What Does It Replace?

When companies talk about their new product or service, they talk about what it does. Features, bullet points, checkboxes.   Maybe, if they’re particularly enlightened, they’ll shift a bit and talk about what problems it will solve.

What normal people tell their friends about a product or service, they talk about what it replaces:

  • Now that I use X, I’ve stopped using Y
  • Using X means I no longer need to do Y
  • X is much easier than Y
  • I used to do Y, but I haven’t since I discovered X

It’s something I’ve heard a lot lately when listening to people talk about using Yammer – and specifically, people trying to explain to a coworker why he/she should try it.  They sometimes talk about value they’ve gotten, but more often it’s in terms of how it’s driven a (positive) behavioral change away from something else.

This has me wondering if there’s a technology equivalent to Dunbar’s number.  Dunbar’s number is the idea that we have hard-wired cognitive limits to how many people we can maintain social relationships with — not just names and faces, but remembering that Allison reports to Sally and has an interest in localization or that Don is dating Kate but doesn’t care for her brother Jim.  So when we meet new people and start interacting with them more, it’s only natural that our weaker connections fade even more.

Does the same principle hold for technology?  It seems likely, given that we have a limited number of hours in a day, and we incur switching costs whenever we change context.  So (to pick an arbitrary number), if we can be productive regularly using 6 solutions, then the addition of a 7th would mean that something would have to drop off the list.  Certainly, we might try to add a 7th solution, but we’re probably more likely to feel overwhelmed and abandon it.

6 is a guess, of course.  But I think it’s a useful lens for looking at what you’re building: if people will only adopt it at the price of ditching an existing solution, are you building something great enough?  And are you helping them to see the benefit of replacing their current behaviors with what you have to offer?

7 thoughts on “What Does It Replace?

  1. When I worked in basic cable in the 1990s, we had a hypothesis that 80% of someone’s viewing was from 6 channels. Give them 80 channels, they’d watch 6. Give them 200, they’d watch 6. I think it’s a very good guess.

  2. Seems to be true, at least from my limited empirical (and largely anecdotal) data.

    Very useful insight.

  3. Great insight, and to build on it — it’s also worth thinking about what they will switch from and how many solutions it will replace. The more existing solutions a new solution replaces, the more valuable that new solution, but the harder it will be to get people to switch because it’s more of an adjustment. That may have not made sense, so here are some examples…

    For someone switching from a competing product in an established market (e.g. “now that I have my Android phone, I don’t use my iPhone since it does the same things but just better/faster”), it’s probably most often a one-to-one replacement. It’s comparatively an easy switch, but the incremental improvement is probably not huge.

    If they’re switching from a manual process (e.g. “now that I have TripIt, I don’t have to copy and paste from email into Word documents, then print them out and also copy them into my calendar”), it might replace a few steps, which would be more valuable, but might incur higher switching cost/effort.

    If it’s new concept (think back to when “smart phones” were novel — “now that I have my iPhone, I don’t have to carry a Palm Pilot and cell phone and digital camera and GPS and Flip Camera and iPod…”), then the value of switching is highest but the adjustment is also bigger.

    So, it’s not just whether they are willing to abandon one existing solution, it might be that you’re asking them to abandon multiple different solutions — which could be more valuable, but more challenging. A lot of times product managers and entrepreneurs only see the upside in the “one for multiple” replacement, but from a buyer/user side, there is some risk and effort in giving up multiple solutions for one new one, and that potential resistance needs to be understood and overcome.

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