Even if a product was designed to fulfill specific and known user needs, customers don’t always use it the way and for the purpose the product was originally intended.
In many cases, users don’t care or don’t understand how a product works, and once they find a way to use it, they’ll stick to it. Many people, for example, type URLs into the Google search bar instead of the browser’s address bar.
You should, therefore, never take your design for granted and always collect feedback on how your product is actually used to reveal the real user needs and to get ideas of innovation.
Examples of how unorthodox product use can contribute to innovation:
- The original purpose of Twitter was that users could simply post what they were doing. Users, however, soon found out that it makes more sense to share links and ideas. As the developers recognized this, they changed the question ‘What are you doing?’ to ‘What’s happening?’ on the interface. The same thing happened to Facebook where the original status update question has been changed from ‘What are you doing right now?’ to ‘What’s on your mind?’
- SMS messaging was originally developed by mobile operators to notify customers about network issues and nobody predicted that customers would ever use it to send messages to others. People, however, discovered this communication tool for themselves and started texting to each other. The sudden popularity of SMS was such a surprise for the mobile industry that most service providers were unable at first to set up a charging system for texting.
- Kleenex, introduced in 1924, was originally marketed as a disposable face towel to remove make-up. Two years later the manufacturer conducted a research based on customer feedback and found that the majority of the people were using the product as a disposable handkerchief to blow their noses. At that point they started advertising Kleenex as handkerchief, doubling the sales figures.
- Mac Mini was originally introduced by Apple to provide an affordable option to customers to switch to Mac. Although the company also offered Apple TV as a home media center device, many customers bought Mac Minis to use as media centers rather than as desktop computers. The company recognized this, and Mac Mini is now equipped with a HDMI port so that it can be more easily connected to flat screen TVs.
- Reports of web analytics often show that a lot of users enter complete URLs into search engines instead of typing them into the address bar, usually because their cursor is already in a search box. Since websites can be reached this way, too, such users consider it effective. Google acknowledged that such user behavior existed and in Google Chrome they combined search and address bar into Omnibox.
- Twitter hashtags were invented by an individual user who suggested that tweets should contain tags indicated by the # character. Since the concept of the service did not allow any classification, hashtags became popular among users, making the tweets more meaningful and findable.
- The hazard flasher was originally designed so that drivers could indicate emergency situations. In many countries, however, drivers often use the hazard flasher to say thank you to other vehicles for their courtesy, and the switch is nowadays in most models easily accessible on the dashboard while driving.
What makes people use products in unorthodox ways:
- When people have a need or task to fulfill, they automatically try to use the device they have at hand, even if it isn’t suitable for the given task.
- Unorthodox product use takes place more often when users have insufficient information on how to use a given device or the instructions are not easily accessible.
- Once something has worked for a purpose, people will insist on it, even if it implies using it in a wrong way.
- And it is good, because “If every customer is using your product “correctly”, you’ll never learn anything interesting about what to do next.“