The Signals Are Talking


“The signals are talking” — both the title of an excellent book on future forecasting by Amy Webb, as well as a good reminder to keep our eyes and ears open to the weak signals indicating disruptive change in the future.

We have written about the power of weak signals on Pascal’s long-running blog The Heretic before (“The Power of Weak Signals”). But weak signals can be misleading — more often than not, they lead us astray; promoting a future which fails to materialize.

At be radical we have developed a framework, which we call The Knowledge Adoption Principle, to help determine two of the main factors which make a weak signal pop: Timing and Market Insights. [¶] Yet, this is not enough…

Let me take you on a trip down memory lane:

The year is 2001. Microsoft just announced, with lots of fanfare, the release of the Microsoft Tablet PC. It is the logical continuation of work the software giant has done since 1992 in the form of Microsoft Windows for Pen Computing. The future clearly is pen-driven. And it is not only Bill Gates who got excited about a keyboard-free computing world, but people like Silicon Valley Uber-VC John Doerr got equally animated talking about this sure-to-be-happen future. And yet — it never happened until Apple, 8 long years later, introduced the iPad.

What went wrong? Why didn’t the weak signal, which was brewing for nearly a decade already, when Microsoft announced the Tablet PC, move on its projected exponential trajectory?

Microsoft (slightly) misread timing (the available hardware at the time was just not powerful enough for a satisfactory pen-based user experience — a few more doublings from Moore’s Law were necessary to get us there). But even more importantly, the crew in Redmond ignored the trifecta of Frequency / Density / Friction.

When looking at a product or service from the perspective of the user/consumer, Frequency describes the amount of times during your day you encounter the problem which your offering aims to solve. Density describes the time/effort spent inside of the problem and Friction is the level of pain the problem causes you. This triple play was popularized by our friend, be radical expert and bestselling book author Chris Yeh.

The Tablet PC was envisioned to be the trusted note-taking device in your business meetings.

And here is where the trouble began for Microsoft: How many times do you find yourself in a meeting (frequency)? How desperately do you need to take notes and how much time do you spend taking notes, annotating spreadsheets with a pen or scribbling over PowerPoints (density)? And how much pain does this cause you, if you had to do this either on paper or with your laptop using keyboard and trackpad/mouse (friction)?

The answer is, of course: Not all that often. Really not all that long. And truthfully — not that much at all. All of which are the reasons why the Tablet PC was doomed to fail.

Now contrast this with the iPad. The intended purpose for the iPad is entertainment — it is, what UX researcher call, a “lean-back device”. Something you use on the sofa to watch a movie, play a game or casually browse the Internet. How often do you do this (frequency)? All the time. The average American consumes media multiple times a day; from watching TV to reading the news to flipping through Facebook updates. How engaged are you doing this (density)? Highly. The average US consumer spent nearly 4 hours in front of the television per day! And lastly — you hardly want to do this on your laptop let alone in front of your desktop PC; thus friction is high.

To summarize: Look out for weak signals, as they point you toward the future. But also consider timing and market insights, as well as the frequency, density and friction of your problem space to make sure your weak signals can gain the steam they need to become a full-fledged (disruptive) trends.

radically yours,

Jane, Mafe, Amber and Pascal

P.S. Interested in exploring how this applies to your organization and your products & services? Find out how be radical can help you. Simply hit reply to this email, tell us a bit about yourself and the opportunity/challenge you face, and we will be in touch.

[¶] We are putting together an interactive online course to explain and teach you the framework and will let you know when it is available.

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