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How To Have Users Spread Your Innovation Like Wildfire

As members of design teams, we want as many people as possible to use what we create. This is true whether we are designing a specialized medical device for a specific type of surgery or something more mainstream, like a smartphone or video game console.

We often focus on the importance of ensuring our product is usable. Less often, we discuss other factors related to people accepting and using our products. Users don’t automatically or simultaneously accept even the best ideas and most useful technologies. Acceptance and adoption happens in stages, and in order to stick, it has to happen the right way. Therefore, our design teams need to account for both usability and how the use of a product spreads across users in order for our work to have maximum impact.

Everett Rogers (1931–2004) was a professor of communication and rural sociology at universities in the US. He spent his career researching how ideas and technology spread among individuals and communities. Rogers’ “diffusion of innovations” theory attempts to define and address factors influencing the spread of innovation. Design teams that understand and account for these factors stand a better chance of having their product adopted by the eagerly awaiting masses!

This two-part series of articles will explore the application of the diffusion of innovations to digital design and will provide examples of how design teams can account for these principles. In this part, I will give a basic overview of the theory and then discuss two main components of the theory: the different types of adopters, and the key steps in the process of adoption. The second article1 presents the five characteristics of an innovation that determine its use.

Adopter Types And The Process Of Adoption Link

The way new ideas and technology spread throughout a population is complex. Sometimes it isn’t even good ideas or safe products that end up catching on in great numbers (for example, prohibition2 in the US or the use of asbestos3 in building materials for houses).

Bad Ideas Gone Wild: Prohibition in America4

Bad Ideas Gone Wild: Prohibition in America. (Image source: Wikipedia5) (View large version6)

Rural sociologist Everett Rogers originally published a book in 1962 attempting to describe what he called the diffusion of innovations: the process by which people communicate new ideas and technology. The diffusion of innovations theory provides a way to examine how we might bring a product to market that our users will accept and spread to other users. Key concepts of the theory include the following:

  • Innovations
    These are ideas, processes or technologies that users perceive as being new. An innovation could be brand new (as in the case of Willis Carrier inventing modern air conditioning), a new take on an existing idea (such as Sony’s Playstation video game system when it was originally released) or an expansion of a product into a new market (such as 3-D digital movies being played on home television systems).
  • Adopters
    These are people who adopt the use of an innovation. Rogers defines five types of adopters, which we will discuss more in the section below.
  • Critical mass
    This is the point at which enough members of a population have adopted an innovation for it to become self-sustaining.
  • Process of adoption
    Rogers suggests a five-step process that leads to the adoption (or not) of an idea or product. We will cover these steps in this article.
  • Characteristics of an innovation
    The diffusion of innovations theory identifies six characteristics of an innovation that determine whether an individual or group will adopt it. The second article in this series will cover these characteristics in depth.

Additional key factors that influence diffusion are communication, time and social systems. We will cover these in the second article of this series.

Rogers himself was initially interested in how innovations in farming spread across rural societies. He noted that while some individuals and communities instantly accepted and utilized specially engineered seeds or modernized farming equipment, others were much more resistant to replacing older, less efficient methods. While we may no longer think of a steel plow as modern technology in need of adoption, we can look at yesterday’s plow as today’s smartphone and tomorrow’s smartwatch for evidence of the continued relevance of the theory. In fact, the most recent edition of Rogers’ seminal work discusses how the Internet has changed the game in terms of communicating and facilitating the adoption of innovations. The diffusion of innovations theory is relevant to design whether the product is tangible or digital. Let’s learn more.

