The Early Adopter Gullibility Curve

We are used to thinking of product adoption in terms of the adoption curve and spend lots of time worrying about our Early Adopters versus our Early Majority, but what are we to make of the conspiracy theorists?

I mention it because every few years there is a rash of articles in the technology press about users who have become convinced that manufacturers have designed their products to spontaneously die after some specific amount of time. Earlier this year the Daily Telegraph reported on “The myth of the Sony ‘kill switch’” which has apparently been going on for 20 years. The Sony laptop battery fiasco last year won’t have helped, but that wasn’t what lit the fire in Japan recently. Apparently, “a bug in selected E-Series Bravia TVs meant they’d only last 1,200 hours, before refusing to power on or off. This conveniently adds up to about 3 hours watching per day for one year, the exact period of the television’s warranty. Sony issued a software patch to fix the problem.”

What is perhaps more revealing are some of the comments posted on The Telegraph’s website from users claiming to have suffered from a “kill switch”

“Apple products do the same. My iPod Touch broke 2 days after warranty expired =/ as did my Macbook which did on the last day of warranty… hmm”

“Sony Wega TV, a delightful product while it worked, broke within 6 months of warranty expiration. PlayStation 3 broke within a month of warranty expiration.”

“I had a Sony 400 disk DVD changer that failed ONE DAY after the warranty expired. I will never buy Sony again.”

“I don’t know about Sony, but I was thinking this very same thing about Panasonic. Especially their DVD players and TVs. Anyway, every Panasonic product I have ever had has broke right after the warranty ran out.”

Let’s be clear here, I’m not suggesting that there is any truth in the myth at all, but I do think it is interesting that some members of the public do. Electronics are going to fail, sometimes early, sometimes late. In fact, folks in reliability engineering call the typical failure rate the “Bathtub curve” which is a summation failures caused by parts failing early through defects, parts wearing out after a long period of time and some failing randomly at a constant rate. So, ship enough product and it is inevitable that some are going to fail on the day that the warranty runs out.

What I think is strange is that customers should jump to the conclusion that this is in some way planned. You would have thought that Early Adopters would have a finely honed sense that manufacturers struggle to bring products to market at all. Most technology companies struggle to deliver product which:

a)      does what they said it would do, and

b)      continues to perform that function for more than 5 minutes.

It is not because these guys aren’t smart, quite the contrary, they are often so smart that they’ve dreamt up functionality that no one has ever dreamed of before, and one day soon, when they’ve got it to work, they’ll dream up a reason why someone would want it.

I’d like to propose a different reason for the “kill switch” myth a more human and more realistic one; hurt. A sense of being cheated, that the manufacturer has not delivered fairly on their side of the bargain that the consumer entered into when they choose to buy their product: “I invested my trust in you and you cheated me”.

This is important to all of us in technology product management because we have to manage our relationship with our early adopters with care and understanding. So let’s deepen our understanding of what is going on here with a little curve-ology in the Early Adopter Gullibility Curve.

Stage Characteristics
The summit of susceptibility Heart palpitations, inability to concentrate, fixated on the product, inability to see reason and ultimately a willingness to part with ludicrous amounts of cash for dubious benefit.
The dawn or reality A nagging suspicion that all is not entirely well in the cloudcuckooland that you’ve been inhabiting for the last few weeks; something about the product is not quite as perfect as you’d assumed it would be.
The slide into sadness Once planted that tiny seedling of suspicion rapidly finds a foothold, fed by your inherent scepticism and you become listless and disinterested, the product becomes the butt of caustic asides.
The well of weariness You hit the pits of depression and blame the manufacturer of the product for all your woes, and in particular, your very large and unpaid credit card bill.

It is at this point that I believe the customer is most likely to embrace the conspiracy theory in preference to accepting his, and the manufacturers, stupidity.

The long tail of resignation The once Early Adopter has become a sceptic, a laggard, a proponent of “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it”, and “if X was good enough for my Dad…”.

Refreshingly, this also marks the beginning of recuperation and the customer’s dawning ability to be excited by another new class of innovation, and so the virtuous cycle continues.

(You can tell I’ve been through this cycle a few times myself, can’t you?)

Like the Chasm, this curve can be interrupted, particularly if the adopter has too much money and free time, but like all self-correcting systems, that problem will be adjusted as the cycle continues…

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