Why Early Adopters are Dangerous Customers

I am a self-described (or perhaps self-confessed) early adopter of most high technology products. I care passionately about the products that I test and use and often have some pretty strong opinions about what can be done to make those products more useful. For those companies looking to get feedback from early customers, there are probably a few things to bear in mind…

This is a subject that frequently occupies my mind. This applies to any and all products, from high-tech gadgets to enterprise software. I have identified four reasons why early adopter customers can be very dangerous for companies:

Early adopters often feel the pain most acutely and are willing to endure a fair amount of pain to get a solution to the problem. In many cases, customers who are willing to adopt cutting-edge products are acutely aware of the pain that the product addresses. Many of these customers are willing to use any product that reduces that pain, even if it might have bugs, a poor UI, or other drawbacks. As a company looks to expand its customer base, these are all issues that will need to be addressed and some companies take early adopting customers’ willingness to tolerate these drawbacks as a market message that such improvements are not necessary.

Early adopters are, by definition, several years ahead of the curve and always will be. Early adopting customers tend to be very future-focused. We are always thinking about ways to advance a product or service so that it stays on a leading edge trajectory. As a result, you have customers who are 2-3 years ahead of the average customer pushing a product to move an additional 2-3 years out. The real danger comes when you combine a customer who wants to push the envelope with an engineering team that is filled with what I will call “featurephiles” — people who want to pack as many new features, protocols, standards, and interfaces into a product as possible. It takes a wise company to temper the enthusiasm of customers who want to continue to push the product beyond where it is at the moment.

Early adopters are often more technically fluent than your average adopter. Early adopters often articulate their needs for new features and functions in largely technical terms. While this can be valuable feedback, I do think that there is a danger in having customers who specify a solution in terms of a specific technology (e.g. “I need a Bluetooth headset”) as opposed to a specific type of desired functionality (e.g. “I need to have a wireless headset for my mobile phone). While certain customers may have strong feelings about what types of technology are required to make a given product work, many customers are much more interested in enabling the target functionality without much regard for how it is implememented.

Many early adopters could care less about reducing complexity Most early-adopters are tinkerers by nature. Because many of them are so technically adept, they love to have the ability to peek under the hood and experiment with the technology. If anything, early adopters often want companies to expose more functionality in terms of interfaces, source code, or other such hooks into the inner workings of a system, as opposed to less. By their nature, most early adopters tend to rail against the “walled garden” approach pursued by many companies who are looking to build a simple user experience. Need proof? Take a look at all of the TiVo hacks that you can find on the Internet. Or look at all of the modifications that people have made to port Linux to Xbox and other non-native platforms. The problem with this is that the average consumer cannot function in an environment where there is a lot of openness and complexity. Take the home PC for example. The home PC is a fairly open environment (putting aside the OS issue for the moment) — the user is more or less free to add or subtract software applications at will. Is it any wonder that home PCs crash and malfunction so often? Less technical users do not often have the foresight or background to understand the consequences of their decision to add/delete software. So, for the average consumer complexity and openness are a chore, not a benefit.

After reading this, you might ask yourself (and I often ask myself) why companies even bother with early-adopting customers. For all of our faults, early-adopting customers provide companies with an enormous amout of feedback on new products. The problem is not so much with early adopting customers; the real issue is how a company, a start-up in particular, digests and integrates the feedback that it gets from these very particular customers. Early adopting customers also tend to be great spokespeople for products that they really enjoy. We want to tell our friends about the latest gadget that we think can influence their lives and people often listen to what their favorite technophile is up to.

There is one journalist in particular who I think grasps this issue in a very subtle yet profound way — Walt Mossberg of the WSJ. He seems as comfortable talking about the techical limitations of products as he does discussing the hurdles facing mainstream customers looking to adopt a new technology.