Project WolverineBroadcasting LIVE from the orbiting command centre

Luke Williams has an interesting article on how to sport opportunities for market disruption, over at Fast Company Design.

The first article in the series talks about challenging business cliches, asking questions such as ‘what would happen if we stopped doing something?’.  Challenging business assumptions can often lead to some interesting rewards.  A personal example I could think of was how we got Metlink Wellington to provide a feedback form to cover all user issues, not just bus complaints.   In this way, they moved from hiding behind the call centre to directly addressing user issues – not all of which were complaints.

As Hilary pointed out to me, this is also called Business Process Improvement (BPI), so it would be unfair to attribute this as an invention of Mr Williams.  I also believe that if you take the time to understand the client well enough, and to bring your expertise from other projects and industries, these cliches and assumptions should identify themselves – but you have to make the effort to gain a deep understanding of the client.

So the idea with spotting market disruption opportunities is to move beyond the obvious ‘pain points’, and to start looking for ‘tension points’ – subtle areas that annoy people, but aren’t showstoppers.

Luke Williams suggests four types of tension points to look for:


These quick, efficient-seeming solutions address only the most obvious symptoms of a problem, not the underlying problem itself. Workarounds can actually be dangerous because, when symptoms clear up, people lose any incentive they may have had to deal with the real issues. Over the long term, the problem gets worse and, eventually, someone will have to come up with another workaround.


People’s values play an important role in their motivations. What do they value? What’s important to them? What’s not? Tension is often present when a product, service, or experience is in conflict with the values people find desirable.

In his article for Wired magazine, “The Good-Enough Revolution,” Robert Capps outlines a change in consumer values that he calls the MP3 effect: We now favor flexibility over high fidelity (that is, MP3s over CDs), convenience over features, quick and dirty over slow and polished. Having it here and now is more important than having it perfect. These changes run so deep and wide, they’re actually altering what we mean when we describe a product as “high-quality.”

Look for high-priority and low-priority values. Has there been a change in what consumers’ value in the products and services they buy? Has that change revealed a gap between what consumers want and what’s actually available?


Generally, the more established people’s habits, the higher the inertia, meaning they’re less motivated to consider alternative choices. Many banking customers, for example, say that they dislike their bank and would be delighted to switch. But, the prospect of closing all of their accounts and reopening them somewhere else is so overwhelming that it’s easier to just stay where they are. Wherever customers feel trapped by inertia in a situation they find less than desirable is where you’ll find tension. Keep an eye out for situations in which customers act out of habit. Opportunities can be created to either break or leverage that inertia.

In October 2005, Bank of America identified a key point of inertia–people often round the amount of their financial transactions up to the next dollar. The result of leveraging that inertia is Keep the Change, a program in which the bank rounds up a debit transaction to the nearest dollar and transfers the difference into your savings account. Since its launch, over 700,000 have opened new checking accounts, and 1 million have set up new savings accounts.

Shoulds versus wants

People often struggle with the tension between wants, which are things they crave in the moment, and shoulds, which are the things they know are good for them in the long term. In their column for Fast Company, Dan and Chip Heath make the case that “People need help saving themselves from themselves, and that presents a business opportunity.” They reference the work of Katherine Milkman, a doctoral student at Harvard Business School. Milkman has studied the way customers wrestle with wants and shoulds, and she suggests bundling the two. For example, the Heaths write, “exercising is a should, so what if your gym offered to receive your magazine subscriptions? That way, if you wanted to read the new Vanity Fair (a want), you’d have to drop by the gym. Or, what if Blockbuster offered you a free tub of popcorn (a want) for every documentary (a should) that you rented?” Look for the tension that lies between wants and shoulds. Do your customers need help “saving themselves from themselves”?


For me, ‘values’ and ‘workarounds’ are my two favourites.  If you see people going to efforts to resolve a problem outside of the provided framework, then you have an opportunity to fix a user problem.  At Metlink, people were using the bus complaints form to send in suggestions for the website, which meant they had to fill out bus route fields that had nothing to do with their message.  The solution, which seems obvious but was never a requirement because no one had complimented the website before, was to create a more generic contact form with options for website feedback or bus driver complaints.

The MP3 example is interesting too.  I think that one of the challenges that businesses face, and I see this with developers who aim for perfection, is to assume that their customers (or users) want an absolutely perfect, gold plated version of the product or service, when in reality, people are willing to take something that ‘does the job’, and has some limitations.

Making people buy or use something more complicated than they need is a common tension point.  I think of this everytime I see a TV remote control – I only use about 4 buttons ever, from a selection of 30+.



This entry was posted in Project Wolverine and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.

Browse by Topic