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Book Review: The Change Function
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Book Review: The Change Function by Pip Coburn

The Change Function: Why Some Technologies Take Off while Others Crash and Burn

Written by: Pip Coburn. New York: Portfolio, 2006. 220+xviii pages.
Reviewed by: Laurence P. Feldman

Change Function

It would be helpful if someone came up with an approach that would increase the success rate for new high-technology products. Pip Coburn, relying largely on insights obtained through his involvement with raising venture capital for high-tech firms, claims to have done this in an easy-to-read, breezily written book.

In the introduction, Coburn formulates two premises that form the rationale for writing the book: (1) High-tech product failure rates are unacceptably high (“stink”) largely due to the distrust users have of high technology; and (2) suppliers are more interested in meeting their own needs than those of users of their products. Unfortunately, he produces little real evidence to support his first premise, other than his own opinion. “My own sense is that 90 to 95 percent of new technology products fail to gain anything resembling the originally hoped-for success” (p. 7). Whether they fail as a result of the distrust users have of high technology is open to question. A national survey relating to the usability of high-tech, or programmable, consumer products, excluding computers, found that “one-third agreed with the statement that they find high tech products intimidating–not user friendly” (Feldman, 1995, p. 27).

Coburn states the second premise as though self-interest on the part of the producers of high-tech products is inconsistent with meeting the needs of users of those products. A reliance on market pull alone, though it may be associated with a higher rate of new product acceptance, does not promise the rewards to either producers or users of the more disruptive and higher-risk technology-push products.

The author alleges that high-tech firms have ignored the problems users have had with their products, because they see change as based on two sets of relationships originally postulated by Intel executives Andy Grove and Gordon Moore. According to Coburn, Grove believed that “… the surest way to success is to focus on creating disruptive technologies that produce …‘10 ×’ changes that dramatically alter the status quo” (p. 3). This motivates high-tech firms to introduce products that ignore user needs and, being disruptive, are extremely complex to use. In doing so, these suppliers also rely on Moore's law, which loosely states that over time the cost of production of high-tech products declines radically, resulting in lower prices that help to broaden the market.

Thus, from the viewpoint of high-tech suppliers,

but Coburn believes that

The Change Function=f (user crisis vs. total perceived pain of adoption) (p. 20).

The first of these functions describes what is essentially a technology-push approach to the development of new products, whereas the second is more equated to a market-pull approach.

Coburn uses the word crisis liberally in contexts almost completely divergent from its generally accepted meaning, where need commonly would be understood. He says that high-tech suppliers develop new products in response to an awareness of an internal crisis. This overlooks the fact that many such companies are engaged in a continual search for profitable new products in response to their very dynamic environment, because to rest on their product laurels is likely to be fatal.

Similarly, according to Coburn, users have crises they attempt to resolve by acquiring new products. The problem, as he sees it, is that often the total perceived pain of adoption (TPPA) is excessive relative to the need to resolve such crises, because suppliers are so intent on their own crises that they ignore or overlook those of the users. This results in bloat ware, or products that are too complex and difficult to use, the effect of which is to increase the TPPA.

There is more than a little irony in Coburn's claim that “The Change Function aims to identify the root of crisis by getting in users' heads as to what they really want—as opposed to running insightless focus groups …” (p. 11). In fact, in the chapters in which he reviews high-tech product successes and failures he supplies his own intuitive judgments as to the factors that might have contributed in each instance.

For products that have already generated a market history, his judgments as to what users really want are being made ex post facto, which greatly simplifies things. For example, he believes that it should have been possible for Motorola to anticipate that its $5 billion Iridium venture, a satellite-based, global phone system, would be a failure because the errors made with respect to its conception and financing were so great that failure was virtually preordained.

On the other hand, it does not take much to predict, as Coburn does, that the flat-panel television, a form rather than functional innovation, will be successful, because there was already considerable user experience, either with cathode-ray-tube-based sets or with good analogs in the form of flat-panel computer monitors. Coburn recognizes that Moore's Law is working in this case. It is predicted that in the six months preceding Christmas 2006, the price of such televisions will have declined by 25 percent.

Coburn predicts that radiofrequency identification tags (RFID)—a new identification technology widely used by Wal-Mart for inventory tracking—are doomed to failure, partly based on cost and partly because the system of which RFID is a part has yet to be established. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration decided in June 2006 to push the use of RFID tags by pharmaceutical manufacturers as part of a new drug tracking system. This development suggests that Coburn's verdict on RFID technology diffusion may be premature.

The final three chapters deal with the solution to the high-tech product problem as formulated by the author. Thus, in chapter 10 the author uses the experience of three firms to demonstrate the value of the user-centric new product development approach he espouses. Characteristically, Coburn's initial impression of the user-centricity of one of these companies was influenced by an employee's solicitous inquiry. “Have you had lunch … What would you like? I found this amazing” (p. 163). It is, perhaps, more amazing to take this example of common decency and to attribute it to the overall attitude of the firm toward its customers.

Chapter 11 deals with a series of what amount to screening questions and is probably the most useful. The hypothetical answers to these questions are evaluated in terms of their user-centeredness as expressed in the change function described earlier. Though the questions raised are appropriate for products to which users can relate, for example, cathode-ray-tube-based televisions versus flat-panel ones, there is a virtually complete failure to consider their lack of application to disruptive innovations of the type with which many high-tech firms are concerned.

To some extent, the author nods to this issue in the final chapter when he states, “A shift to a user-centric model might focus on the user to the exclusion of all else, including those once-powerful technologists and engineers … [but] without magicians, nothing happens. The goal is to connect the magicians to the experience of the end users” (p. 195). He does not recognize, however, that end users may have little or no useful experience with which to relate to these breakthrough products. In the late 1970s, how many consumers would have reacted positively to the idea of having a computer in their homes?

In the final chapter, the core “To Dos” of the change function are given as “1) What can be done to increase User Crisis and 2) What can be done to reduce Total Perceived Pain of Adoption?” (p. 195). And he answers with the simplistic conclusion: “Figure out what people really want!” (ibid.). This works well when the need and specifications are relatively clear. For example, in the 1990s, a company developed an amphibious, mine-clearing robot that walked and required 12 motors to drive 12 joints. It was too complex, however, and its performance was so poor as to be impractical. Subsequently, the company solicited input from the soldiers who would use it and developed another prototype, leading to a robot that meets the army's needs. As the chairman of iRobot put it, “Innovation in our field can lead to the most exotic creation. I learned to talk to users and get input before designing” (McGregor, 2006, p. 46).

Undoubtedly, the design of some high-tech products reflects what can be done by engineers, as was done initially in the iRobot case, rather than what should be done to meet market needs. Unfortunately, The Change Function, though recognizing this problem and purporting to present a solution, gives scant attention to the class of products most likely to be its source: those at the frontier of innovation, new to the market, and for which no useful analogies exist.

Early in the book, Coburn, under the heading “Dumb Things Smart People Said,” provides the following example from IBM chair Thomas Watson in 1943: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers” (p. 65)—a prognostication that turned out to be far short of the mark but dumb only in the light of knowledge that Watson could not have had. Withal, Coburn's book is an entertaining read, and if it helps readers to recognize the distinctions made here between high-tech products where his approach may be valid and those to which it does not apply, it will have been worthwhile.

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