Bulletin 1 March 2019. Amazon Dash and the Art of Self-fulfilling Prophecy

It’s been four long years since Amazon first launched its Dash button… and yes, if you put a comma after ‘launched’, this does work to the tune of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U but that’s not important right now. More relevant is the fact that the button has ceased to be, has shuffled off this mortal coil. It is no more. 

Of course some will say that it was never going to work, even as Amazon cites apparently plausible reasons for its demise. To be frank, neither position is on particularly solid ground. Probably the German ruling earlier this month tipped the balance against the plucky devices (bans are like that), but most likely is that the company took a punt on something, and then decided to focus on other things. 

Like Alexa, for example. Or indeed, any of the thousands of initiatives the company has underway. Fail fast is all about deciding what to cull, so that (like any good gardening project) others might thrive. This “suck it and see” approach is pretty much what defines most of the innovation we see today. 

Strangely however, we still operate using mental models that pretend otherwise. When Dash was launched, it was going to be a definite thing, no ifs or buts. And indeed, two years ago it was still being presented as a success story. This makes sense: nobody’s going to buy something that is just being put out there in case someone might like it. 

No, sir. Any new product has to be presented as the best thing since sliced bread – or indeed, if Indiegogo has anything to do with it, “Sliced Bread — Reinvented”. A fait accompli, a game changer, a paradigm shift. Which is really, really interesting as it plays with our brains. We can either look into whether the new thing really can work, or trust our instincts, or indeed, just go along with it. 

Few people have time to do the former. In Dash’s case, this would involve having a deep knowledge of the fast-moving consumer goods supply chain, right down to what products fitted the “aw, dang, I’ve just run out and I need more in 24 hours” model. My guess is, not many, but that’s me trusting my instincts so what would I know (as James Governor once remarked, “I don’t buy it, so nor should you”).

The third option is what any purveyor of a new product or service hopes: that we all say, yeah, looks legit, let’s have a go. While this may sound glib, our entire industry is constructed on the basis of enticing early adopters, creating a sufficient head of steam such that, when initial goodwill runs out, enough momentum exists to carry the new thing through the rough times before others pick it up.  

The model, characterised by Geoffrey Moore in Crossing the Chasm, has been honed to the point of pseudo-science but interestingly, it relies on people believing it is true whilst ignoring the possibility that, just perhaps, people might not want the thing that is being presented to them. This matters less than whether a successful launch has been achieved. 

I’m at a risk of losing myself on this thread, covering as it does the triumph of belief systems over reality, so I will try to round things off. We, as an industry, have created a dream factory: follow a certain set of steps if you want to change how people think, and therefore get them to adopt your latest innovation. But more than this, we have come to believe that the dream factory is something real. 

We’ve created notions such as Early Adopters — ostensibly the more advanced thinkers, the more agile, people who get where the puck is going to be. At the same time, this group are the magpies, easily distracted lovers of shiny things, who will potentially adopt whether or not the something is actually useful. Particularly, if I may, if it looks good on a CV. 

Back to Dash, I don’t believe it ever had to succeed, no more than any other initiative. There’s no climb-down, no heads will roll, that was never the point. That’s not how success happens and we all know it. Yet, the next time Amazon, or anyone else makes an announcement, it will be presented in such a way that ignores this fact to the point of denial, fooling nobody and everyone, just like last time. 


Smart Shift: Opening the barn doors – open data, commodity code

This section opens with the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and looks at the nature of open data and source. “While neither software nor data asked to be open, they each have reasons to be so,” it says — how interesting it is, to revisit this in the light of more recent privacy abuses. 


Thanks for reading. Jon

Also published on Medium.

Bulletin 1 March 2019. Amazon Dash and the Art of Self-fulfilling Prophecy

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