By Fatmanur Erdogan, Hürriyet Daily News
In 1997 a colleague called me towards his desk, saying he wanted to show me something really exciting. “Have you heard of Amazon?” he asked. Of course I had heard of the Amazon, it was one of the longest rivers in the world. But he wasn’t looking at a river, he was looking at a website selling books. We spent about an hour browsing the site, analyzing it and debating the business model. Little did we know that someday it would be a legendary giant of ecommerce.
Recently, I stumbled across an article by User Interface Engineering’s Jared Spool, entitled “The Magic Behind Amazon’s 2.7 Billion Dollar Question”. Spool wrote about how an unintentional innovation on Amazon’s website ended up making billions of dollars for the company.
Spool pointed to the customer reviews section on each product page, noting that in the beginning, the reviews appeared in simple chronological order. However, because of the site’s popularity, they soon became numerous and unwieldy, sometimes extending for dozens or even hundreds of pages.
Amazon needed a way to make the reviews more user-friendly, so it started experimenting. One thing it tried was user voting, where the website users themselves decided which reviews would float to the top of the pile.
This was an elegant solution to the problem. What was an unmanageable mess was now a smooth, self-managing feature that scaled well and worked automatically, whether there was one review or a million.
Spool went further, though, analyzing the impact of that feature and finding that products that made use of the feature sold 20% more than those that didn’t. He concluded that the 20% incremental sales increase meant $2.7 billion per year for Amazon!
Amazon didn’t intentionally create that voting system in order to grow its sales by billions of dollars per year. It stumbled on it simply because it was trying to solve an operational problem.
That is the power of trial-and-error experimentation. It reminds us that even the biggest, best-funded companies don’t have all the answers, and that sometimes the most profound innovations in our businesses come about by accident. It also underlines the importance of remembering you don’t always understand your customers as well as you wish you did, so some of your best results will come from unexpected discoveries.
Every day in our businesses, we strive to do better. Sometimes we think big and profound improvements matter more, so we pass on the small ones, assuming they are not worth our time. But as we see in the Amazon example, sometimes small changes cause big revolutions.
You don’t need big research budgets and fancy experts to find those innovations. Even Albert Einstein did some of his best experimentation outside the lab, simply by using his imagination. Einstein was a big fan of “thought experiments”, otherwise known as “using your imagination”. Did you know that sometimes Einstein rode around the universe on a photon beam of light? Of course he wasn’t doing it for real, he was just doing it in his head. But that kind of imaginative thought experiment helped him probe the physics of the universe.
To do this yourself, visualize a situation, perform some sort of experimental action, and then imagine what happens as a result. Sure, you’ll want to back this up later with more objective testing, but thought experiments are a great place to start when you want to change something but aren’t ready for real-world experiments yet.
Ask yourself provocative questions like, “What if I replaced my call center services with sound recognition tools,” or “what would happen if I provided a lifetime guarantee for all my products,” or even “what would I do if I didn’t have to make any money?”
The small changes that would revolutionize your business, and your life in general, are probably sitting right under your nose at this very moment, but you will never find them if you don’t open yourself to accidental discovery, testing and experimenting on the world around you