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 min read
August 9, 2017

Ideas derived from the unorthodox ways people use products

Venkata Subramanian

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Prelude: On international Friendship Day my college mate gave me a coffee mug as a gift. For a few weeks it stayed in its box (I don’t drink coffee). One day in class our professor wanted us to paint something, for which I didn’t have a receptacle to hold the water. As a desperate measure, I fetched the coffee mug and turned it into a makeshift water holder. I could wash it out later and use it to drink afterwards, right. It remained my water cup for the next 4 ½ years (much to the dismay of my friend). But she eventually conceded that had I kept it as a drinking cup, I would never have used it. It served a much more functional role as my paintbrush-washing cup. As an e-commerce store, you may have created a product to cater to the very specific and very well-researched needs of your customers, and they still could be using it in very atypical ways. Sometimes they don’t care, other times they don’t know. As long as they can work it in a way useful to them they will continue doing the same. The point is, don’t take your design for granted and don’t be callous about it. That’s why flourishing e-commerce companies use feedback to unearth pain points of the customers and to understand exactly what is going on. They use that data to discover whether they need to modify their design (so patrons can use it the way it was intended), or whether they should take the incorrect usage in their stride and innovate.

FACT: People don’t use your products the way you intended for them to be used.

To explain this point, here are some companies that did the latter – used the unusual utilization of their product to steer it in a new direction – and saw double the engagement and the sales!

Why People Use Products In Curiously Uncommon Ways:

  • To fulfil an immediate need/task
  • Scant knowledge on usage of product
  • Incomprehensible or pedantic usage instructions
  • It serve the purpose once, it can continue to serve the purpose forever

To explain this point, here are some companies that did the latter – used the unusual utilization of their product to steer it in a new direction – and saw double the engagement and the sales!

  • Google found that many users just typed out complete website URLs into the search bar instead of the address bar because that works just fine as well. So they put the two together (address and search bar) and created the Omnibox.
  • SMS was developed for mobile operators to notify customers about network related things. People figured out they would use it to send messages to each other. Boom, a new industry! In fact, the popularity took service providers by surprise, leaving them a little lost as to how they could charge users for it.
  • Remember when people used Twitter to find out where their favourite celebrities were, what they were eating, what they were doing, and how they were doing it? Because Twitter started out as a space where people could post about what they were doing. But users started using it to post links and share ideas. Picking up on this trend (which served to have better potential) they changed their question from ‘what are you doing’ to ‘what’s happening.’
  • The Mac Mini was meant to be the affordable alternative to the Mac. But its users turned it into an alternative for television. Although Apple offered a separate TV, with the Mac Mini turning into a media centre instead of a desktop, the company has now equipped it with an HDMI (High Definition Multi-Media Interface) port that easily connects to flat TV screens.
  • Kleenex entered the market as a disposable face towel to remove make-up. But feedback showed that customers were using it as a disposable handkerchief. They then started marketing it with the slogan ‘Don’t carry a cold in your pocket.’ Today, the name Kleenex has become a genericised trademark for any brand that sells tissues and features in plenty of American television as the go-to product for bawling people.

So you see, it doesn’t always matter when people are using your product the wrong way. Because, in this cut-throat world of online retailing, if they didn’t, there is the biggest possibility that you aren’t going to find something interesting to do next.

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