Plan for misuse

If you want to be a bad product manager, assume everyone will use your product as directed. You include all of that documentation for a reason — step by step directions, a detailed manual, a Help section. That details how the product is supposed to be used. Blame your customers when you realize they are using your product in different ways. Tell them that they shouldn’t be using the product in a way it was never intended and actively take steps to prevent them from misusing it.

If you want to be a good product manager, assume that people will use your product in ways you never intended and make it easy for them to do so. It is not a question of if people will find new uses for your product, it is a question of what those uses will be. Designing your product to support misuse and new uses can help market your product, increase sales, and reduce costs.

One example of a product that should have been designed better to support misuse is the Nintendo Wii. While the Wii is a fantastic product, one flaw in the design was the strength of the wrist straps for the controllers. There are warnings and alerts in the printed Wii instructions and while using the console itself notifying users to be gentle with the controllers. To play tennis in Wii Sports, they say, you don’t need to actually swing the controller like you would if you were playing real tennis. The wrist straps were designed to very easily support the use that Nintendo recommended. Of course, most people did not read the directions, or read them and ignored them, and used “excessive force,” causing the wrist straps to break.

After initially responding that people were not using the controllers as recommended, they eventually issued a recall and now have to pay for millions of replacement wrist straps. If Nintendo had understood before launching the system how the product would be misused, they could have provided thicker wrist straps, saving them from substantial bad PR and the costs associated with replacing millions of wrist straps. (Of course, all of the PR around the wrist straps breaking may have been good for Nintendo, generating lots of free publicity. The Wii is selling incredibly well despite these problems.)

Another example is the “misuse” of Mentos and Diet Coke. After Fritz Grobe and Stephen Voltz realized that combining Mentos and Diet Coke could set off an almost-volcanic eruption, their video became a huge hit online and spread into the major media. The two companies took two different approaches to the ensuing publicity, as Brand Autopsy explains:

Coke refuted the word-of-mouth (WOM) by saying the experiment didn’t fit with the brand personality of Diet Coke and that they wished people would drink the cola and not experiment with it. Mentos, on the other hand, relished the estimated $10 million dollars in exposure from the viral video that cost the company nothing.

Brand Autopsy goes on to explain how that embracing this misuse has helped Mentos in other marketing endeavors, while Coke has struggled because of their initial reaction.

Customers will always find ways to use your product differently than you anticipated. There are two approaches — actively try to prevent them from doing so, or embrace and assist with their misuse. Of course this rule is not universal — there may be legal or liability issues (think spraypaint, medicines containing pseudoephedrine, and anything in an aerosol container) — but should not be an issue for most products. Product managers who anticipate, plan for, and assist with unintended uses have much to gain and usually little to lose.

2 thoughts on “Plan for misuse

  1. Hi Jeff,

    I agree with you that such an approach is good for FMCG products. However in the case of services, especially ones like telecom misuse can be a revenue drainer.

  2. Rather than misuse, I’d call this kind of use unintended use. Scripting languages, macro recoring, APIs, mashups, and security issues all serve as gateways to unintended use. But, the also provide third-party ecologies. Some of them will be benifical to the vendor, some won’t.

    Benifical use creates a larger market for the product involved. So it is not possible to just say no to unintended use.

    Some non-benifical uses also drive markets for compensating functionality like anti-virus, and other security goods. These markets are in the hands of the vendors of the cores that give rise to the non-benifical, unintended use, so it is hard to call them real markets. Still, many companies live in the space even if the core vendors could eliminate the need for them if they bothered.

    Are you bothered by some of the unintended uses of your products? Can you make the case for mitigating that use?

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