When Good Enough is not Good Enough

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There is a concept held by many engineers and analysts that products competing for market share generally have to be good enough—not perfect; perhaps not even optimal.

This concept does indeed work in some situations, but it does not always work, and even when it does work, it doesn’t last forever.

Perhaps the best-known trade-off between competing products where one was clearly superior is VHS vs. Betamax.

VHS and Betamax had a price delta, but it was small relative to the overall cost. I’d like to share a much more extreme price/performance delta with you.

But first, more skeptics.

In Wired 17.9, Robert Capps writes, “We now favor flexibility over high fidelity, convenience over features, quick and dirty over slow and polished. Having it here and now is more important than having it perfect.” Later in the article, he describes a 6-year long ongoing survey of music quality preferences conducted by a Stanford professor, who found an increasing preference for the lower-quality MP3 format over time.

But never take these examples as the final answer. Cheap doesn’t always win out, and I believe fundamentally that because nothing can ever be perfect, there will always be a competitive advantage to be had by making your product better than others.

But it can’t just be marginally better, and it can’t simply have more features. It must work much better.

More importantly than that, however, is that it must elicit stronger positive emotions in the user than its competitors.

If you can pull off this one-two punch, however, there are large profit margins to be had.

Apple has consistently achieved this with its personal electronics—first the iPod, then the iPhone, and now the iPad.

The key lesson here is that if you achieve this level of magic, you can overcome the dreaded commoditization of a technology, which otherwise destroys profit margins and innovation.

My challenge to you is to raise the bar on how much you want to delight the customer. Higher than you think you can jump. Here’s a good example of the potential payoff:

When I started shaving yesterday morning, I realized that I was down to the ragged edge of my last Gillette Fusion ProGlide Power cartridge. The green strip had been white for a while, and the razer no longer glided smoothly across my face.

I remembered the emergency stash of disposable two-blade razors I had in the drawer, and continued shaving with one. I was seriously considering using up my supply of these cheap things before dropping another yuppie buck on a 4-pack.

But I quickly stopped, switched back to the rough and over-used Gillette blade, and threw the remaining 10 cheapies in the trash.

Why? Let me count the ways:

  1. The shape of the handle combined with its subtly textured rubber overmold felt better.
  2. The heavier weight made it handle better.
  3. The angle of the blades was more comfortable.
  4. The larger surface area and rubber ridges kept the blades better aligned with my skin.

Most importantly, however, this horribly overused $4+ part that had done battle with my rough beard and been put away wet way too many times produced a smoother shave and was easier to control than the brand-new still sharp-as-a-laser $0.50 razor, that is quite adequate for the task.

No matter how little you think your potential market cares about quality over cost, there is always a possibility to create something that will bring them back to caring about better than good-enough.

Author: Peter Sheerin

Peter Sheerin is best known for the decade he spent as the Technical Editor of CADENCE magazine, where he was the acknowledged expert in Computer-Aided Design hardware and software. He has a long-standing passion for improving usability of software, hardware, and everyday objects that is always interwoven in his articles. Peter is available for freelance technical writing and product reviews, and is exploring career opportunities in interaction design. His pet personal project is exploring the best ways to harmonize visual, tactile, and audible symbols for improving the effectiveness of alerting systems.

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