Revolutionary Measures

The typewriter trap and innovation

English: QWERTY typewriter key layout depicted...

Despite all the talk of innovation, there are plenty of things that people continue to do, even though they are no longer the optimal way to achieve something.

Take typing for example. The QWERTY keyboard dates back to the first, manual typewriters, where the typist hit a key manually pushing the inked letter onto a sheet of paper. The problem with the first typewriter designs was that people could hit the keys faster than the machine would cope with, leading to jams as multiple keys became intertwined. Hence adopting what was essentially a sub-optimal system in terms of speed, in order to make typewriters more efficient overall. Now, in the digital age jamming is no longer a problem, yet everyone still uses a QWERTY keyboard, as that is the de facto standard, irrespective of the fact that it can give you carpal tunnel and repetitive strain injuries.

Driving is another area where tradition dictates what we do. The reason that in England we drive on the left dates back to the days when people rode horses – as the majority of the population was right handed you could hold your reins with your left hand, leaving the other free for your sword. As part of the French Revolution this was reversed in France, and then imposed by Napoleon on the countries he conquered. This means that the majority of countries in the world now drive on the right, despite the fact that accident rates are lower amongst left hand drivers, perhaps due to right eye dominance.

These two examples demonstrate two things:

  • The most logical, sensible solution can’t necessarily overcome the status quo, particularly if it means people have to completely relearn how they operate.
  • People continue to choose a particular course of action, even if the reasons for it are lost in the mists of time. Tradition rules.

Why is this important? I meet a lot of technology startups, and many of them enthusiastically talk about how their invention will completely change a market or sector. Build it and they will come seems to be the mantra. All it takes is for people to see how outmoded and inefficient the current technology is, and switch to their new, unproven, but potentially much better solution. And normally relearn how they operate. And pay a bit more. Often, they then wonder why they fail to get market traction or growth.

Essentially people weren’t sufficiently convinced of the advantages to change what they did. They preferred to be inefficient rather than invest the time to solve a problem. We’ve all done this, spending an extra minute or so doing something on our PC because that’s how we were taught 20 years ago, rather than spending 15 minutes reading the manual and upgrading our knowledge.

This isn’t to say that innovation can’t happen. Look at the Dyson vacuum cleaner – the advantages of changing (no bag, better performance), outweighed the higher cost and learning how it worked. But in that case the benefits were extremely clear, and, most importantly, marketed very well.

So, the lessons for every business, whether a startup or not, are clear. The vast majority of the population generally doesn’t like change, and therefore the benefits of something new have to dramatically outweigh the disadvantages of how things have always been done. Innovation has to be clearly marketed if it is going to take root with the majority, as opposed to early adopters – it won’t just sell itself. It has to fit inside the ecosystem of what people are comfortable with, and provide them with the best overall experience. That’s why VHS beat the technologically superior Betamax technology – it had the content from Hollywood studios and was easier to operate. Often it can be easier to sell a better mousetrap than a completely new method of rodent killing device. Therefore talk to your audience, understand their pain points and make sure you provide a simple, powerful solution – otherwise you are likely to join the ranks of technically superior, but unused products, and all your innovation will be wasted.



March 2, 2016 - Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Chris, the use of QWERTY to slow down typists is now believed to be a myth. See for example this Smithsonian paper from 2013 which suggests the layout owed more to the convenience of morse operators, or this 1999 piece from the Economist referencing research nine years earlier which points out that the wartime tests “proving” that the Dvorak keyboard was more efficient than QWERTY were carried out by … one Lieutenant-Commander August Dvorak, the navy’s top time-and-motion man, and owner of the Dvorak layout patent. Subsequent less biased testing has shown different results.

    Of course your main point is well made.

    Regards Nigel

    Comment by Nigel Thomas | March 2, 2016 | Reply

    • Ah, it does show the power of the story. That said if it was set out to fit the needs of morse operators, it does show how previous thinking is still shaping what we do!

      Comment by Chris Measures | March 2, 2016 | Reply

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