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Thinking Upside Down
The Sidewalk Tripping Theory of Product Adoption
by Andy Dent
April 26, 2006
Barriers to taking up a product or language are much smaller than people think, like the almost-invisible height difference in a sidewalk (pavement) over which you trip. Tool vendors and proponents of languages find themselves staring in disbelief at an apparently irrational rejection of their favourite.



As an Aussie of British origin, I have to confess that American is a second language for me. Whilst I will try to choose familiar words, expect to see the odd bit of Queen's English colouring my writing. I will also try to provide translations where necessary.

I thought I'd start this blog by discussing one of my pet theories, known around most of my workplaces of the last few years as Andy's Theory of Barriers but which I'm now going to name publicly as the hopefully-more-memorable The Sidewalk Tripping Theory of Product Adoption. (TSTTPA)

The basic principle is very simple and I suspect anyone with a marketing background will recognise it. I came to the idea through my readings in software usability coupled with some marketing (driven by micro-ISV needs).

It is common human behaviour and seems like a very trivial issue but I think our community suffers from a particular hubris that makes us very vulnerable - geeks hate to seem irrational.

So, when you catch someone in an apparent irrational dismissal of XX, the worst thing you can do is point out the irrationality. With all of their superior intelligence, said geek will start inventing reasons for their rejection.

The more you push, the greater the pile of negatives heaped upon this hapless product.

When you have run into a case of TSTTPA and inadvertently triggered a defensive reaction against Product X, to get the defendee to try X again you have to:

  1. go away for a while
  2. come up with an unrelated set of rational reasons why it is worth them trying the product
  3. find a way to get buy-in so they are emotionally invested in your set of reasons from 2. without realising they are related to Product X
  4. wait
  5. make them aware of how Product X is a great example of 2's rational features and might therefore be worth investigating, despite their completely legitimate reasons for rejecting it in the first place.

Whew! what a lot of work (and faintly distasteful manipulation it may seem too).

The simple answer is to look ahead for potential barriers on which your community may trip. The sort of nose that works for this is a bit like you need to develop for user interface design, anticipating areas that will confuse users.

There's a formal name for this kind of thinking, which I came across a few years ago and which won Kahneman a (joint) Nobel Prize in Economics. He calls it Prospect Theory and it is also also known as Behavioural Economics, illustrated often with the story:

Suppose that you are planning to drive across town to a hockey game when a huge snow storm hits.  You have paid $35 for the ticket so you decide to go to the game anyway. Two weeks later the same team is in town playing the locals and you again plan to attend the game, when another storm rages into town. This time you have been given a $35 ticket by a friend, and you decide not to go. Since the gains (enjoyment of the game) and costs (driving across the city) are the same in both cases, traditional theory suggests you should make the same decision in both cases.

See for a nice summary.

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About the Blogger

Andy is a free-lance developer in C++, REALbasic, Python, AJAX and other XML technologies. He works out of Perth, Western Australia for a local and international clients on cross-platform projects with a focus on usability for naive and infrequent users. Included in his range of interests are generative solutions, software usability and small-team software processes. He still bleeds six colors, even though Apple stopped, and uses migration projects from legacy Mac OS to justify the hardware collection.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2006 Andy Dent. All rights reserved.

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