The life cycle of a technology: Why it is so difficult for large companies to innovate

As Don Norman wrote “The Invisible Computer,” he was struck by a paradox. On the one hand, there is very substantial agreement that ease of use and understandability are important. Similarly, good industrial design, simple, short documentation, and convenient, pleasing products are superior. While ease of use and understandability seems to be important, on the other hand, much of the computer technology today violates all these things, and yet the companies prosper. In fact, Apple Computer, the one company that tried hardest to make products that were easy to use, understandable, with sophisticated aesthetics driving both graphical design on the screen and industrial design of the products, failed.

So why is it that good products can fail and inferior products can succeed? The story is complex: it takes a book to explain. But there are three themes.

One: A successful product must be balanced: marketing, technology, and user experience all play critical roles, but one cannot dominate the others.

Two: There is a big difference between infrastructure products, which he calls non-substitutable goods, and traditional products, substitutable goods. With traditional goods, a company can survive with a stable, but non-dominant market share. Coke and Pepsi both survive. Cereals and soaps have multiple brands. With infrastructure goods, there can be just one. MS-DOS won over the Macintosh OS, and that was that. MS-DOS transitioned to Windows, and the dominance continued. VHS tape triumphed over Beta. Most infrastructures are dictated by the government, which assures agreement to a single standard. When there is no standard, as in AM stereo or digital cellular options in the US, there is chaos.

Three: Different factors are important at different stages in the development of a technology. In the early days, technology dominates. Who cares if it is easy to use? All that matters is better, faster, cheaper, more powerful technology. In the middle stages, marketing dominates. And in the end, mature stages — where the technology is a commodity. User experience can dominate, user experience and marketing. As in soap and cereal. As in watches. Swatch sells its watches for their emotional appeal, not their accuracy: accuracy is taken for granted.

The life cycle of a technology: Why it is so difficult for large companies to innovate