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Communication Channels and User Types

The first article of this series covered Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations theory and how it can be used to speed the of a new idea, product or . The second article focused on transitioning users to a new interface or platform and the specific usability principles conducive to adoption. In the third and final portion of this series, we return to Rogers’ theory and explore the different means of communication for an innovation, the varying user personality types and how each of these affects the adoption process.

In the previous two articles of this series, we have focused mostly on the innovation itself (the product) in terms of adoption. In those articles, I have primarily used two examples of innovations — a product you are designing and the introduction of a new team within an organization (like ). Thus, this entire paradigm can be used to speed the adoption of a new piece of software, a new product or your new team within an organization.

In this article, we are going to shift the focus from the innovation, itself, to the communication channels and the people who will potentially adopt an innovation. You can have the best innovation, idea or concept the world has ever seen and yet it can still fail to become widespread or to be adopted. Assuming the innovation has all of the qualities I describe in the first two parts of this series, it still must travel through the appropriate communication channels and reach the right subset of users to optimize adoption. In short, if no one knows about it, it is unlikely an innovation will obtain widespread adoption.

Communication channels — the way in which an innovation is spread so users become aware it exists — is fairly simple under Rogers’ theory. The first channel is interpersonal communication — what we normally refer to as word of mouth. This is simply one person telling another and can occur in a simple one-on-one setting, via social media or in a casual group setting. The second form of communication involves mass media — what we normally think of as mass advertising.

As UX teams, we have relatively little control over communication channels. In the case of a product, we usually rely on marketing within our company to handle these affairs. In the case of your team and attempting to spread the benefits of working with or adopting UX, we might have a little more control but generally rely on these channels to organically mature.

In terms of adoption, we won’t spend much time on communication channels in this article. We simply need to know they must exist. An innovation must be communicated in order for it to become adopted. If you are attempting to spread the adoption of UX within an organization, the best thing you can do is simply present your work and advocate for your team’s services. If you truly want to leverage communication channels, however, your best time will be spent targeting the appropriate user types the innovation is intended for.

Rogers was thorough in how he identified the different types of users who would adopt an innovation. Just as he outlined the qualities of an innovation affecting its adoption, he also outlined the qualities of users (or personality types) who would adopt an innovation. These qualities are mapped to personality types and just how quickly a user will adopt a given product or concept.

Rogers identified five types of users — innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards.

  • Innovators are the users who will take a risk on a new idea or concept. They are at the forefront of adoption. They usually have access to the newest technologies and are secure enough in their financial or social status to afford adopting an innovation that could likely fail. Additionally, they are usually influential individuals in terms of where they fall in the social structure.
  • Early Adopters refers to those who also have influence, but are more discerning about an adoption than the innovators. They also share an influential status amongst a community and may use their adoption as a means to bolster their status within a social setting. Of all the groups Rogers identifies, the early adopters are the users who will likely have access to key communication channels in spreading an adoption.
  • The Early Majority will take significantly longer to adopt a given innovation. They have some influence and social standing, but not nearly as much as innovators and early adopters. This group is usually the group who sways the “tipping point” of an innovation to where it begins to become widespread.
  • The Late Majority is the group who has waited a significant amount of time before adopting a product. Think of these users as those who are only adopting because the majority of their social network has already made the switch. They, atypically, are very judicious in accepting the new technology.
  • Laggards are the Luddites of the five groups. They are the users still buying VHS tapes when everyone has already moved on from DVDs to streaming movies across their network. They will obviously be the last to accept and adopt an innovation.

So how does any of this help in terms of speeding an adoption? The adoption of an innovation takes time — another concept Rogers discusses. If you are attempting to shorten the timeline for an adoption to spread, you must leverage the communication channels. The most efficient way to do this is to identify the different types of users and target the innovators and early adopters.

Let’s look at some real-world examples. I noted in the first of this article that I had, many years ago, conducted work in hospital critical care units to design for better hand hygiene — an attempt to reduce hospital-acquired infections. Though one would think good hand hygiene to be an established behavior in hospitals and medicine, it isn’t always. There are a number of reasons for this to include time, poorly designed clinics and competing protocols.

