The Early Show vs. The Late Show: Designing for Early Adopters vs. Mainstream Consumers

by Ernesto Humpierres 

The first person that ever told me about BitTorrent was my father; he is a good example of how a previous generation is more tech savvy than the younger one. If you had been there when he first mentioned BitTorrent you would have thought not only did he like the technology, but also that he was selling it. He mentioned all the awesome things you could do with it and how many hours he was spending every night playing with it. But then came the demonstration, he opened something called Azureus (now Vuze) and started talking about seeding, tracking, leeching, share ratio, and other terms. By the end of his presentation I was lost, I had no idea how to use torrents and I really didn’t feel like understanding it anyways (to this day I’ve never used any BitTorrent client). All I really wanted was an uncomplicated Google style search bar.

My behavior in this situation is typical of a mainstream consumer, we really like what technology does, but we want it simple and polished. My father, on the other hand, is the archetype of an early adopter of web technologies. For an early adopter, how cumbersome or unfriendly the technology is less important than what it can let him do. One could argue how mainstream or not torrents are right now, but it’s definitely a technology that is not used by the majority of Internet users.

This difference in user behavior has important implications for the launch of new technology ventures. The first implication is that whenever an entrepreneur has an idea for a new tech solution, he can focus resources on the backend of the new software rather than the frontend, and still have a guaranteed audience (if the idea is relatively good) in the form of the early adopters. The second implication is that any new solution can be tested, improved, and retested many times with the early adopter audience without fear of tarnishing the venture or product’s brand. While early adopters are using the technology and tearing it apart, the mainstream consumers stay away, and will stay away until the technology becomes friendlier. This separation is what Moore calls the chasm in technology innovation. We can assume that it takes a non-trivial effort to grow your user base from an early adopter into a mainstream consumer base.

The advantages of pitching new products solely to the early adopters, thanks to the existence of the chasm, are well aligned with the lean startup philosophy. The chasm allows entrepreneurs to come out with a minimum viable product and do fast iterations that allow pivoting while at the same time limiting downside risk from excess exposure. But this has a downside; the feedback that is collected from the early adopters about the product might not be representative of real product/market fit. This is the case because the needs and opinions of early adopters may differ substantially from those of the mainstream consumers, in which case the shielding provided by the chasm can be detrimental to the software development process. A successful product in the early adopter community can become a total failure when launched into the mainstream. The chasm can be both an opportunity and an obstacle, and it is up to the entrepreneur to make the best use of it.