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The 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 theoretically impossible."


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 as:
    • People that eat lots of baked potatoes or corn on the cob.
    • 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?


Copyright 2005 by Mike Rozak. All rights reserved.
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