One of the toughest challenges of disruptive innovation is changing customer behavior. An entrepreneur might have a better way to accomplish something; yet he can scream at the top of their lungs, unheard, because user behavior is too entrenched.
Sometimes, one successfully takes on the antiquated user experience head on, tackling it mano a mono. This requires something revolutionary whose design is so intuitive that it “instantly” changes things. Think the iPad, as an example, instantly establishing the tablet as a category, cannibalizing the laptop.
More often, user experience is harder to change head on. Even hearing or seeing that your approach could be better, the mainstream user resists, consistent with Clay Christensen’s observation that the disruptive invention first looks like a toy, harmless to incumbent competitors, unappealing for mainstream customer use because it might have less features or power in its current state, but with a small niche use or customer base that finds it a better value proposition than the current user approach. The new product then improves on the fast lane, while also establishing and proving itself, toppling the walls of entrenchment, such that over time it surpasses the incumbent way of doing things, taking users and leapfrogging incumbent competitors. Think Amazon here. It started as a seller of books and music, getting customers used to the strange notion of buying goods unseen, paying online, and waiting for delivery, appearing at first harmless to anyone other than books and music sellers, and certainly not to the Walmarts and Targets of the world. In a decade and a half, Amazon now rules the retail world, with the former regents playing catch-up. Customers now have changed their user behavior so much that Amazon sells everything A-Z, including things one would have never thought would have been bought online, delivering at times seemingly in a blink of the eye after pressing the “Buy” button.
It’s worth remembering that while the iPad and the Amazon experiences are both valid, the Amazon route is more common — mobile phones, Skype, digital music, open-source operating systems and software, Twitter, and on and on. Just because you cannot win all your potential customer base at the start, or some part of your potential customer base does not immediately see the value, is not the death knell of an idea, as long as you have a niche to start with and a plan to get your product better. Indeed, while there may be no other option other than the second route, it also carries the additional advantage of staying under the radar of the current incumbents.