Hacker|Engineer

The Little Things

I’ve often been puzzled by why some hot new technologies or services take off, and others that are similar (or even better) fizzle. Two that come to mind are Arduino and Dropbox. I’ve been working with PIC microcontrollers for years, and I get my chips for free via Microchip’s sample program. Why, then, would anybody pay $30 each? It’s the same functionality, just packaged differently. And there’s the key. Dropbox? I’ve had secure, remote storage for a long time. But now I have a dead-simple way of doing it, and guess what? I use Dropbox far more. Neither of these technologies are new, but both have taken their markets by storm nonetheless.

As a geek, I tend to miss what makes products appeal to others. For this situation, though, I think I’ve cracked it. Many purchasing decisions, especially for free things, are no longer about price. They’re about barriers. The easier it is for me to start using the tool or service, the more likely I am to buy it. Price factors in, but it’s secondary. Both Arduino and Dropbox are pathetically easy to start using, so why not? Even with all of my PIC expertise, I’d rather just pull out and Arduino and get started. With more and more things clamoring for our attention in this century, anything that reduces the time I have to spend on the task is a godsend.

The little things, then, are what differentiate the great products from the truly exceptional. Companies who figure out the key little things to make their product truly easy to get started with and use will often win in market others say is impossible to enter. Apple has demonstrated an amazing ability to hone in on these differences and exploit them to enter markets like MP3 players and cell phones and completely dominate within a few short years. Their products are often technically inferior, but they’re so much easier for the average user that customers continue to stand in line to buy iPhones even today.

If you’re a consumer-facing business, these little things could make or break your entire venture. With “free” web software, it’s even more critical since there’s no price to try and compete on. I certainly don’t yet have the ability to identify these differences before the fact, but anybody who does is a huge asset to whatever company he/she works for.