When it comes to product, service or marketing design, following the bell curve can sometimes lead you astray. This is certainly the case for businesses and brands courting the highly coveted, often elusive consumer category known as early adopters.

Early adopters are typically described as curious, adventurous consumers who buy first, talk fast and spread the word to others about the pros and/or cons of what they have purchased. According to Everett M. Rogers in Diffusion of Innovations, the landmark 1962 textbook that popularized the study of how new ideas and technologies spread through societies, early adopters make up 13.5% of the consumers who will adopt an innovation.


If you’re facing the bell curve, they occupy the initial climb upwards, right after the 2.5% of those people who create an innovation. Following them is the early majority (34%), consumers who make their moves through the market more carefully, but tend to adopt a new product more quickly than most. At the hump of the bell curve is the late majority (34%), consumers who adopt a new product only after the majority has weighed in on its value. Finally, sloping downwards are laggards (16%), the critics, curmudgeons and haters who do their best to resist making the purchase but will eventually do so.

The problem with this bell curve is that it is a mathematical model, one that was never designed to represent the social context of innovation, the diffusion of innovation or early adopters. In looking to crack the code and harness the coveted word-of-mouth that can be generated by the approval of early adopters, designers, brand managers and researchers need to look beyond the numbers. Without a deep understanding of and appreciation for early adopters, they risk operating in a cultural void where assumptions can lead to product ideas that have no relationship to reality.

Those assumptions can be traps, particularly if chasing numbers on a bell curve leads to designing products that target only early adopters and, in the process, destabilizes brand identity or alienates core consumers. I’ve identified potential traps that brands and businesses often make when pursuing early adopters. To learn about them visit Noodleplay.