Innovation yesterday and tomorrow: John Deere’s steel plow and the Apple Watch7

Innovation yesterday and tomorrow: John Deere’s steel plow and the Apple Watch. (View large version8)

Adopters: Innovators, Laggards And Everyone In Between Link

Rogers’ research identifies five categories of adopters. Ultimately, the category that an adopter is in determines when they will adopt an innovation. Some labels for adopter types are relatively common when design teams talk about who will adopt their products and when. Let’s go through the categories and the particular attributes attached to each category in chronological order of adoption:

Innovators Link

Most of us have heard of or used this term. Innovators are those who are waiting in line for the release of the newest technology. They want to be the first to try out the latest product or idea. This could be an unproven and eventually unsuccessful technology (think Laserdisc home video game systems). These adopters typically have higher disposable income, are current on the science behind an innovation, and have higher status in their social groups. In other words, they’re cool enough to bounce back if they adopt something that doesn’t pan out. Plus, they don’t plan to stick around very long to use the product anyway; something new and shiny is sure to distract them in the near future.

Researchers estimate that about 2.5% of a given population consists of innovators. Although innovators are sometimes trendsetters, they are not whom other adopter categories look to for guidance on what innovations they should consider using. It is common knowledge that innovators will buy things that have little long-term value or use, quickly discarding them for something else. Richard Branson is an innovator. It would be hard for most people to keep up with the purchasing behaviors of Richard Branson, nor would most people want to.

Richard Branson, poster child of innovators and filthy rich — keep up with him if you can.

Richard Branson, poster child of innovators and filthy rich — keep up with him if you can. (Image source: Wikipedia9)

Relevance to your design

Innovators are not the category of adopters to focus on designing for or marketing to if you intend mainstream acceptance of your product. If your product is boutique, groundbreaking or vastly different from the norm, then your design will naturally appeal to these adopters.

If you choose to design with innovators in mind, you will need to clearly distinguish why your product is cutting edge. How will it set users apart from those who aren’t as in the know? Your design will need to reflect the social status enjoyed by innovators: flashy and containing the latest technology.

Your product might not even need to be very useful or usable to appeal to innovators; just something new will draw them in. However, if your product is not useful or usable, it will likely not penetrate beyond this set of users; and your innovators will quickly move on to something new.

Early Adopters Link

Early adopters see the need for an innovation or change. That is, they know a particular issue needs a solution. Researchers suggest that 13.5% of adopters fall into this category, forming a bell-shaped curve. Similar to innovators, they have higher disposable income, are often well educated and have high social status in their groups.

Early adopters are more judicious than innovators in what they decide to adopt. They need to see the usefulness of a product in order to try it. Additionally, they are thought and opinion leaders in their groups. Later groups of adopters look to them to set trends. When later adopters decide to try something out, it is often because early adopters have proven its success.

Relevance to your design team

I recommend focusing the lion’s share of your effort on marketing to and designing for early adopters. You have to focus on this group if you want your innovation to become mainstream among potential users. Innovations that are new solutions to old problems, that are high quality and that have long-term usefulness will appeal to this type of adopter.

First, identify who the early adopters of your innovation are likely to be. You can do this by looking at the market for which you are designing. Who are the people actively looking for a solution to the issue at hand? Who are the thought and opinion leaders? Who makes the purchasing decisions and already uses products similar to yours?

Next, actively involve these users in the creation of your product. You can do this in several ways:

  • Conduct interviews to uncover the attitudes, opinions and behaviors of these users towards to the issue you are designing a solution for and to see how your product might address these attitudes, opinions and behaviors.
  • Invite these users to participate in design sessions for your product, where they would provide ideas on what your product should do to address the issue and how it should do it.
  • Ask them to become beta testers or trial users and to provide feedback on usefulness and usability.

All of the activities above have the two-pronged benefit of informing the creation of your innovation and exposing your product both to potential early adopters and to the early majority adopters who look to them for guidance.

Early Majority Link

These adopters take cues from early adopters. It takes much longer for this group to want to adopt an innovation. They will accept an innovation only once their early adopter peers have vetted it. The early majority has less disposable income and less social influence than early adopters and are, therefore, less willing to take a risk on an innovation. They want proof that an innovation is useful and here to stay. This does not mean you should overlook the early majority. Researchers put 34% of adopters in this category — you will need their buy in if your product is to reach critical mass in the market.

