Learning From Hackers

(Image credit: Epson)

Do-it-yourself types fly under most corporate radars, or at least they’re mischaracterized as tinkerers, post-end users or, worse, hackers. Epson has demonstrated that they can be a fruitful source for innovation, as long as a company knows what to look for, and how to apply it.

The proof came in its Indonesian market late last decade, where sales staff reported numerous instances when its popular ink jet printers were being hacked by folks who filled large containers with ink, then rigged them to their devices with tubes and triggers. A number of stores across Jakarta had responded to the trend by selling ink at literal “filling stations,” though there was really no way to know what gunk consumers were putting into their machines.

You can imagine the chagrin this must have caused at company HQ.

The phenomenon violated the sacred laws of its printer business, from blowing up Epson’s recurring income stream from replacement cartridges, to risking poor performance quality from its industry-leading (and brand-defining) Micro Piezo print heads. Attaching jugs of ink to printers probably violated its manufacturer’s warranty, too.

Yet its response was to understand the hack, get internal departments that didn’t normally work together to develop a solution and, by 2010, launch an external “big tank” not only to the Indonesian market, but to others that demonstrated the same characteristics regarding ink price sensitivity. Though the initial cost of the new printers was higher than its other models, the lower operating costs/time made them incredibly successful (Epson gets to fill those tanks with its ink, which also ensures that print quality stays true to its brand promise).

Its EcoTank printers are now available around the world.

Epson’s approach to innovating this product is instructive for a few reasons:

First, it demonstrates that innovation is about innovating, not declaring it. Epson will win no awards for its ink tanks, and there’s no sci-fi element to tout (although retrofitting existing tech has been a design element of every sci-fi flick since Blade Runner). The media tend to default to the easiest ways to describe innovation, which usually means specific innovation examples produced by innovation departments tasked with creating those symbols. So examples like this one are regularly undervalued (or simply missed altogether).

Second, it’s less about technology than social adoption. The list of great technology inventions that failed to ever get to market is probably dwarfed by the number of failures of those that did; what’s first or next is only as relevant as its functional promise can claim, and its value declines quickly over time. That’s why most of the innovations celebrated at this years CES (or any other awards ceremony) won’t be remembered a year from now, while innovating its customer engagement will earn profits for Epson for years to come.

Third, it shows that the the DIY community has huge potential for innovation of all sorts. Considering that everyone is a part of it — we all hack our smartphones when we customize them with apps, or come up with our own peculiar routines involving personal care products, not to mention those of us who post our unique hobby concoctions on Pinterest, et al — it just makes sense to approach such uses as market validation of products that may not exist yet, by way of customers who want them.

Here’s a contrasting approach to the same sort of insights:

In late 2010, Microsoft launched Kinect, its motion sensing Xbox game controller. The media loved it, making comparisons to sci-fi movies generally, and claiming it ushered in a new era of gizmo interaction in particular. Within a few months, thriving hacker communities emerged, repurposing the Kinect to control robotic surgery, sound mixing, and home lighting and heating (home automation).  

Fast-forward to 2014, and Microsoft was still attaching Kinect to Windows v2 though some interactivity with Cortana (its Siri-like digital assistant app) to deliver…you guessed it…home automation.

Home automation has been an idea that tech companies have been pushing on customers for over a decade, and represented a small fraction of the hackers’ applications. A vast number of businesses and technologies compete in the controller market (like Nest), and Amazon/Google have defined it via voice-activation.

Only recently, a startup called Hayo introduced a controller that melded the Kinect camera with Alexa-like functionality. That’s at least six years after Kinect debuted.

Could any of those hacker-devised uses yielded market opportunities for Microsoft? We’ll never know, because it doesn’t look to them for those insights.

There’s a lot of value to learning from customers who customize products, whether as hobbyists, DIYers, or outright hackers, and Epson deserves credit for demonstrating that the reality of today is a lot more robust than the fantasies of tomorrow.

Giving customers what they want, demonstrated by what they’ve done, is a far more productive approach to innovation than pushing things on them that they didn’t ask for, and don’t really need.