Is the “15-foot test” a good predictor of an innovation’s success?

Today, FastCompany wrote about the “secret yardstick driving innovation” at tech companies like AOL and Microsoft: the 15-foot test. It’s no longer enough to pack a gadget or web service with tons of features. Instead, companies are seeking to design products that look dramatically different from the competition, even from 15 feet away.  The prime example is AOL’s new email service, Alto.

The inbox of AOL's new email service, Alto

The inbox of AOL’s new email service, Alto

Alto certainly looks different from other email clients — it caught my eye immediately when I first spotted my husband using it. But I would argue that one feature of Alto’s design — the font — may actually hinder adoption. By using all caps, AOL violated one of the basic tenets of readability. (So do the headlines on this blog, but I’m limited by WordPress’s free templates.)

Alto’s features, on the other hand, are hugely appealing. I love the stacks, which separate daily deals, social network notifications, and commercial emails from the regular inbox. I’m particularly partial to the stack that includes all the attachments you’ve received, so you no longer have to search your inbox to find them. Over the holidays, I browsed through the attachment stack to find family photos.

AOL’s smartest move was creating an email client, rather than another new email service. It would have been tough to induce consumers to abandon their Gmail addresses, but Alto can be used to view Gmail, Yahoo, or AOL email accounts. This is a classic strategy when introducing a new innovation to the mass market. The majority of consumers, those that aren’t early adopters, don’t want to transition to something new. Dallas Kachan recently summarized this nicely: “[Most consumers] want evolution, not revolution. They want technology to enhance, not overthrow, established ways of doing business.” Alto does just that.

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