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?