Let’s talk about women’s stockings for a moment, okay?

Nylon stockings (including their pantyhose descendents) are one hell of a successful product. They’re ubiquitous just about everywhere besides the tropics. You can buy them in high-end department stores or 7-Eleven. The product launch by DuPont was so successful it got its own national day of commemoration – May 15th. On that date in 1940 while German armored divisions streamed into northern France on one side of the Atlantic, Nylon Day was being born on the other. By offering a cheaper, more practical alternative to silk, nylon hit a grand slam by bringing class to the masses.

Making something once reserved for an elite few available to a broader audience is a tried-and-true formula for success, but it’s not easy. Not every product or service travels well down the ladder, as they say. It’s true in consumer products, and it’s true for tech companies.

When tech companies follow a class-to-the-masses strategy, they run the risk of over-estimating how much the market wants whatever new thing the technology will make available to them. We may set out to democratize data analysis or graphic design or robotics or whatever, but that doesn’t mean the users will magically appear. In economics, it’s understood that supply doesn’t create demand. Sometimes we as technologists and product designers are prone to forgetting this.

Remember, the more you expect people to change their behavior, the larger and more tangible the payoff must be to get traction.

When It Works: Democratizing Functionality

Democratizing functionality is about making a defined capability available to people who (a) easily understand it and (b) don’t have to change their behavior to reap the benefits. If the target audience understands the end state the product delivers, it’s easy to picture the potential benefit of using it. If it’s easy to adopt, full steam ahead.

A few examples of democratizing functionality that come to mind for me:

  • Uber – Democratized chauffeur services (especially early on when it was only black cars)
  • Square –  Democratized accepting credit card payments for small businesses
  • PayPal – Democratized bank transfers for consumers
  • Shopify – Democratized order fulfillment and logistics for small merchants
  • Squarespace – Democratized building a professional-looking website (among other competitors, it should be noted)
  • LegalZoom – Democratized quick access to legal expertise and boilerplate formss

In each case, target users have something new whose benefits they understand and which don’t require them to change their behavior too much. I can get a towncar to my door. I can accept credit cards at my food truck. I can build a website for my photography studio. Clear thing the user gets with a clear benefit.

Where Things Get Tricky: Democratizing Expertise

Democratizing expertise is harder because it usually requires users to change their behavior more significantly to reap benefits which are oten less tangible.

I wrote recently about the so-called democratization of data with this idea in mind. Say you’re designing an amazing new experience that lets business users interrograte enterprise data like they never have. Being a good data analyst takes practice and expertise though. If your target users are too busy doing other stuff already, they need to either stop doing some of those things or work more to use your product. Scary thought, and no level of UX perfection resolves it.

Miniaturizing enterprise-grade products is another place where you tend to see this. I laughed the first time I saw an advertisement for mySAP, SAP’s enterprise resource planning product for small-and-medium-sized businesses (the SAPSMBERP, of course). Having seen up close how incredibly difficult and distracting SAP was to implement at large companies, I could think of nothing more daunting for a small business with few IT resources.

Can these types of products work? Of course. But if your product relies on getting people to do something they haven’t done before, it’ll probably be harder than you think to get traction. Be conservative in your estimates for sales and marketing conversation until you’ve got some data. Talk to your potential users in-depth and figure out what it’ll to drive adoption and sustain engagement

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