Relevance to your design team

Don’t focus your initial marketing efforts on the early majority if your innovation is truly unique. I would strongly recommend including this type in your usability testing. These potential users will need to find your innovation intuitive and worthy of the investment of time and money that they will spend to adapt their behaviors to use your innovation. Having these potential users provide you with feedback on the usability of the product will enable you to you incorporate their needs into the final design.

Quite a bit of time might pass before your innovation hits early majority adopters. Users from the earlier groups will have had time to explore your innovation and determine its usefulness. Users might not consider your product very innovative by the time it reaches the early majority.

Focus on getting early adopters to provide testimonials and demonstrations of your innovation as a way of marketing to the early majority. The early majority needs to see that the early adopters are saving time or money by using your innovation, or these adopters need to associate your product with the social status they are aspiring to. For example, initially people observed that only doctors and important people used pagers. This caused them to want to own pagers so that others would perceive them as being important (of course, now no one wants a pager).

Late Majority Link

These adopters are skeptical of innovation and will not consider adopting it until they have seen both early and early majority adopters experience success with it. The 34% of adopters who make up the late majority tend to have below-average social status, no influence on their peers and little to no disposable income. These adopters are risk averse and will not voluntarily adopt an innovation until the earlier categories of adopters have proven its use. Years will most likely have passed since the release of the innovation.

Relevance to your design team

By the time your innovation gains traction with the late majority, your team will have implemented feedback from earlier adoption groups, and possibly even iterated on it with an updated design. Your focus should be to provide earlier adopter groups with updates or new uses for your innovation. The technologies or ideas that your innovation originally contained will no longer be cutting edge. It is time to start innovating again. Late majority adopters will play a key role in supporting your bottom line as you move on to future ideas.

If your initial innovation came with a number of bells and whistles, you might want to consider a scaled-down version for late majority adopters, who will not need the extras. Apple was attempting to appeal to the late majority with the iPhone 5C. This scaled-down version of a new-generation iPhone reduced the price barrier that Apple believed prevented some potential late majority adopters from taking the plunge.

Laggards Link

Laggards are the last people to adopt an innovation. They usually don’t until they are forced to change. In general, laggards are risk averse, have low or no disposable income and are not in close contact with innovators or early adopters. Laggards have little to no influence on others in their social groups. Your great-aunt Helen, who refuses to use a mobile phone because people aren’t meant to be always reachable by phone, is a laggard. Laggards are those people who refused to use email until their work mandated that all employees have an account.

Relevance to your design team

You don’t design an innovation for laggards; laggards do not voluntarily adopt innovations. If your product has a great impact on your intended users, then it will be up to them to chip away at the resistance of the laggards. This can be done through policy, such as with the email example above, by taxing or somehow punishing those who refuse to innovate (for example, a higher tax on fuel-inefficient vehicles) or by no longer offering updates or compatibility for your product (for example, not supporting or updating software older than three releases ago).

Identifying who belongs to the different groups of adopters is important. It will have implications for how and where you market your product, as well as who you conduct different types of research with. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to determining who will adopt what. For example, someone who is a laggard with handheld technology might always own the newest sewing machine on the market. They have decided that that is how they will use their limited resources. Your design team will have to identify the users in the various categories as they relate to your product.

Rotary dial pay phones: the laggard's mobile phone of choice10
Rotary dial pay phones: the laggard’s mobile phone of choice. (View large version11)

Following The Steps: The Process Of Adoption Link

We’ve looked at the different characteristics of the adopter groups and how your design team can account for them. Now, let’s look more closely at how adoption of an innovation takes place. Diffusion of innovations researchers have identified five distinct stages of adoption. Understanding and accounting for these stages will ensure that you provide the right information in the right way to potential users. Below, we’ll examine the stages through the lens of individual adopters; however, they apply to groups of adopters as well.

