Mining the Fringe

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.
— William Gibson, Sci-Fi Author and Futurist

Many product breakthroughs start out at the fringes. By exploring how both extreme users and laggards embrace products, services, and technology we can identify the signals that can evolve into trends that grow into norms. When looking to innovate, don't spend all your time with the "average consumer," these folks are just that, average. They are a good baseline for understanding the status quo, but you'll be hard pressed to find "what's next" among these people.

By looking to the fringe, you'll find advanced users pushing the limits of your products, hacking together their own workarounds ready to tell you what they need next. Now we aren't just talking about the stereotypical early adopter "techy" profile - we mean the mom that fills 15 prescriptions a week, the extreme couponer, the fan club president, the message board admin, the survival expert, etc. These passionate and quirky people are often already doing work for your brand on their own time. Reward them with recognition and the opportunity to impact a brand they already love.

At the other end of the spectrum, you'll find people confused, intimidated, and frustrated with your basic features and value proposition. These people are often a slow motion snapshot of the problems many of your other users faced, but were able to overcome. The little inconveniences that irk the average user may be big barriers for this group. Brands like Oxo have changed entire product categories by applying learnings from the fringe. A classic example is their Good Grips line of kitchen tools. A design that was originally intended to make a vegetable peeler easier to grip in arthritic and elderly hands, turned out to be easier for everyone. By learning how to fix the issue at the fringe, you have the chance to make an even more pleasing experience for your base.

Now, not every issue found on the fringe should be blindly adopted for the masses, but as you build and refine your product or service consider how your brand can leverage insights from both of these extremes to better serve the whole.

Below are a few examples of brands meeting some of their users on the fringe. First an IKEA Singapore room makeover featuring a young professional with unique organizational needs. The second is a TED talk by Deborah Adler the designer responsible for Target's award winning ClearRx pill bottle redesign discussing insights gleaned by immersing her self in the world of her users.