Sunday, 7 June 2015

Trialability is key to adopting the right innovations

Trialability is the possibility that a client or a user, in general, is given to test a particular product for a finite amount of time in order to test its characteristics and, ultimately, its suitability for a set purpose. Trialability has long been recognised as one of the 5 factors influencing the adoption rate of innovation.
'Mannequin in Venice Shop Window'
by Michael Summers under a CC license

Indeed, trialability is normally available for a wide range of products and services and is not restricted solely to the innovative ones. Depending on the country, common goods, such as clothes, video games, household equipment, electronics, etc. can be tried for a short time and then returned for a refund if they are unsatisfactory. Rules do apply for this process, e.g., goods need to be returned in good condition. I've also heard of gallery owners that give their potential customers the possibility to "try" paintings or other art objects in their premises for a while before finalising their purchase. Such practice is also becoming increasingly common in high-tech, high-price equipment, such as digital cameras, camera lenses, etc.

Manufacturers of industrial equipment typically offer trial leases of their equipment to potential clients, possibly offering a pilot scale piece of equipment or provide access to actual scale equipment within their premises.

Software products also follow that trend with developers offering feature-limited trial versions, full-featured but limited time trial versions or online trial versions.

The benefits of trialability come at a cost, which corresponds to the cost of making and providing a trial version of the real thing together with a reasonable level of support.

But what happens with products that normally require considerable customisation before becoming fit for the client? And since trialability is a sought feature for innovative (and regular) products that, however, comes at a cost, does it actually hinder new small players entering the innovation game?
Neither of those questions have straightforward answers. Those really depend on the kind of product.

In the first case, regarding the trialability of products that require considerable customisation, a potential answer is offering a mini-product version via a trial contract, which would charge real costs, at maximum  For software products, an intermediate solution might be to offer to the client an online test platform, allowing them to set it up and use it as they see fit during the trial period. Again, there may be some cost involved but that should be reasonably small.

An additional problem to the scenario above is how to meet the requirements of the typical public procurement procedures while also taking advantage of the possibility to try a product or a service. Clearly, that applies to public organisations. However, having in mind the contribution of the public to the economy, this is not a case to be quickly dismissed. What exacerbates the problem is that the trialability terms and provisions (and costs) are likely to be different amongst the various providers further complicating the procurement process.

Organisations typically have flexibility to shape procurement procedures to meet their needs and interests. However, streamlining some of the trialability aspects or adding such specific flexibility in the procurement legal framework would facilitate cooperation between providers and public organisations. That would be a welcome risk-reducing step, additional to the current practice that foresees testing a product or service at the full scale, after its purchase and delivery, just before the formal completion of its acquisition.

Similarly, provisions should be made to support the trialability cost for start-up providers. There many different instruments that could be used, including but not limited the various investment law provisions, state aid rules, R&D funding frameworks, etc. Doing so would facilitate approaching a higher number of potential clients on par with already established players.

If we want to see higher innovation uptake rates then testing new products and services should become a simpler, transparent standard procedure, having minimum cost for both the provider and the user. Ideally, it should become mainstream enough to, perhaps, start having (justified, reasonable but discrete) "technology trial" headings in corporate budgets.

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