You have created a great new product you are really excited about. You have sorted out the business model, figured out how to deliver it to the user, and fixed any manufacturing and cost problems. This will be great!

And then you start selling or do some market testing, and your product doesn’t seem to resonate with your target audience. They don’t seem to get what your product is for or how it works. They don’t appreciate how it will make their lives easier. It’s frustrating!

To succeed, it must be obvious what a product does and how to use it. The product must explain and justify itself in the user’s language, but often explains itself in the inventor’s language. You understand your product in exquisite detail. You have lived the innovation journey. The user has not. Many brilliant products have died because they did not do what the user expected them to do when the user expected it.

Sometimes a product succeeds even though users don’t understand how it works.

The sad case of the domestic thermostat

Engraving of Cornelis DrebbelMy favourite example of a misunderstood product is the domestic thermostat. It is a great tool, but it doesn’t work the way people expect.

The thermostat has been with us for a long time. Around the start of the 17th Century, Cornelis Drebbel invented a mercury thermostat to control a chicken incubator he had developed.

Cornelis was born and brought up in the Netherlands, but from 1605 onwards worked in England in the courts of James I and Charles I. A passionate engineer and inventor, the thermostat was a minor part of his output; including:

  • Explosives, naval mines and torpedoes
  • A textbook on chemistry
  • Creating one of the first practical thermometers, and in the process producing a successful new red dye
  • Developing an automatic lens grinding machine which led to improved telescopes and the first compound microscope
  • Designing clocks and clockwork mechanisms
  • Building the first usable submarine and taking James I for a spin in the Thames
  • Work on incubators, thermostats and air-conditioning

A polymath with interests in many areas where he could exploit new science and technology.

In 300 years we should have absorbed the thermostat into our everyday experience and learned how to use it. Unfortunately, we have not.

After 300 years of development, we still don’t understand thermostats

Usually, when we twist a knob, a tap or a lever, we get more or less of something. More steam, more water, more light, or more volume (if you have an old-fashioned Hi-Fi or television). The thermostat does something different. It creates a set point that is the target of your heating system. It does not control the amount of heat, but the temperature your heating system is aiming at.

A thermostat is part of a feedback loop, and that’s not a familiar concept to consumers. From informal surveys amongst my family and friends, perhaps one in 10 people can explain how a thermostat works.

Users don’t always think like you

For the vast majority, the thermostat is a volume control. It’s obvious! If you are feeling cold, you turn the thermostat up. If you’re feeling hot, you turn the thermostat down, and maybe open a window as well. You can explain as many times as you like that by constantly overriding the system, in effect by becoming the thermostat, you both waste energy and never quite hit the comfortable temperature, it doesn’t make any difference.

Thermostats don’t do what people assume they should. Despite 300 years of development, they still have an appalling interface that confuses the user. Heating controls should work the way people think, not the way engineers and scientists think.

Nest ThermostatPeople don’t set out to waste energy; they aim to be comfortable. The operating controls of our homes should help us get there.

Various businesses have created smart heating controls like the Nest and Hive thermostats. These can turn down the heating when you are out, learn what temperatures you require at different times of day, and try to anticipate your needs. This helps, but at the heart of these systems is the question “what temperature do you want for your setpoint?”.

“Heating controls should work the way people think, not the way engineers and scientists think.”

Poor user attributes can derail any innovation

Cover - Design of Everday Things - Don NormanI have picked out the domestic thermostat as an example of how a bad set of user attributes can persist for hundreds of years. But it happens with all sorts of inventions. Thinking about how the target user will understand your product is a crucial part of innovation. Many products have failed because of a mismatch between how the innovator and the user understand the product.

It is not easy to put yourself into the mind of the user when you understand in great detail what your creation is and how it works. Fortunately, there are great books like Don Norman’s classic “The Design of Everyday Things”. Anybody creating products for use by lots of different people should have a copy of this book on their desk.

Think About the User Not the Technology!
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