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Barriers to Adoption and How to Uncover Them

Adoption is key to the success of products and services. When clients come to us to evaluate a concept, prototype, or completed product, the evaluation really boils down to one fundamental question: Will people use it?

We think of

adoption as continuous use throughout a product’s expected lifecycle. Thus, adoption is different from purchase behavior, which does not take a product’s actual usage into account. In evaluating products, we emphasize adoption over purchase behavior because adoption tends to lead to other important user behaviors such as customer loyalty, future purchases, and customers’ becoming brand advocates. In our experience, there are four factors that directly affect adoption: perceived value, confidence, accessibility, and trust. By understanding and assessing each of these factors, you can gain insight into how to maximize adoption.

Perceived Value

We consider perceived value to be the central factor in product adoption. When assessing a product’s value, look at whether it provides functionality that would have a positive impact on the life of a consumer. When considering the likelihood of adoption, focus on evaluating a product’s perceived value, because, while a product might actually have a positive impact, if consumers do not perceive and understand that impact, the product is not likely to achieve significant adoption.

Conversely, a product might not actually have a positive impact. However, if customers perceive that it does, the product might achieve a respectable rate of adoption. A great example of this effect is the snake oil panaceas that were popular in the 1800s. These remedies had no demonstrable medical value, but by leveraging the placebo effect, salesmen instilled enough perceived value in customers’ minds that they sold relatively well until the formation of the FDA in 1906.

Value can come in both hedonic and utilitarian forms—that is, a product can be fun or useful or some combination of the two. We must also take perceived value into account when determining a product’s cost. If the cost of a product is out of proportion with its perceived value, customers will deem that it is not worth the cost and won’t purchase it.

Developing perceived value begins with defining and selling a product’s  value proposition. If consumers do not understand a product’s value proposition, whether implicit or explicit, they are extremely unlikely to perceive it as having value. We like to test consumers’ understanding of a product’s value proposition by asking research participants to explain the impressions they’ve gained of its value proposition from a Web site landing page or product advertisement. When participants can correctly articulate a product’s value proposition without coaching, we know the messaging is effective.

When evaluating a product’s perceived value, there are two questions we must address: Is it fun? Is it useful? For both of these questions, the best data we can get is objective data. If a participant has a smile on his face and can’t put the product down, it is a positive sign your product has perceived value. When you are collecting subjective data about a product’s utility, you can ask participants how they would use the product. If participants can quickly list a few applications, the product likely has some perceived value. If participants struggle to think of an answer, there might be some difficulty with perceived value.


Confidence refers to whether consumers believe a product can successfully deliver the value that it proposes. Some products may promise value that consumers would consider extremely difficult or impossible to deliver. This can occur with products that leverage new technology, offer innovative uses for existing technology, or target consumers who don’t have a strong relationship with technology.

We’ve done user research for mobile applications during which participants told us they loved the value proposition, but didn’t think it was possible. We had to inform our clients that the level of confidence people associated with their product’s value proposition was too low and help them examine methods of inspiring consumer confidence. In our experience, low consumer confidence can be difficult to overcome. It can take time on the market and aggressive advertising and PR campaigns to affect confidence on a significant scale. But understanding where you stand in terms of consumer confidence can help you to develop a plan to address this challenge.

It’s not typically difficult to test for low confidence. Research participants usually disclose this immediately, with comments like I don’t think this would work or I don’t see how that would be possible. If you remain in doubt about consumer confidence, an effective method is to ask participants to list the reasons why a product might or might not work. If participants focus on reasons why it wouldn’t work—for example, a social Web site they believe would not catch on—you might have a problem with low confidence that could affect adoption.


A product could potentially provide great value, but be completely irrelevant if it’s inaccessible to consumers. It’s important to ensure consumers can quickly benefit from your product’s value. Accessibility consists of two components: convenience and usability. Ensuring users can quickly and easily make use of your product ensures that it does not lose its value through a poorly designed user interface or delivery model.

Solar panels are an excellent example of a product that has had slow adoption because of its poor accessibility. The amount of work correctly installing and maintaining solar panels requires has significantly slowed their adoption—despite their long-term financial benefits. Usability testing is an important component of product development and provides an excellent measure of accessibility. Make sure to incorporate your delivery model into your usability testing—for example, test software or hardware installation or finding and purchasing an item online or in a store. It is often helpful to include evaluations of perceived value, confidence, and trust when performing usability testing. In this way, you can acquire up-to-date feedback on all of these adoption variables.

An interesting phenomenon regarding accessibility is the extent to which the level of consumers’ need for the value a product provides can affect its degree of adoption. People are highly tolerant of products that provide essential value—such as financial systems like ATMs, which are notoriously inaccessible because they can be difficult to find. To accomplish things they deem to be important, people tend to be willing to suffer through challenges. On the other hand, people tend to be extremely intolerant of inaccessibility when considering products that provide value they view as optional—such as entertainment products. People typically abandon a product with a difficult user interface quickly if they judge the product’s value to be unimportant or easily replaceable.

Regardless of what type of product you are developing, you should always seek to maximize accessibility. In the marketplace, a product that is more accessible to users can easily edge out another product that offers the same essential value, but has poor accessibility.


Finally, trust refers to whether participants and customers feel a product is safe to use. Trust might be a factor in products that involve some physical risk—motorcycles, for instance—or threaten a user’s privacy—such as Web sites like Facebook. It’s important to keep this in mind when designing an interaction model for a new product or service. Consider what you are asking users to do and whether there is anything with which they might feel uncomfortable.

For example, if you are developing a mobile app that requires knowing a user’s current location, it’s important to assess whether users would feel comfortable making that information known. If people are already providing the same information to other apps—in this case, to apps like foursquare—you can safely assume that at least part of your potential user population has become accustomed to providing that information. It’s still important to assess whether the market you are targeting is among those in which people are typically comfortable providing personal information. In addition, you must also determine whether any aspects of your visual design or messaging are hampering trust.

One common mistake we see quite often is overstating a product’s value proposition in its brand message. People have learned to distrust things that sound too good to be true or seem to promise magic solutions to difficult problems. One way to combat this perception is to immediately give users some understanding of how your product or service works. Disclosure goes a long way toward establishing trust, and people tend to trust things they feel they understand.

Make sure you test your messaging with research participants to ensure it provides some understanding of how a product works, as well as what value it provides. The simplest way to do this is to ask participants to read your Web site content, then describe how the product would provide the promised value. If participants can accurately describe how the product works, you have done a good job with your messaging. To further test whether participants trust the product, ask them to use their personal information during testing. If they hesitate, ask them why. They will usually let you know when they are uncomfortable providing personal information.


Adoption is essential to the long-term success of products and brands. When products enjoy high adoption rates, successor products typically follow, building upon the success of their predecessors. Such products tend to become icons like the Nintendo Game Boy or Apple iPod.

To achieve significant adoption, you must ensure your product offers a clear and compelling value proposition, users have confidence your product would actually provide that value, your product’s value is accessible without a great deal of difficulty, and users feel its value is worth any risks its adoption might involve. If you can accurately assess each of these variables, you will be in a good position to determine the right direction to take with your product.

Of course, there are other variables you must also take into account when assessing the likely success of your product—such as its competition—but if you can successfully manage all of these admittedly challenging variables, you’ll give your product its best chance of achieving a high rate of adoption.