law of new inventions
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2 October 2005
by Mike Rozak
Imagine that you have an idea for a new invention and
that you want to get people's feedback about the new invention. What will happen?
To make the abstract case more concrete, imagine that it's the
1940s and you figured out how to build a microwave oven. You haven't
built one yet, since the R&D is pretty expensive. However, you get together a focus
group of people and ask them if they think a microwave oven would be a good idea. In order
to get the best responses, you select people that use conventional ovens
for your focus group.
What kind of feedback will the give?
- 50% of the people won't even understand your idea.
Either they won't be paying attention to your description of a microwave oven, or they
paid attention but just don't get it. They will provide sincere feedback, but it will be
clear from their feedback that your presentation of a microwave oven just went over their
heads. Their feedback will include nonsense such as, "That's great, but how long
does it take to pre-heat the oven?"
- 25% of the focus group will understand your idea, but
they won't have spent much time thinking about it. (After all, you have spent
years pondering the invention, while they only have 10 minutes to consider to the idea.)
Their feedback is mostly useless too, "I want it to display the time of day using
a red digital display, not a blue one, and I don't want the numbers to be too large."
- The remainder will understand what a microwave
oven is, and will have spent enough time to provide reasonable feedback... However, most
of the feedback they provide will be reasons why your microwave oven won't work for them,
such as "It won't brown bread," or "I can't use my metal pans
in the oven," or "That would be great, but a microwave oven is
You can spend years trying to convince members
of the focus group (or the general population) that a microwave oven can be built, and
that uses will exist for it. What you'll discover is:
- Some people cannot (or will not) be convinced
no matter how hard you try.
- The more radical your invention, the less likely that
people will believe it's possible.
- Corollary: If most people believe your invention is
possible, it's not a new invention.
- If you do find a loyal band of believers, many/most of
them will give you feedback that, if you listen to it, will cause you to reinvent the
conventional oven, but call it a microwave.
You eventually give up trying to convince people that
microwaves will work, and build a prototype yourself. You present the prototype to your
focus group, only to discover:
- Most inventions are failures. They either
cannot be created or they have so many flaws that people don't want to use them. Assuming
that your newly-invented microwave works...
- New inventions aren't perfected. Conventional
have been perfected over hundreds of years. Inevitably, the first microwave ovens will
have problems too. Not to mention the high price tag attached to any new technology. These
will turn off potential users. Opponents of your invention will point to the flaws and
claim that microwaves will never work.
- Just about all the hypothetical problems that people
pointed out in the first focus group turn out to be true. Microwave ovens won't
brown bread. You can't put metal pans in them. Microwaved meat tastes awful. Etc.
- Most conventional oven users will still be negative
about your microwave oven. The reasons for this are:
- Most people don't like change.
- Microwave ovens can't do everything that conventional
ovens can (such as brown breads). People using conventional ovens often rely on
those features; if the microwave oven doesn't have the feature they won't use it. To this
day, bread is still baked in a conventional oven (or a bread maker).
- You may convert a few conventional-oven users to purchase your
new invention. However, your best bet is to approach new markets, such
- People that eat lots of baked potatoes or corn on the
- People reheating leftovers.
- People that buy prepared food and reheat it in the
microwave. Of course, the prepared food market didn't really take off until
microwaves became popular... a bit of a bootstrap problem.
- People that heat up water to make tea/coffee.
- Popcorn eaters.
- Unfortunately, if you had anticipated the new markets
from the start and included them in your original focus group their
feedback wouldn't be any better... "Why do I need my potato baked in 2
minutes?", "I can boil a cup of water on the oven just as easily",
"I already have a popcorn maker."
Does this sound too cynical?