I think that there are better, impossible, and unthinkable products. Better products are “15 minutes ahead.” Impossible products relax one or two design key constraints. Unthinkable products restructure the design pattern or paradigm to achieve an unprecedented result.

Better products follow an established trajectory in an industry. They are “15 minutes ahead” and the easiest to sell…for a while. Examples include:

  • Faster computers with larger memory
  • Cars with better gas mileage

Impossible products find a way to relax one or two constraints that designers of better products have taken as fixed. They are harder to sell, not so much because they are hard to understand but difficult to believe, prospects will ask you “What’s the catch?” Examples include:

  • ATM Machines replacing human tellers to dispense cash
  • Ethernet over twisted pair

Unthinkable products are typically developed by someone from outside the target industry or are the result of repurposing a product from another industry. Their developers were not handicapped by the mental roadblocks that come from following established practices and patterns in an industry. They can be extremely difficult to get prospects to understand–much less believe in–as they are almost always incompatible with current practices and infrastructure. But they can create an entirely new category of product. Examples include:

  • IDDQ testing in semiconductors
  • The Reebok Pump shoe
  • Edison’s sound recordings
  • Henry Ford realizing that a meat packing plant’s “disassembly line” could be run backward to assemble a car.

What are you working on?


See also