Note that the amount of time spent in any step could last from seconds to years or more, depending on the individual adopter. An innovator who encounters something brand new might instantly want it and move through steps one to three in the same day. An early majority adopter might be aware of your product but need years to see it being used by enough early adopters whose opinions they trust in order to justify moving on to the next step of adoption.

Knowledge Link

The first step involves a potential adopter becoming aware of the existence of an innovation. Something happens to make them aware of the innovation, although they have not yet had an opportunity to seek out more information.

Relevance to your design team

This step has major implications for how you market your innovation. If a tree falls in the forest… you know the rest. How will you make your intended users aware of your innovation? Do they even know there is a problem in need of solving and that your innovation does so? Consider which method(s) of marketing would work best.

If your innovation is an update to an existing product, you have the advantage of marketing to existing users (many of whom might belong to different adopter categories but are now all using your product). You could do any of the following:

  • Email current users about a pending update or new release.
  • Highlight new features of your innovation in articles on your company’s blog and website.
  • Make the update freely available to users.

Be sure to tell users why this update is better than the original or how the innovation addresses critical issues.

Don’t stop at marketing to existing users either. An update or new release provides the opportunity to draw new users to your product. Consider conducting research to identify these potential users and determine how best to introduce them to your product.

If your innovation is first generation, then your challenge is different. You will have to find avenues of raising awareness among a population that is not already accessible. You can do this a number of ways:

  • Advertise in relevant forms of media.
  • Offer free trials to users of similar products.
  • Provide samples to reviewers, asking them to review your innovation on popular websites.
  • Do public demonstrations of your product.

You will need to cultivate curiosity in your innovation, show how your innovation solves an existing problem, and empower potential users to easily find out more information about your innovation.

For example, if your team has created an innovative video game or system, consider a booth at E3, the annual video game expo, to announce its upcoming release.

E3 is known as the go-to event for the latest in video games and systems.12
E3 is known as the go-to event for the latest in video games and systems. (View large version13)

Persuasion Link

Potential users are now aware of the innovation and are actively seeking more information.

Relevance to your design team

Information is critical at this step in the process. Your team should be ready to meet the information-seeking needs of potential users. Conduct research to identify what questions potential adopters will have about your innovation before marketing it to them. Your research should inform your marketing and educational efforts.

Provide information that is accurate and easy to locate. There are numerous ways to provide quick and accurate information to potential adopters:

  • online videos and walkthroughs highlighting the use(s) of your innovation,
  • articles in trade journals or popular publications,
  • links in social media,
  • a new website or expansion of an existing website,
  • presentions at conferences and trade shows relevant to your field,
  • samples or trial periods.

The points above will help you reach a good portion of innovators and early adopters. You will need these adopters to provide testimonials and to model the use of your innovation in order to pique the interest of early majority and subsequent groups of adopters.

Ensure that all of the information you provide is accurate. Creating false expectations is detrimental and could lead to immediate disappointment among users.

Continuing the example above, after announcing your innovative game or system at E3, your team will want to set up a booth with literature about your product. Provide links to places where potential adopters can go to see videos or walkthroughs, to download codes for access to a free trial, and to view advertising material that will help them spread the word.

Decision Link

This is a big moment! Potential adopters will decide whether they will try the innovation. Researchers have found that this is the most personal step in the process; so, unfortunately, there is no guaranteed formula to successfully convince someone to adopt an innovation. Individuals base their decisions partly on the information available, on their time and financial resources, on competing innovations and on their values and beliefs.

Relevance to your design team

The success of your innovation depends on the decisions of potential adopters. Your team needs to have made a clear case during the persuasion step. You are not powerless. You can do much to help potential adopters try your innovation:

  • Provide clear messages about why your innovation is worth trying.
  • Make your innovation easy to find and acquire. Consider how adopters will access your innovation:
    • If it is a tangible product, will it be carried in physical stores, sold online or built by special order?
    • If it is a digital product, will users download it, purchase it in a computer store or acquire it by some other means?
    • If your innovation is an idea, where will potential adopters learn the details of implementation: a book, a webinar, an in-person class or lecture?
    • Have you priced the innovation at a point that potential adopters can afford? Remember that each group of adopters has a different threshold for what they are willing to spend on an innovation.

