Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.  American philosopher and lecturer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, may or may not have uttered those exact words way back in the nineteenth century, (before mousetraps were in fact mousetraps, incidentally), but the refrain says much about our values and appreciation for honesty, dedication and ingenuity, and our faith that when these attributes combine to realize our most earnest of ambitions, they shall be duly rewarded.  It is an expression of an ideal that reverently nods to the blood and toil of the early settlers, the indomitable spirit and intellect of Edison, and indeed the boundless invention of the digital age.  But never mind the poor mouse, it simply isn’t true.

Yet by challenging this popular quotation’s principle tenet – that technical achievement brings commercial success – and by understanding how it is flawed, we can achieve a greater understanding of the nature of innovation, why it comes into being, and the fundamental duality at its core – the yin-yang of innovation.

The three E’s of customer needs (expressed characteristics, expected characteristics and exciting characteristics) describe the essential requirements of a product as it attempts to reach out to the consumer in a competitive environment – when all characteristics are represented in a product, it has a far greater chance of surviving in the marketplace than when any one of those characteristics is absent.

By way of example, imagine a new rechargeable electric toothbrush. The expressed characteristics of customer needs are those features that the customer knows he or she wants, so in the case of our toothbrush, these might include an agreeable aesthetic, an effective-looking brush head which is described as oscillating at fast speed, and those special bristles that tell you when to replace said brush head so that there is no need to remember how old it is.

The expected characteristics of customer needs, however, are those which are conspicuous by their absence – their presence goes unnoticed, but their omission would be detrimental to sales.  For a new electric toothbrush, expected characteristics might include a charger that is compatible with standard plug sockets, a reliable and durable built-in battery (you don’t want to be having to recharge the thing halfway through cleaning, after all), and a perfectly safe brush head and body that won’t chew up your gums or emit electric shocks.

Finally, the exciting characteristics of customer needs are those special features that set a product apart – they will differentiate you from your competitors and offer the customer improvement on their existing experience.  In the case of a rechargeable electric toothbrush, such characteristics could be pulsation and oscillation of the brush head at greater-than-ever-before speeds, an intelligent cleaning system that reacts automatically to the curvature of your teeth and any slight variations in the pressure that you apply during use, or perhaps smartphone synchronization so to provide general feedback on oral health and make automated dental appointments when considered necessary.

But whatever synchronizing potential our toothbrush offers, failure to synchronize its characteristics with those of the three E’s will drastically impair its potential to clean up commercially.