2013 Volume 16 Issue 1

Moving from Misuse to Bricolage

Moving from Misuse to Bricolage

Finding Innovation from Customer “Misbehavior”

Innovation can be defined as a process whereby ideas are transformed into new or improved products, services, or processes to solve practical problems and meet needs[1] or to advance, compete, and differentiate organizations in the marketplace.[2] In today’s world of increasing complexity, unpredictability, and rapid pace there is more demand for innovation than corporations are currently able to meet.[3] [4] To compete effectively it is imperative that corporations explore ways to foster new ideas such as increasing their sources through loose ties to diverse networks and leveraging customer “lead user” innovations.[5] [6] [7] [8] [9]


Previously corporations relied mainly upon approaches for innovating on fixed and single-user products and services. Alas, recently they often have been found to be unfit for services and products that encompass multiple technologies and involve rich social interactions.[10] Augmenting the established ways of relying on focus groups and product managers with the new abilities to observe, monitor, and learn from customers’ use of products and services, and most importantly, innovating through what a company may initially view as customer “misuse,” can be a path to accelerating innovation.


Customer Driven Marketing

In 1999 chemistry teacher Lee Marek demonstrated on the “Late Show” with David Letterman that you could create a stream of soda several feet high by dropping Mentos mints into Diet Coke. On June 3, 2006, a video showing two men clad in white lab coats and goggles dropping 523 Mentos mints into 101 bottles of Diet Coke was uploaded to YouTube. This video quickly went viral across the Internet resulting in hundreds of millions of views by tens of millions of users. Perfetti Van Melle, the makers of Mentos mints and Coca-Cola, the makers of Diet Coke, were quick to act upon this product misuse by signing Mr. Grobe and Mr. Voltz, the individuals in the video, to production contracts. In October 2006 the pair posted a second three-minute Diet Coke and Mentos video, entitled “Experiment 214,” which was produced under the sponsorship agreements. Mentos sales in the United States climbed nearly 20 percent in 2006, their highest annual increase ever. Coca-Cola was so enthusiastic about the misuse of its product that it ran “Experiment 214” for more than three months on its home page and promoted a competition to encourage people to submit their own videos.

This story and many others like it demonstrate that companies can take advantage of customers misusing their products by creating marketing campaigns featuring them. But a deeper question is whether such misuse will eventually lead to improved product innovation? The authors argue below that it can and the potential is huge. One reason for this avoidance is the term “misuse” of a product. This word paints a vivid portrait of perceived and expected customer behaviors that totally fall outside of how the company originally intended the product or service to be used. It is an unfortunate and pejorative term that tends to shape the minds and actions of organizations as they attempt to reduce the uncertainty of new product development by providing a fixed structure and by relying on existing processes and filtering emerging and deviating market information (such as new and innovative usage of the product) to the simplest level possible.[11] A more appropriate term with less of a pejorative connation and which creates fewer mental barriers to adopting customer innovation is “bricolage,” from the French word meaning to creatively make use of an item at hand for other than its intended purpose.


Customer Driven Innovation

From its earliest days, eBay allowed sellers to put nearly anything into the item description field—the area allowing free form description of an item for sale. The original intent of this field was to allow sellers of items to customize the fonts and layouts of the item description in an attempt to differentiate their products. Because eBay at the time did not offer a service to host pictures, sellers could also upload links to images of their products to display their wares. An unintended side effect is that in allowing access to post HTML, sellers could also insert JavaScript code that allowed them to create functionality such as homemade page counters for the number of times an item was viewed, links to other items for sale in an effort to cross merchandise their wares, etc. It would have been easy for eBay to fall into the trap of seeing these user actions as something outside their original intended use of the product—misuse. However, instead of classifying it as misuse, the eBay business team paid close attention to these customized descriptions and rapidly followed the customer new bricolage of the field by offering similar functionality within the official eBay site. These enhancements were offered as either free or premium (paid) services, allowing less technically savvy sellers to use them in promoting their wares. Several successful new features were invented with this strategy including enhanced automobile listings containing features to identify vehicle attributes through VIN recognition and new clothing attributes such as size and type of apparel. This all happened very quickly through keen observation of how customers innovated with the item description field. Over time this approach significantly boosted the innovation processes and extended the core service offerings. EBay fought the tendency to limit market intelligence to reduce uncertainty and instead embraced the greater level of insight created by innovating users of their products to help drive new product innovation.

