A better product isn’t always the answer

There have been some epic product battles waged over the years. Think VHS versus Beta, DVDs versus Blu-ray, iOs versus Android, Marvel versus DC comics, 50 versus 60 hertz power in California, and even wide versus narrow railway gauges in Australia.

The better product won in many cases, but not all. That got me wondering: why isn’t having a superior product a guarantee of success?

Better isn’t always enough

There’s been quiet battle playing out in the offices of eye doctors across the world. Which eye chart to use?

The Snellen vision acuity chart was developed in 1862 by Dutch ophthalmologist Herman Snellen and is the chart most widely used by vision specialists. It starts at the top with one large letter, which is then followed by smaller, longer rows of letters that fan out making the shape of a pyramid.

Popular though it is, the Snellen chart has a significant flaw. To pass one row and move to the next, the person being tested has to name the majority of letters correctly. However, the further down the chart you go, the more letters you have to read, which changes the odds.  If you read one line and get 3/5 you would be scored 20/20. If you read that same line and get only 2/5, you’d be scored 20/25.

For this and related reasons, an alternative vision testing chart was devised in Australia in 1976. The LogMAR chart looks like an upside-down pyramid, with five letters on every line. But despite being widely agreed to be more precise and standardised, the LogMAR chart has not been able to topple the entrenched Snellen test. 

Path to success is the path of least resistance

For all its faults, the Snellen chart reigns supreme because it has two significant benefits for its users: size and simplicity.

First, compared with the LogMAR chart, the Snellen chart is much smaller, taking up less wall space. Second and more importantly, it is easy for eye specialists to memorise. This means they can focus on their patient, rather than cross checking their answers on the chart, and be more efficient in their work.

In short, the Snellen chart remains the dominant chart because it’s size and simplicity requires less effort on the part of its users. Habits have formed around the chart’s use that are resistant to change. An alternative chart would not only have to offer better technical results but unpick the entrenched behaviours of its users in order to win the battle. Bing faces much the same challenge when trying to pry people away from Google.

Implications for you

As the eye chart anecdote demonstrates, the battle most businesses face is with status quo. To win new customers, or get them to take new actions, you have to overcome their inertia, and you can only do so by addressing three key behavioural barriers: laziness, confusion and fear.

Laziness, or apathy, is when your customer simply cannot be bothered to expend the effort required to do what you are suggesting; it’s easier to stick with what they know. This is what keeps eye specialists using the Snellen chart.

Confusion is when your customer is interested in what you are suggesting but overwhelmed by making the decision. What’s the right thing to do?

Fear is when your customer is interested in doing what you are suggesting but they are anxious about committing. What will happen if it goes wrong?

As LogMAR advocates have discovered, you can’t win by simply offering a superior product. To displace the incumbent you also need to displace the ingrained behaviours around its use.

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