The Influence of Specifications

A couple of recent articles dovetail nicely about how specifications, and what those specifications describe, influence how people make buying decisions.

The first is from a study looking at how choices between competing products are made, first based on subjective criteria, and then when specifications are introduced.

In an initial experiment, Christopher Hsee and colleagues asked 112 students to choose between one of two hypothetical cameras: one boasted better resolution, the other having superior vividness. Based on sample photos taken by the two cameras, but without detail on the precise resolution specs, most participants (74 per cent) chose the camera that took more vivid photos. By contrast, when given the resolution specs as well as the sample photos, many more participants chose the camera with higher resolution.

In other words, after knowing the specifications more participants chose the worse performing product based on subjective criteria (print vividness). This explains why we see point-and-shoot cameras with gigantic megapixel counts, even though 4-5 megapixels is about all a small camera (or to be precise, a small sensor) can handle well. The article goes on to describe some other non-tech scenarios where the same situation played out, by the way.

Second is an article by Michael Schrage that discusses the fascinating history of some specifications, such as horsepower, that today we take for granted but which were invented to make it easier to sell new technologies. James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine, also invented the term horsepower that today we use to measure engines of all types.

The term horsepower represented clever rhetorical engineering by Watt and partner Matthew Boulton, whose business had prospered by charging mine owners only one-third of the cost savings achieved by replacing less-efficient Newcomen steam engines with their own.

Seeking to broaden their market, the collaborators thought brewmasters might find value in this new production technology. But 18th-century British breweries used horses — not steam — to power the turning of their mills’ grindstones. So it behooved Boulton and Watt to recalculate their steam engines’ appeal accordingly….

This notion of using innovative metrics — measures that gauge the unique value inherent in an innovation as a means of marketing it — goes well beyond the traditional approach of adding new “features” and “functionality” to attract consumers to products and services. By creating fresh language for the way people calibrate the worth and efficacy of a particular idea, innovative metrics have the potential to be so intrinsically compelling — or at least so creatively marketed — that they become, like horsepower, the overriding identity of a product or brand.

Note that Schrage’s article may have limited free shelf-life, so take a look at it soon.

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