The Law of Unintended Consequences

April 5, 2017

Unintended consequences are outcomes that are not the ones foreseen and intended by a purposeful action. Or put another way: it was a good idea but it didn’t work. Either there was an unexpected benefit, an unexpected drawback or a perverse result that made everything worse.

People being people, perverse results can often happen as people tend to use situations for their own benefit. A famous example of this happened in India in the colonial era. The British government, concerned about the number of venomous cobra snakes in Delhi, offered a bounty for every dead cobra. This was initially successful as large numbers of snakes were killed for the reward. Eventually, however, enterprising people began to breed cobras for the income. When the government became aware of this, they scrapped the reward program, causing the cobra breeders to set the now-worthless snakes free. As a result, the wild cobra population further increased. The apparent solution for the problem made the situation even worse.

The same problem often happens, at an admittedly smaller scale, when companies introduce innovations or optimisations that have only been validated in internal trials.

Market failures follow. Product concepts that seemed to make so much sense, such as New Coke or Facebook Home crash and burn, because outside of a controlled focus group, no one would touch it.

Customer centered design a.k.a. service design is an effective method to avoid the worst of the unintended consequences. By observing real customers in real situations and then interviewing them for insight provides answers to important “why did you do it that way” questions that conventional customer research just cannot uncover.

Of course, for truly innovative products and services, there is little alternative to just plain old fashioned trial and error. But on the other hand, the method of trial and error can dramatically reduce the cost of testing concepts.

DropBox, for instance, developed its file sharing concept by creating demo films of how the system could work. They posted these films in tech forums and used the feedback they got to improve the concept. Finally, when a concept film drew in 70 thousand first time subscribers, then they knew that they had a viable service.

“In this case, the video was the minimum viable product. It validated Drew’s [the CEOs] leap-of-faith assumption that customers wanted the product he was developing not because they said so in a focus group or because of a hopeful analogy to another business, but because they actually signed up.”

The biggest risk for businesses and organisations (such as government) is creating something no one wants. However, the reluctance to share an idea and test that idea with real customers often leads to isolated in-house development that consumes resources but on contact with real customers fails to deliver on its core promise. Or worse yet, causes a reaction that has an unintended and unimagined consequence.

Consumer sweepstakes distributed through cashiers in supermarkets have led to cashiers themselves hoarding coupons and distributing them to their family in order to collect the benefits.

Research in Australia suggested that the universal helmet law for cyclists reduced injuries by reducing the number of cyclists. As teens considered the helmet to be unfashionable, they simply stopped cycling. The unintended consequence being inactivity, which economically speaking turned out to be a bigger cost than injuries.

A strangely positive unforeseen consequence happened the year a chemistry teacher demonstrated on the “Late Show” that you could create a soda geyser several feet high by dropping Mentos into Diet Coke. The manufacturer of the candy, Perfetti Van Melle, saw sales spike nearly 20 percent.

Oddly enough, all the effort a company might invest in market research, its next great product or marketing idea might come from a customer tinkering with the product. You can call this consumer misuse, but a positively-framed term is “bricolage,” derived from a French word for making creative use of something other than for its intended purpose. Today it is called hacking.

LEGO famously admonished users for hacking the code that ran their Mindstorm robots. So much so that it even threatened prosecution. Fortunately they were smart enough to stop short and instead have started to actively encourage people to do everything and anything to their products. LEGO as a result gains valuable insight and knowledge of how to improve the product, at a much faster pace than just internal development would allow.

To leverage misuse constructively and successfully, companies must understand the reasons why customers are motivated to use their products in new and unexpected ways and the contexts within which such behaviours are likely to emerge. Visualising this, through customer journey or experience maps, or other similar process, companies should also think through how they would then translate it into innovation across product development and marketing.

This was also the case at Facebook, where being able to observe misuse of traditional Facebook profiles within the constrained functional environment of the social network led to innovations such as Facebook “Groups,” “Events” and “Pages.” These innovations came at a crucial period of growth for the company amid competition from other social networks.

Presumably, the omnipresent cup holder in cars came from the observation of actual customers (in this context called driver or passenger) squeezing a bottle or can or paper cup between his or her legs and spilling the drink everywhere.

Service design, the idea of making things work the way people expect them work, can help to guard against unintended consequences, while improving both innovation and marketing.

All it takes is the courage to work with customers from their perspective.