The secret to success for early adopters

Early adopter(Editor’s note: A version of this post first appeared at DKSheets.com.)

We all enjoy occasional trips along the cutting edge. Spurred by our adrenaline and excitement, these trips can lift moods and egos by suggesting that we’re smarter, faster, better than the masses.

Those who live by this routine are called early adopters, or “trendsetters.” They’re a step removed from innovators but enjoy the cachet of being first at anything.

They constitute a distinct population, whereas most of us prefer hanging with the masses and steering wide of the danger zone, because the comfort zone has lounge chairs and mini refrigerators.

But what if there seems no choice but to join the early adopters?

That was the feeling people had last week before flaws and a resulting wave of bad press beset two high-profile tech arrivals: Windows RT 8.1 and HealthCare.gov.

Both were supposed to address pressing national issues. Both were touted as easy fixes for those issues. And both went public after intense PR campaigns nudging the public toward early adoption.

Now, both are case studies for caution.

Windows RT 8.1, an operating system update released last Thursday, aimed to fix the balky, user-unfriendly Microsoft Windows 8 for tablet PCs. Less than two days later, RT was withdrawn from the free-download section of the Microsoft Store because of reports that it was rendering tablets unresponsive or inoperative.

HealthCare.gov, the official registration site for the Obama administration’s health care expansion, was promoted as an easy-open door to health care for millions of Americans without any. But it nearly drowned from a flood of applicants after going live Oct. 1, then suffered complaints that it was confusing and difficult to use.

Microsoft resumed Windows RT 8.1 downloads Sunday and showed dismayed users how to resurrect their failing tablets. Exactly what went wrong in the first place was not announced.

The federal government meanwhile says it will enlist “experts” to repair HealthCare.gov ― which sounds as if they weren’t already on board ― but time is against them; the deadline for millions of uninsured Americans to register is late March, and the site was supposed to handle much of the load.

Early adopters relish the exclusivity that being first provides. This emotional impulse puts these people out front and keeps them there.

But the impulse works two ways; a segment of the early adopter population simply seeks completion. Members vie for first place not to brag but to escape the crowd. Their comfort zones lack room for more than one person.

I was among them until becoming personal technology editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. For six years, part of my job involved reviewing new devices and software before they went public and wrestling with whatever hardships ensued. The main benefit was that I learned how to fix computers and other gadgets without guidance, because sometimes the equipment was too new to have any.

The secondary benefit was an awareness of what it took to be a successful early adopter: research. Those who take risks at any level and count their success in bunches also prepare for failure to come just as often. They examine what precipitated innovation and see obstacles as challenges. They have read about other people’s mistakes, even interviewed the people who made them. They trade wisdom and warnings, share insights and incentives.

In short, they’re prepared to accept the pain just as much as the pleasure of early adoption.

Close observers of Microsoft understand that Windows has a history of quirkiness. That’s not necessarily a dig against Microsoft, rather an acknowledgement that computer operating systems are complex and difficult to perfect.

Web developers understand that any site meant to guide millions of visitors simultaneously through a maze of information by disparate and perhaps conflicting sources needs testing and re-testing before going live. That’s not necessarily an assault on HealthCare.gov’s creators, rather a reminder that huge sites require a huge amount of testing no matter whose name is on them.

In hindsight, it was smarter to wait on Windows RT 8.1 and hold off jumping into HealthCare.gov. So, next time you’re pressured to be an early adopter, consider looking back before taking the lead.

____________________

David Sheets is a freelance editor, Region 7 director, and past-president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at dksheets@gmail.com, on Twitter at @DKSheets, on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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