Open your product to unlock its full potential (from Wired)

This article was taken from the February 2013 issue of Wired magazine.

Play-Doh was originally invented in the US as a wallpaper cleaner in the 1930s. It wasn’t for another 20 years that the nephew of its inventor Noah McVicker repurposed the putty as clay for pre-schoolers and rebranded it Play-Doh. It remains popular today. No doubt kids had already played with the supposed wall-paper cleaner prior to its relaunch. Which begs the question: what other applications did the manufacturer miss altogether?

Contrast this with another putty blob, Sugru, invented in 2003 by a postgraduate student at The Royal College of Art in London. Sugru is a multipurpose, non-slumping variant of silicone that looks similar to Play-Doh. But celebrates hundreds of creative uses suggested by users including gadget lovers, car enthusiasts, photographers and home improvers, all united in the aim to “hack things better”.

The difference between the businesses is that Sugru is designed for emergence. Its creators never prescribed actual uses, but set up an environment that incentivised users to share their learning and allowed the product’s benefits to become apparent.

As it becomes harder to predict how new products and services will be received by customers, we need to allow our strategies, products, brands and services to emerge based on real developing needs. Social media can help here. For example, in 2006 there was a sudden spike in mentions of the Mentos brand across social channels. The company traced this back to a viral video released by EepyBird in which Mentos sweets were added to bottles of Diet Coke, resulting in a soda explosion (see Wired 01.12).

In the nine months after the first “Mentos Geyser Experiment” video was released, more than 10,000 copycat clips were posted online, and Mentos estimated there had been 215 million media mentions of its product. Smartly, within the first week of the video being uploaded, the makers of Mentos had called Eepybird to offer its support. They had been looking out for emergent uses of their product and acted quickly.

This approach is increasingly common. Linus Torvalds released the first batch of Linux code to the world in 1991. Open source is nothing new — it’s just like a recipe evolving as it’s passed on and amended — but this was one of the first cases of it being empowered by the internet. Torvalds enabled others to take his code and develop it, and that’s exactly what they did.

If Torvalds had been left to work on Linux alone, it wouldn’t be as successful. Other established companies that can’t afford the resources to explore different product variants in parallel are releasing APIs into their products to enable outsiders to do just that.

Partly due to emerging 3D-printing technology, this is becoming true in the physical world too. In fact, we’re starting to see products evolve in parallel on platforms that resemble open-source software even more directly. For example, Thingiverse enables its community to upload its own product designs — others can then develop their own derivatives.

So how can you enable new-use cases to emerge? How can you open up part or all of your product to be developed in parallel? Perhaps you should ask the people who are going to use it…