Does Your Innovation Pass the Deprivation Test?

Posted on Harvard Business Review: August 26, 2010 9:30 AM

It was 5 pm on August 9. I had just settled down for the three hour journey from Singapore to Manila. The seat next to me was empty, so after surreptitiously checking email one last time before takeoff, I switched my iPhone to airplane mode, and left it face down on the seat.

After I got through customs, it hit me. I hadn't picked my phone back up (I use my U.S.-based BlackBerry when out of Singapore to avoid the ridiculous roaming bills you get with iPhones). Singapore Airlines of course handled the situation beautifully—letting me go back on the plane to look for my phone. But it was gone.

The 18 hours in Singapore without my iPhone made me realize how much I like it. But it's not because of how the iPhone makes or receives calls. It's all the little use occasions, like checking my MLB app on the bus ride (I usually catch the second inning of East Coast baseball games), reading a book on my Kindle app on the subway ride, or finding out how to get to my meeting once I got off the subway in an unfamiliar location.

It would be an exaggeration to say I was lost without the phone, but I could palpably feel its absence. Contrast that to my Flip video camera. I think Flip (now owned by Cisco) makes good, useful products. But when I forgot my camera on a recent trip, I shrugged my shoulders, turned on my phone, and used it to take a more-than-good-enough video.

I've talked before about how you can't really know for sure whether you are working on a good idea until someone actually pays something to purchase your idea. For some ideas, payment isn't enough. You need someone to use your idea, fall in love with your idea, become reliant on your idea, and tell their friends about your idea.

So how do you know that your idea could pass that love/reliance test? Try what companies call "deprivation" tests. Give your new product or service to someone for a couple of weeks. Then take it away. See how the person reacts. If the reaction is indifference, perhaps it's time to return to the drawing board.

I guess Joni Mitchell had it right when she said, "You don't know what you've got till it's gone."

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