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Businesses should note how consumers adapt inventions to fit their needs

November 24, 2008
I've been doing a lot of research lately into online shopping carts. A colleague joked that online carts are superior to real ones because people can't abscond with them. I laughed politely. But it turns out he's wrong. They do.

If you've ever bought anything online, chances are you've gone through the familiar sequence. You find something you might like to buy and you click a button labeled "Add to cart." Your item now appears in a separate place on the site, usually called a shopping cart, but sometimes a shopping bag or some other close name. When you're ready to buy, you start at the shopping cart and plod through screen after screen until the site cheerfully thanks you for your order.

Except that most people don't do that. A typical e-commerce site has a cart-abandonment rate of about 75 percent. Companies use the cart abandonment rate as an indicator of sales effectiveness. After all, every abandoned cart represents lost sales. Goose the rate down a bit, and you make a lot more money.

But my research showed that this assumption was wrong. I looked into how visitors used their carts, and it turns out they don't think of carts the same way the e-tailers do. To an e-tailer, the cart is the first step in checkout. But to most visitors, it's a way to consolidate hard-won searches.

Imagine you're looking for something on a site. You finally locate it after much time and a lot of clicking. You don't want to lose it in the swirl of product again, so you put it in the one place you have to keep track of it: the cart. It doesn't mean you really want to buy it; you just don't want to have to find it again. The fact that the helpful shopping cart page has a path to the cashier line is incidental. So, in effect, users have hijacked the shopping cart, using it for a purpose the site owner probably never anticipated.

I have to say that, as frustrating as this may be for the company, it's fascinating to me. I delight in finding examples of what's called "street use," the unorthodox and unanticipated ways people adapt objects to their surroundings. More academic types refer to it as "emergent adaptation." As author William Gibson put it, "The street finds its own use for things."

An example is the lowly wooden telephone pole. Many in my neighborhood have become impromptu bike racks and prominent bulletin boards. Some have multiple layers of nails and staples, like a kind of urban armor. The telephone's original use was supposed to be for sending music into the world's living rooms. Krazy Glue was intended as a field suture. Coca-Cola was first sold as a tonic. The World Wide Web was designed to help academics share papers. Prisoners are famously inventive for turning ordinary items into weapons and tattoo machines. So are insurgents, who have learned, among other things, to adapt cell phones to act as bomb triggers.

An invention called "the Mosquito" emits sounds at high frequencies that adults usually can't hear, but teenagers can; it was conceived as a way to discourage teenage loafing around doorways. Teenagers have adapted it as a cell phone ring tone that can't be detected by an adult teacher in the classroom. Decades ago, the Hollywood studios fought to have VCRs banned. Today, much of their profit is from DVD sales. This spontaneous adaptation is referred to in my business as the "Law of Unintended Consequences."

Some of the simplest devices are the most versatile. Blogger Kevin Kelly (www.kk.org/streetuse/) has dozens of examples of how bicycles are used and modified all over the world. For instance, on his site there's a photograph of a combination bicycle and lawn mower. There are also various electrically operated bicycles that assuredly did not exit the factory that way. Bicycles in the Third World are used for hauling freight, sometimes several hundred pounds of it at a time.

Frustrated users often modify operating instructions, too. I can't count the number of copiers, printers and other devices I've spotted with notes taped to them warning the unwary about unfortunate consequences, or reminding them what buttons to press, and when. The site Uselog (www.uselog.com) has a fine example about a parking garage ticket machine. The users, apparently stung by a klutzy interface, took matters into their own hands and festooned it with notes like "Press here to start" and "Press Grey Box First."

There are even alternative uses for the metal or plastic shopping cart in brickand-mortar stores. Older folks grab one even if they have very few items to put in them, because they're so convenient to lean on while shopping.

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.comor read his blog at usabilitynome.blogspot.com. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net.
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