the next shiny thing. Unfortunately, you can't make any money that way. The rest of the world, the millions of users, the masses and the folks that actually make something profitable are different. They don't buy out of "cool." They buy out of function or need, especially in tough economic times like this. Shocking, I know -- but true; and that's why product designers need to think of the enthusiast as well as the mainstream market as they create the latest and greatest.

By the way, that doesn't mean that the masses should be product designers. It's why I generally hate focus groups when working with vendors who are testing new product ideas. They simply aren't capable of making the leap to where the paradigm might shift. On the other hand, the masses do tend to get it once it's explained to them, and at the end of the day, it's the mass markets that make for successful products as opposed to niche ones. Why do you think it took so long for MP3 players to make even the inroads they have made today as mass market devices? Yes, the edge cases bought an early one, but it took the iPod to take MP3 to the masses. Designing for the edge group is usually a mistake, but that doesn't mean every product needs to be vanilla either.

The key is, I believe, to design for the edge but create products that can make the shift over the to the mass markets. That is, products that fit a mainstream need, are not niche, are approachable for novice users, but have enough depth for advanced users to master. Products like the Nikon D series digital SLRs, The original Palm Pilot and of course, the iPod all met this criteria.

"The key is, I believe, to design for the edge but create products that can make the shift over the to the mass markets."

Way back when, music players started like this, but there are a lot of reasons that they were able to make the leap from the enthusiast to the masses. In the case of MP3 players, it's not about design for the edge or the masses -- it's about where the sweet spot is today for folks to build and sell devices. There may be folks that need or desire 100GB+ devices, for example -- they just don't represent the mass market. The mass market is still happy with about 1,000 songs and the capacities that go with that number. The proof? Look how well the iPod nano and iPod touch are doing. They're at a capacity and price point that users want today. As for tomorrow? That will change over time but there still needs to be a bridge from the edge case to the mass market. No bridge, no sales. Most of the time, the market needs to be educated to drive things forward, and that's where the edge case comes in. These are the folks that educate the masses in terms of design.

Sometimes, the market knows what it wants once it see it but at the same time it won't pay for more than it needs. And that, my friends, is why they call folks like us enthusiasts. So, as an enthusiast, what advice do you have for vendors to take products from things that appeal to folks like us to the mass market?

Michael Gartenberg is vice president of strategy and analysis at Interpret, LLC. His weblog can be found at Contact him at gartenberg AT gmail DOT com. Views expressed here are his own.

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