Most product opportunities are ephemeral, rising off the whims and fads of the social world. Likewise, most products and services cater to temporary needs, momentary desires, and passing fads. There are certainly a bounty of successful business models that capitalize on such trends (remember Beanie Babies?) and there will be plenty more, but in the long run all are doomed to pass after a few years at best, downcycling more resources and adding yet more volume to the world’s landfills. Ultimately, product solutions that don’t speak to the more fundamental motivations of the human animal will rise and fall on the endocrine tides of psychology.
The technologies that are really transformative and sticky are those that help people adapt better to their world (duct tape being a contemporary classic, environmental concerns aside for the moment). They make it easier to be an effective human. The technologies and solutions that make the biggest mark on the landscape are those that reinforce biological imperatives. The ability to harness fire established several millenia of product iterations designed to deliver heat to the needs of humanity. Agriculture, metal alloys, the printing press, immunizations, the car, the telephone, the computer, and Google all created enduring markets by providing adaptive advantages to the user.
Now in the hyper-connected, hyper-accelerated world of the Digital Age it seems as if we’re caught up in constant revolutions in technology, each Big Thing laying the foundation for The Next Big Thing. The marketplace is driven to spot the upstart that will unseat the previous generation in innovative cycles that are increasingly impacted and shortening. And when they find one, the antibodies flare up to test its mettle. Is it really that innovative? Is it useful? Will it make any money?
Twitter is a prime example of this condition. In 2 short years it’s gone from nothing, to something cute & fun, to presenting a viable challenge to the world’s largest information house, Google. Hitting the hype crescendo lately, everyone is trying to figure out why Twitter is useful and why anybody would use it in the enterprise and how & when they’ll start drawing revenues. The answer to these questions seem plainly obvious when we acknowledge that the fundamental needs of the human animal will always trump all other market factors.
So, how can you spot deep innovation that addresses the core requirements of the human animal? You have to ask these questions:
1) Does it enable you to more effectively address a fundamental biological need? Eat, drink, sleep, mate, procreate, move, establish dominion…
2) Does it enable you to more effectively address a fundamental social need? Communicate, collaborate, contact, support, share, trade…
3) Is it presented in simple & clear terms? Easy to learn, obvious functional use, immediate advantage…
4) Can it easily be integrated as an entrained extension of the user? Simple to use, second-hand adoption, action without thinking…
5) Does it provide the user with a selective advantage in the competitive landscape? Finding and obtaining resources, getting work and pay, making friends and collaborators, finding potential mates…
A truly profound illustration of these principles is the mobile phone. This seemingly simple technology addresses and enables almost every one of the above needs. Data on cellphone uptake shows the sharpest arc of adoption of any device ever. In every case the technology enables humans to be more successful at being humans, particularly in the ability to easily coordinate group efforts towards socioeconomic and biological ends. Clay Shirkey explores this phenomenon in depth in his seminal work Here Comes Everybody.
To turn this eye towards Twitter, we ask “Why does it work?”. Two things are immediately clear: It’s simple to use and it enables much greater communication & coordination. Specifically, it allows one person to quickly communicate with large groups of people while simultaneously drawing information about the landscape from the larger herd. With mobile integration each user becomes a sensor communicating to the tribe, and when in need the user can appeal to the tribe for immediate assistance. In this context, it’s obvious how Twitter would be of value within a secured enterprise, enabling ostensibly coordinated individuals to see more into the operations & needs of their collaborators & their company, while providing the channel to reach out for information and assistance in accomplishing the goals of the business.
Of critical importance, and why Twitter succeeds in ways that other social networks don’t, is that It forces communication to be succinct and to the point. The 140 character limit forces communications into small, digestible chunks, limiting the overhead of use and managing the potential for overload in signal. Passing a link, a question, or a simple plea, “ARRESTED”, brings the core of the communication up front & center rather than buried within paragraphs of narrative padding. Granted, all datastreams require management as the volume of input rises, but the word limit fundamentally rewrites the game of communication – and even language itself – in ways we don’t yet fully realize.
There will obviously be many more successful business models that don’t cater to the evolutionary, socioeconomic, & political needs of the human species, just as there will be many more billions of dollars spent on using energy and creating waste to capitalize on the current desires of the marketplace. I submit that the truly compelling and enduring innovations – the innovations that build long-lasting behavioral & business opportunities – are those that design for the fundamental needs hardwired into every human user on the planet; that design for the immediacy of an interconnected planetary ecology; and that reflect Tim O’Reilly’s call to work on stuff that matters.
Markets are abstractions that merely arise off the imperatives of survival, adaptation, and success, and are often far too volatile & obtuse to be really reliable, much less enable us to be more effective members of a planetary ecology. Designing for deeper principles is imperative not only for salvaging a faltering economy, but for creating sustainable models of innovation and evolutionary adaption that bring our species into a greater degree of harmony and cooperation with the world in which we are intimately embedded. The arc of our times is quickly becoming the necessary realization of these imperatives.