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  • Writer's pictureSarah Holcomb

Can Thomas Edison's lightbulb help you get your new technology adopted?

For thousands of years, humans used any means necessary to create artificial light. Campfires, candles, and whale oil were all among the solutions to the problem of 'seeing in the dark'.

From 1878 to 1880, Thomas Edison and his team developed at least three thousand different theories for an efficient light bulb to be used in small spaces like a home. His work on the incandescent lamp led the way for electricity to revolutionize how we live and work. Since Edison, thousands of other inventors have moved work on the lightbulb forward including halogen lamps and today's LED bulbs.


As we move into more recent times, tech “solutions” have saturated the market as competition has grown. Many of today’s “solutions” will make you scratch your head. Do I really need to be able to predict windshield wiper failure with an app? Get home deliveries by a drone? Take photos with my sunglasses?


In early stage innovation you might start with an idea, or, an audience/exploration space you’re interested in. Unfortunately, what often gets lost at this stage is understanding customer desirability, and most importantly, the very specific who you are designing for—Who has the most pain? Who will benefit most from my solution?


From my experience I find many companies tend to take a more traditional product development approach—straight into building (to beat out the competition) while spending tons of time and money doing so. The who is never fully considered and if they are, it’s typically the early adopter. Even those that leverage human-centered design in their approach fall into this trap as well. Why?


Let's take a look at the technology adoption curve model:

The challenge with this model is that companies focus their design efforts to serve the early adopter. The problem with this is that it doesn’t necessarily account for an actual customer need or pain-point, at least not an acute one. An early adopter is defined as "a person who starts using a product or technology as soon as it becomes available.” This means there’s a potential companies will fall into the trap of designing for people eager for what’s new, rather than someone that has an actual, dire need. It’s no wonder so many solutions fall down the chasm before reaching the early majority.


If I was to re-work the curve to be used for early-stage innovation work, it would look something like this:

Leveraging this new model, companies would first focus on designing for people with acute pain (oftentimes a niche group). This can be done with a solution in search of a customer need or open empathy to uncover needs. In either case, the person doing the work will need to be amenable to lots of iterations and pivots during this part of the process. It’s often more challenging to approach a project this way, but it is far more rewarding—because you will have taken the necessary steps to seek out people with very specific challenges that need your solution. Other people may benefit as well and you will uncover the breadth of desirability in the early stage as you grow your audience and begin to understand the scaling potential before heading into incubation.


I believe that we should be developing new, breakthrough technologies, and the real test is desirability. I also believe that context plays a key role in design, and while something might not be desirable now, it may have a place in the future. So if you’re trying to solve a problem, focus on the who and their pain very early in their process. It can save you time and money.


Thomas Edison GIF By US National Archives

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