"Has anyone ever told you [that you] have a serious impulse control problem?"
--The Riddler, "Batman Forever"
The classic product marketing advice dispensed by venture capitalists is to make sure that your new new thing addresses an immediate need. Since this is Silicon Valley, the source of such felicitous phrases as "drinking the Kool-Aid" and "eating your own dog food," we have a catchphrase for this advice: Sell aspirin, not vitamins. It's easier to convince customers to part with their money if you're eliminating an acute pain rather than simply enhancing their general health.
The problem with this formula is that it limits your efforts to solving obvious, visible problems. Your customers know when they have a headache; they may not be aware that they're on the verge of coming down with scurvy. It's simple and catchy, but the formula is incomplete.
I've struggled with this question many times, and I'm indebted to Kevin Lynch, the CEO of Presedia, who came up with the perfect alternative to the aspirin/vitamin dichotomy: the humble yet miraculous microwave.
The microwave exemplifies answering an immediate need with a simple and easy-to-use solution. To determine if your product passes the microwave test, simply ask yourself three simple questions:
1. Does it have a clear benefit?
Yes. The microwave cooks your dinner in five minutes instead of an hour. It's a solution that found a problem -- taking an hour to cook dinner wasn't considered a horrendous pain until the microwave was invented.
2. Does it deliver immediate satisfaction?
Yes. You can use the microwave anytime. And besides, who doesn't like to watch a cup, bowl, or plate of food spin around under those electric lights?
3. Is it easy to use?
Yep, just set the timer and push the button. When it's done, it dings to let you know that your food is ready.
Even though the microwave is more of a vitamin than an aspirin, its ability to fill an immediate need and deliver instant gratification makes it a killer app.
Kevin came up with the formula after his previous product management company grew too slowly. "We had a great product, but the reason that it didn't take off as fast as I would have liked is that it didn't deliver immediate payback. Customers would ask what it would do for them, and we'd have to say, When the project is done, you'll have done it more effectively." Without rapid feedback about its effectiveness, it was hard for the product to gain traction.
In contrast, Presedia's Producer product delivers immediate and visible results. It allows companies to turn standard PowerPoint slideshows into complete multimedia presentations. It has a clear benefit (you can have your employees or customers look at a PowerPoint slideshow complete with an audio recording of your presentation) that is immediate (you can see the difference after one presentation), and it's easy to use (just press "Record," and deliver your PowerPoint presentation into a microphone).
I'm happy to report that Kevin and Presedia are doing well; they have a list of blue-chip clients and plan to become profitable before year-end, in large part thanks to applying the microwave test to the business.
Even if your existing products fail the test, you can use the criteria to reshape them. A classic example is how Palm Computing rebounded from its failed Zoomer handheld to go on to create the Palm Pilot.
The original personal digital assistants (PDAs) failed the microwave test on all three counts: the benefits of a handheld computer were unclear, the gratification was delayed by complexity, and ease of use was fatally crippled by feature creep and buggy handwriting recognition.
Palm and its founder, Jeff Hawkins, managed to deliver a 2.0 product, the Palm Pilot, that addressed those issues and passed the test. The Palm Pilot had a clear benefit (an electronic date and address book on steroids), was immediately gratifying (you could synchronize with your existing contact database), and was incredibly simple to use (no boot time, no extra features, no fuss, no muss). And like the microwave, the Palm wound up creating its own immediate need. Just ask the millions of Palm junkies around the world!
If you want your products to become killer apps, first make sure that they can pass the microwave test.
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Chris and his work have been featured in Fortune, the Financial Times, and the New York Times. He earned his MBA from Harvard Business School.