Challenging convention

The smart guys at Contrast came by the office to talk about their thesis of abandoning conventions. It's the intent of changing what we expect when we use something. Obvious things like the design of a cell phone or subtle things like the design of a door knob. There are terrific benefits to successfully coming up with a solution that invents and leverages a new convention.

I'd argue that there are four things to keep in mind when deciding to challenge a convention. You should incur the costs and hassles of inventing a new way to do things when you can are prepared to deal with all four. The costs can be huge, because a new user convention can slow people down or turn them away. A new financing convention makes it harder to raise money. A new hiring convention causes some people to avoid you…

  1. Notice it. When you make a new way to do something, people are going to notice it. We'll notice it when the volume knob on the radio doesn't work the way all the other ones do, or when the navigation on your website isn't where it 'should' be. Is your creativity about the convention? For example, if you make a stereo that sounds better, it's not clear you should also change the way the volume control works. Noticing the shift in interface doesn't help sell your concept of better sound.
  2. Talk about it. Often, a new convention leads to conversations. People need to teach other about the ideas in your product or service, or complain about it or debate it. Again, no point changing the convention unless what you want is people to talk about your new convention.
  3. Leverage it. Does the success of the new convention in the marketplace actually help you? Sure, you could invent a new kind of handshake or a new pricing structure. But if it catches on, do you win? Is it at the core of your business model? Which leads to the last one…
  4. Protect it. Once the convention catches on, does the new way of doing things reinforce your position in the marketplace and lead to long-term benefits?

Simple example: as a bestselling author, you could upend the convention that books cost money by publishing the first popular book-length ebook. For free. The new convention will be noticed. People will talk about it. They'll share the ebook because, after all, it's free. You can leverage this new convention by gaining attention, new readers, speaking gigs, etc. But can you protect it? Of course not. Now, everyone can make a free ebook, because your act of breaking convention showed them how. But that's okay, because as an innovator, the process was worth it.

Compare this to Kai's Power Tools, which was a series of super powerful image editing software programs that came out a decade ago. The interface had all sorts of new conventions. The problem was the new conventions had nothing to do with editing images, didn't make the software work better, increased the learning curve and ultimately led to failure in the marketplace.