Book Review: The Change Function

Most business books have only one good idea. In second-class business books, it’s common to name the book after the idea, in the hopes of building some brand recognition. The Change Function fits right into this cliche, providing one good idea, the change function itself. Helpfully, Pip Coburn has the good taste not to pad is his book with many other ideas. Instead, he applies his one good idea to several case studies. If you just want the one idea, read the rest of this post (information wants to be free, after all). If you want case studies and details about applying the idea to an organization, pick up Coburn’s book.

Most new products fail to succeed. They fail because they are not adopted by customers. Adoption generally fails because users don’t change their habits to use or purchase the new device or service. People generally avoid change. Creators and purveyors of new products must find a way to motivate change. The focus of this book is on how to understand when users are willing to change.

The Change Function states that the willingness of users is a function of two parameters: Crisis and TPPA. (Readers with mathematical ability will have to forgive Coburn’s limited grasp of mathematical notation and terminology). Crisis is a motivating event or condition. Without Crisis, people will keep doing whatever they have been doing. TPPA is Total Perceived Pain of Adoption, which is a good phrase. This is how difficult people expect that the change will be, which is only tangentially related

TPPA comes in many forms. The most obvious is price. But generally price is not most important. More important source of Pain might be the need to learn new things, or the possibility of the system not working out and leaving the buyer feeling stupid. Pain comes from political or career risk. And pain comes from fear of the unknown.

Crisis can also vary. The crisis for purchasers of HDTVs or iPods is a fear of being left out. The crisis for some iPhone purchasers is a need for “internet in my pocket”. For others, the iPhone is a way to purchase coolness. Regulatory changes can drive a crisis, for people or businesses. So can life changes, like a new baby.

TPPA can be lowered. Improving usability reduces TPPA. Try-before-you-buy is another popular technique. Allowing users to start small and build up confidence reduces their risk. Initial user experience should deliver minimal pain. And the perception of pain must also be managed, through marketing. If users think the product is difficult to use, or prone to breakage, or many other intangibles, these can be managed with appropriate messaging.

Crisis can be created or discovered. Marketing to CEOs can create a crisis, if they fear their company is being left behind. Marketing to individuals can create desire for a new experience or new device, a kind of crisis. Crisis that already exist can be exploited by modifying the product to address them. Finding a motivating Crisis is how many products that were “before their time” become mainstream. A killer application is often a kind of crisis.

Users (generally unconsciously) weigh the TPPA versus their own Crisis. This sounds obvious, but is pretty fundamental stuff. It means, for example, that If You Build It, They May Well Not Come. For developers of new technology, from eBook readers to programming languages, ask yourself what the motivating crisis is for your users, and whether it exceeds the TPPA. If it does, you need to find different users, create Crisis, or lower TPPA.

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