Thinking about Techies and Normals 10 years on

It’s been 10 years since Chris Dixon’s post on “Techies and normals” described a few ways products can penetrate markets (in order of preference): Techies-first, Normals-only, and Techies-only.

Enough has changed in the last 10 years that I think it’s time to think about it differently if you’re looking at maximizing the market for a consumer software service.

First, in January 2010 smartphone penetration in the US was 17% and is now over 80%. That adoption followed largely the Techies-first model. With that platform having blazed that trail the technology built on it doesn’t have to do the same, and probably shouldn’t.

Second, a 2016 study explored the distribution of computer skills and found that 70% of the population has computer skills that are at best “poor”. These are the Normals. Techies are pretty much the top 5% of the population with a high level of computer skills. The other 25% squeezed between those two probably belongs more to the Normals for that matter.

Finally, social media has changed the word-of-mouth game. Techies used to dominate the online distribution of word-of-mouth. But since 2010, social media penetration has quickly grown from 40% to 80%.

So what does 80% smartphone penetration, 80% social media penetration, and 70% poor computer skills get you? A huge and accessible market, for products that are designed simply enough.

The danger in the Techies-first approach is design choices made for that early adopter group, representing a small percentage of the population, may not translate well down the scale of computer skills to the much larger market.

Technology democratizes access as effective design means there is less difference between Techies and Normals. And while Techies might be able to handle more complex designs they also are happy using a simpler design if they don’t have to sacrifice functionality. What used to be Normals-only is now effectively “Everyone”.

While I’m sure there are cases for products that should still aim at Techies first, I don’t think Techies-first is the nirvana that it was 10 years ago. And there’s a risk of accidentally getting stuck in the land of Techies-only.

Products need to have an early adopter focus but it’s less useful now in 2020 than it was in 2010 to break this down on the Techies/Normals dimension. Unless your product is specific to Techies I am betting that a larger market awaits making accessible design a concern from the start.

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