The answer to these questions will tell you the method and time by which potential adopters should access the innovation.

Implementation Link

This step involves adopters actually using your innovation. Individuals have now found out about it, learned about it, gained access to it, decided to use it and put it to use. Adopters will test and use the product to varying degrees according to its purpose (for example, daily in the case of office equipment, or a few days of the year in the case of a swivel-base Christmas tree stand14).

Relevance to your design team

Congratulations! People are now using your product. This is not the time to relax. Adopters will test everything you have done. All of the research and testing you have conducted will come into play in this step. If your innovation is useful and usable, then it stands a decent chance of being accepted by those who have reached this step of the process.

Confirmation Link

Users will finalize their decision of whether to use the product.

Relevance to your design team

The number of adopters who choose to continue using your product will determine the diffusion of your innovation. Your innovation stands a better chance of being adopted for good if you have addressed the basics covered in the section on adopter types and in the steps outlined in the process of adoption. One very good thing about a number of adopters reaching this step is that they can now start to evangelize your product to others — simply by using your product in public and recommending it to friends and family.

Actively collect data from adopters who continue using your product, as well as from those who choose not to continue. Tease apart what has worked and what has not. Even an innovation that reaches a high level of adoption will have areas that need improvement. Addressing these areas in future iterations will please current and future adopters.

If your innovation has not reached a critical mass, not all is lost. Your design team has an amazing opportunity to learn more about what hasn’t worked and how you can address this in the future — that is, if your team hasn’t become disillusioned. Administer surveys or conduct interviews with those who have tried your product and chosen not to continue. This will help you learn for the next innovation. Perhaps the issue was something simple, like the pricing or poorly functioning technology, but perhaps a competitor’s product does what yours does, only better. Whatever your team finds is sure to help with future projects.

iPhone: A Love Story Link

Let’s walk through the concepts we have covered in this article using the history of something that was once inconceivable in the US but is now a part of our common vernacular and everyday life: the iPhone.

Steve Jobs announced the June 2007 release of the iPhone at the annual MacWorld convention on January 9th. Both the location and timing of this announcement were strategic:

  • The audience at MacWorld and those who follow the announcements made during the convention consist of innovators and early adopters of Apple products.
  • Potential adopters had six months to seek out the information they needed to determine whether to adopt the iPhone. This additional time was even more critical given that AT&T would be the only carrier in the US. Adopters with other carriers would need to plan to switch to AT&T prior to the launch.

Additionally, commercials15 and articles from trade publications and Apple-focused blogs served to persuade adopters during the time between Jobs’ announcement and the iPhone’s launch.

9 January 2007: Steve Jobs announces the iPhone. (Image source: AppleInsider16)

Once the product launched, many users went through the decision, implementation and confirmation stages almost immediately. This was due in part to the ease of use and functional apps immediately available to users.

The initial iPhone was pricey enough that only deeper-pocketed adopters would have been able to justify the expense. Adopters could offset this cost by signing up for a new two-year contract with AT&T. Apple didn’t come up with this strategy by accident: The two-year obligation would reinforce the adopter’s decision, and the financial penalty discouraged them from discontinuing their use of it during the confirmation stage.

As time passed, the early majority realized that the iPhone was here to stay and worth the investment. This is the stage when the late majority was starting to adopt the iPhone and similar products.

Apple’s strategy of frequently updating the iPhone is effective in at least three ways:

  • Constant updates keep innovators happy and keen to upgrade their devices on a regular basis.
  • Early and early majority adopters can jump into the release cycle when they can get the newest model, potentially saving money if it coincides with the time to renew their contract with their mobile carrier.
  • Late majority adopters can save money by purchasing a previous-generation model.

