Problems with the idea of “early adopters”

Some thoughts on the idea of “early adopter” and the negative effects it can have on projects. The term originated with the “diffusionist” perspective in technology and innovation studies (Everett Rogers). There is a diagram at the bottom of this page which characterises this. You will recognise the terms instantly, even if you haven’t read Rogers. They have, along with the model, become default assumptions. My argument is that they might have applied in the 1950s, but the world has changed since then and become far more pluralistic and inventive. Unfortunately using these concepts today can have negative consequences for innovation projects, organisations and people.

My advice is to cultivate wider collaborations with a more representative range of people, through a participatory design thinking approach. Don’t get blinded by early success! Design for adaptability and to foster unexpected applications.

Early adopter bias

Early adopters are often self-identified as such, and furthermore their identities are constituted upon their ability to find newness (and news), which means they are more easily engaged with by innovation projects. Even when we are aware of the limitations inherent in working with them, their readiness to engage can unconsciously skew our actions and perceptions. It can make a small but significant difference to the direction of a project.

Inevitability

By definition (in the work of Everett Rogers) the concept of early adopter implies an inevitability to the spread of the innovation to the early and late majority, and the existence of laggards (who can just be ignored as they are always a nuisance). This can encourage a project team to be too relaxed about the real hard work of getting the design right for the majority, or at least a big enough market.

Uni-linearity

The original Rogers model (based on agriculture research) assumed that innovation works in a world in which everyone is already following approximately the same practices and striving for the same ends. Innovations are seen as incremental improvements, based on research and advances in technology. Our experience with tech innovation in recent years has been quite different. Technology (and practices in Platform Capitalism) are encouraging radical diversity in practice and aims. The outcomes of innovation projects are increasingly unpredictable, hence the focus upon developing platforms that enable many creative responses by many people and at the same time allow investment to recoup cost and generate value sustainably over longer periods of time.

Cultural centricity

Design an innovation is seen to belong in the studio and the lab. It is associated with the industrial-scientific complex and its twin the disruptive inventor – located somewhere in silicon valley, and populated by young, white, male, europeans. See Lucy Suchman’s article “Anthropological Relocations and the Limits of Design”.

Overview of diffusionist perspective

Overview of diffusionist perspective