Revolution, evolution and keeping users happy

How many times have you heard the phrase “Evolution, not revolution“? It tends to be used to urge a slower, more measured approach to managing change rather than the “Big bang”, or revolutionary approach.


Evolution can deliver some benefits, including:

  • Reduced risk – with the ability to change subsequent phases as needed.
  • Spread costs – reducing the upfront costs.

But it also can have drawbacks:

  • Increased costs – costs incurred through a step-by-step approach are usually higher, because the implementation lasts longer.
  • Loss of competitive advantage – evolving something over a period of time might give your competitors the opportunity to get ahead and take some of your market share.

The pros and cons above are very much focused on the organisation itself. In reality, of course, customers, consumers and users can also be heavily affected by this.

The Dyson Airblade is a good example of solving a problem (hand drying) using a completely new approach to that which had previously been used. The effect on the user is absolutely minimal, requiring no significantly new behaviour. The revolutionary approach adopted by Dyson (very high speed airflow, stripping the water from the user’s hands) is confined to the inner workings, and replaces the previously accepted method of blowing warm air over the hands.

Dyson had earlier re-thought vacuum cleaners, removing the conventional bag and greatly improving performance efficiency. Again, there was no change needed to user behaviour, but the approach was revolutionary.

Revolutionary approaches can clearly deliver significant benefits to users – usually in terms of cost, design or efficiency – and as long as those revolutionary elements remain hidden from the user, adoption rates can soar. But when the revolutionary elements are evident to the user, who is forced to behave differently (or at least in an unfamiliar way), barriers can form.


Hewlett-Packard introduced the HP-35 electronic calculator in 1972 which used Reverse Polish Notation. Whilst being the most advanced scientific calculator of its day, Reverse Polish Notation (RPN) wasn’t the most natural of notations for users and it remained popular only for scientists, mathematicians and engineers. If a calculator manufacturer were to propose re-introducing RPN today, it would face an uphill struggle simply because of the obvious need for changed user-behaviour.

The same barrier exists for alternative layouts to the QWERTY keyboard used today. The very significant changes to user-behaviour outweigh the benefits which they appear to offer, and this has resulted in the long-term survival of QWERTY.

With the rapid proliferation of tablets and other mobile devices, Swype have tackled the thorny issue of mobile text entry, using a novel approach. Certainly it is new user-behaviour (sliding a finger, rather than stabbing a finger), but it is based on familiar layout and can deliver input rates of more than 40 words per minute. Despite the obvious benefits, the required change in user-behaviour is significant enough for some users to shun it.

Last year I came across a passenger lift which I’d never experienced before. Without realising that it was different from anything I’d previously seen, I got into the first available lift and looked for the panel to select my destination but since it was almost full, I figured it was hidden by another passenger. I decided to wait until some passengers had alighted, leaving more space. The lift stopped, everyone got out and as it returned to the ground floor I noted there was no panel of buttons. I assumed (not often the best strategy) that the lift I had chosen was somehow “special” since everyone had alighted at the same floor (perhaps the “executive floor”), so I changed to a different lift – only to discover that it, too, didn’t have any means of selecting my destination. Returning once again to the ground floor, I asked for help and was introduced to the Destination Selection Panel in the lobby.

DestinationSelectionControlIt transpired that I was using a new type of passenger lift which employs a Destination Control System designed to improve efficiency by reducing the number of floors at which a lift stops. “New” might not be the most appropriate description, since the system was first introduced by Schindler Elevator in 1992, but it was certainly new to me.

It is straightforward to use and works very well. But, it requires a change in user behaviour. I had walked straight past the selection panel in the lobby without even noticing it. Having used lifts thousands of times before, I didn’t even think about the possibility of needing to do it differently this time. I benefited from the improved efficiency it offered (after eventually boarding the correctly selected lift), but I had been forced to adopt different behaviour in order to get that far.

Microsoft are finding that much of the discussion surrounding the adoption of Windows 8  is about changed user behaviour. Officially dubbed “A better way to work and play”, for most users it represents a completely new way of interacting with the PC – a factor which has already made many prospective users nervous about using it before they’ve even tried it. That has raised the barrier to adoption even further. It might indeed be “a better way”, but unless users see and believe that they will be getting something better without  significantly changing their behaviour, they will be wary of it.

In summary:

The Product Manager should be mindful of the fact that ultimately, customers (or users) will significantly influence the success or failure of a new product. And since users tend to be more conservative than radical, the following guidelines apply:

  • Revolution is good – just make sure it’s confined to the clever stuff under the bonnet.
  • If you absolutely insist on exposing the user to revolution, don’t require them to significantly change their behaviour.
  • If you absolutely can’t do it without expecting them to change behaviour, make sure the changes deliver sufficient excitement for the user to see the overall change as worthwhile.

What do you think? Please comment below.


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