Additionally, Apple’s strategy promotes frequent upgrading of devices. Releasing new models and operating systems requires developers to frequently update their code and optimize their apps to run on the newest software and hardware. Adopters on older models experience fewer benefit of the more innovative apps. This entices users to upgrade more frequently and before they might normally want to in order to keep their hardware running in line with their software.

However, we also see that Apple has begun to reach market saturation. Other similar innovations, such as Samsung’s Galaxy S series of phones, have seized on the markets opened by the iPhone. Increasing competition in a market that was once innovative is a hallmark of widespread diffusion. Apple has attempted to mitigate this by focusing on being innovative in other areas, such as smartwatches and tablets.

One thing that is clear from briefly reviewing Apple and the history of the iPhone is that, whether consciously or not, Apple understands the diffusion of innovations and how to appeal to different adopter types.

Conclusion Link

In this first article on the diffusion of innovations, we’ve examined the characteristics of adopters, as well as the process of adoption. Addressing these factors through marketing and research will go far to increase the likelihood of an innovation being adopted. Not every innovation is worthy of the success of the iPhone, but any company can incorporate some of Apple’s practices to address the diffusion of innovations.

Our next article17 will focus on factors that are much more within your team’s control: the characteristics of successful innovation and the communication surrounding your innovation.

(cc, ml, al)

Footnotes Link

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Victor is a Philadelphia based researcher, author, and speaker. His book Design for the Mind, which covers the application of key psychological principles to design, is available for early access purchase from Manning Publications. Victor frequently writes and speaks on the application of psychology to design.

  1. 1

    I always find it a good idea to run a beta site alongside a current site. The benefits should be obvious and the majority should start to use the beta site as surely it should be better. If not then there’s more work to do.

    Then set a date several months away and turn the old site off at this time, forcing the laggards to switch. It’s easier to do a hard switch on a specific day, but this article reinforces that people adapt to change at different rates.

  2. 2

    Jeffrey Bennett

    January 21, 2015 8:34 pm

    This is hands down, one of the best articles I’ve read in a very long time. Wow! Thank you so much!!

  3. 3

    Victor, this article is fantastic and especially salient for me at the moment. Excellent, excellent job. I can’t wait for part 2.

  4. 4

    Will – your strategy is a good one for ensuring that at certain point users of the current site need to transition to the new one. How do you determine when to throw the switch and kill the old site? Do you monitor traffic to see if it seems most users are converting to the Beta?

    Jeffrey and Nick – thank you both for the comments. I’m glad you found value to the article. Please share with anyone else you think would benefit from it. I really enjoyed writing it. I hope you also enjoy part two.

    • 5

      I would look for the moment when there are no more people adopting the new site from the existing user base. That means that people have made their decisions and only the laggards remain on the old site. At that moment I would set a date to turn off the old site to give them time.

  5. 6

    Really well thought out and organized article on oft undiscussed facet of product design. These archetypes can also be cross referenced with Bartle Test (game behaviors: achievers, explorers, socializers and killers) to truly create a strategic launch.

    Looking forward to the next part of this article.


  6. 7

    After reading your article, I have learned that we not only should focus on the product is usable, also we need to focus on people accepting and using the products. Therefore, there are few things we need to follow. Users don’t automatically or simultaneously accept even the best ideas and most useful technologies. Acceptance and adoption happens in stages, and in order to stick, it has to happen the right way. Therefore, design teams need to account for both usability and how the use of a product spreads across users in order for works to have maximum impact. The way new ideas and technology spread throughout a population is complex. There are three important things we need to understand. They are adopter types, the process of adoption and diffusion of innovations. If did so, sometimes it was not even good ideas or safe products that end up catching on in great numbers. Adopters are people who adopt the use of an innovation, process of adoption is the process of providing the right information in the right way to potential users. The diffusion of innovations provides a way to examine how we might bring a product to market that users will accept and spread to other users. Anyway, thank you for sharing your ideas.


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