What we were trying to do was to change behavior and create an established behavior pattern with healthcare professionals. We, of course, spent a great deal of time examining the innovation itself and attempting to make hand washing simpler through improved design in clinics and critical care units. There was also great emphasis placed on the relative advantage of hand hygiene — a critical protocol in units where patients’ immune systems are severely compromised.

It wasn’t difficult for us to convince professionals of the importance. Any nurse or doctor will readily admit the importance of good hand hygiene. They would also readily admit it was a behavior they should establish. The difficult part of this was to establish it as a priority above all other priorities they have. Healthcare professionals are overly burdened with administrative aspects of their profession (charting and documenting), communicating with patients and a myriad of other procedures they must conduct with critically ill patients. In many instances, they would just get busy and forget.

What we needed to do was to find users who saw this as a top priority and have them champion a campaign. We had to target users who were influencers or those who had the ability to set agendas. Those professionals were our innovators and early adopters.

Hand hygiene became part of a larger protocol of events that had to take place before a nurse or doctor could enter a patient’s room in a critical care unit. This protocol involved wearing a clean suit (a bunny suit, as they are commonly referred to), donning a face mask, sanitizing their hands before entering and after leaving a room and wearing gloves while in the room. Our innovators and early adopters helped us establish this protocol to reduce hospital-acquired infections through the use of interpersonal communication within hospital cultures. We even had competing hospitals working with one another in this study.

In another example, you may have designed a great product with a clear advantage to the user that is simple to use. But, let’s suppose it is new and requires a change to established behavior. Rather than simply relying on mass media to “spread the word,” you could spend time targeting the innovators and early adopters of your product. This is often why you will see companies offer free or trials to influential users (successful bloggers within a domain, for example). They are attempting to use those influencers to spread an adoption. These users are the ones most likely to adopt a product in the early stages.

This theory would also work for establishing a UX presence within an organization. Perhaps your organization has just hired you and a team of other designers. You are to work with business, product owners and developers to create products with greater usability. How do you speed the adoption of your services? Well, of course, you would want to address the points made in the first part of this series covering the evaluation of the innovation (your team). But, you will also want to find the influencers within your organization — the innovators and early adopters. Who are the influential people who will most likely utilize your team and spread the word or help establish a protocol for embedding UX within the product development cycle? Those are the employees you wish to target.

A quick note on “profiling” employees or users and determining their type: You want to keep in mind that a person who might be an early adopter of one innovation could be a laggard with some other innovation. Humans are messy. You can’t assume a person who is an early adopter will always be an early adopter with every innovation. The factors of an innovation, personalities, social norms and personal preferences can all influence where a person falls in relation to the type of user they may be.

Pulling all of Rogers’ theory together into a cohesive framework involves evaluating:

  • The innovation — factors of the innovation are an important consideration in determining the likelihood of its adoption. If there is no clear advantage or the innovation is difficult to “try out” or users cannot observe the benefits (results), those items must be addressed to optimize a product or innovation for adoption. Part 1 of this series covers this in depth.
  • Usability Principles — in conjunction with evaluating the factors of the innovation, you must also evaluate the usability of the innovation in the case of products. Part 2 of this series covers this aspect.
  • Communication — how will the innovation be communicated to users? That is, how will people come to know about it? You must consider what channels will be used to “advertise” the benefits of an innovation. Ideally, you will want to optimize a strategy for addressing this, but we often have less control or influence over this aspect of the adoption process.
  • People — who are your early adopters, innovators or champions? Who is influential as a user — someone who will help others see the benefits of an innovation? They can help you with communication and in addressing the early and late majority — those users who will not be as quick to adopt an innovation.

Sometimes, simply identifying why an innovation fails to be adopted is the largest problem we face. Rogers’ theory helps us break adoption into consumable chunks so we are better able to address specific aspects of an innovation and the people involved in the adoption of a new product or concept. It’s a framework that allows us to readily determine what course of action we should take when faced with slow uptake.

In UX, we are perpetually building new innovations — new interfaces, new user experiences and new services. All of our work is for naught if we cannot increase the adoption of our services as teams or the innovations we create. This series of articles has been written with the express intent of helpings us understand the adoption process related to what we create and what we do. That is, this framework can aid in speeding the adoption of a UX team within an organization or in speeding the adoption of the products we create. I see those aspects of our work as critical to what we do in our profession.



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