Contrast this approach with eBay’s actions regarding how customers paid for goods in its marketplace. EBay purchased online payment company Billpoint in 1998 and launched a joint venture with Wells Fargo in the spring of 2000 to create an integrated payment experience for products purchased from sellers on eBay. Customers however, had already bricolaged their own payment service by embedding PayPal as a way to pay within the aforementioned item description field using HTML links and JavaScript. The product now had a way to pay for goods built into it, so why would anyone choose an alternate method that took more time to implement than just enabling payment during the item listing process? Try as it might to incentivize users to adopt its own product functionality, eBay simply was not successful and ultimately ended up purchasing PayPal for $1.5 billion in 2002 after investing millions of dollars into its own payment functionality.

To reach the pinnacle of success, firms need to build great products. To do so successfully, firms must understand the reasons why customers are motivated to use their products in new and unexpected ways and the contexts within which such behaviors are likely to emerge. To that end, firms must ask:

  1. Why do clients initially use the product in intended ways?
  2. How might clients misuse the product in new and previously unexpected ways?
  3. How can we identify occasions of such misuse and learn from them?

Ultimately organizations must break the misguided notion that use of their products in unexpected ways is misuse and embrace bricolage usage as an innovation to help guide future product growth.


Previous Strategies

The factors of perceived ease of use and perceived usefulness as technological enablers for encouraging adoption by users have been well vetted in academic and practitioner research. Originally introduced in 1989 by Davis in his MIS Quarterly paper Perceived Usefulness, Perceived Ease of Use, and User Acceptance of Information Technology[12] these are now considered fundamental factors for why users choose new technology. The original study was directed at single user information technologies found in work environments such as spreadsheets or order entry systems. In the intervening years many studies have extended these factors demonstrating their applicability to consumer technologies as well as services.[13] However, today’s services are often complex multi-user, multiple technology innovations that require a broader explanation for adoption.


Leveraging the Customer

In a study involving the phenomenological interviewing of users and employees of two social networking sites (SNS)—Facebook and Friendster—an alternative explanation for successful service innovation was revealed. Users on the SNS drove innovation, co-produced the service, by using the site’s functionality in ways that it was not originally intended.[14] Therefore, it was important to watch how customers misused the service and iterate quickly toward that functionality in order to achieve sustained growth. Other research has demonstrated that customers can bring about more creative and useful product innovations as compared to professionals, but their suggestions were much harder to produce.[15] However, because bricolage created by customers on SNS is constrained by the existing functionality their ideas are more practical for implementation.

There are similarities between Facebook and Friendster in terms of service offerings and time to market, yet stark differences in results in terms of user adoption and valuation that are ideal for comparison of their approaches. Although the analysis of Facebook’s service evolution may appear highly rational and well planned, it was, in reality, more complex and opportunistic. Like any outcome of an entrepreneurial process the positive results emerged from chaotic interactions among the service developers, the environment, chance events, and prior performance.[16] Yet, Facebook’s behaviors did not happen in isolation. The number of jolts that Facebook and Friendster experienced during their growth is unknown, but given their geographical proximity, which helps control for availability of skilled employees, funding, networking opportunities, and more, along with their propinquity in launch dates (March 2003 and February 2004), there must be factors other than serendipity accounting for the differences in outcomes.

One example of how Facebook utilized the bricolage to grow their platform came from Chris Cox, VP of Product at Facebook, in his closing remarks at the 2010 F8 Developer Conference. When Facebook launched its “friend” feature, students used the profile feature to “friend” fraternities and classes. The Facebook team thought this did not make sense to friend a class so they built the “groups” feature. This feature, in addition to being used for clubs, classes, and teams, started to be used for parties. Parties, unlike fraternities, needed start times so Facebook built “my parties” which eventually evolved into its “events” feature. Cox described the Facebook approach as “watch(ing) users misuse what we had already given them and build(ing) the product that captured what they want to do.”

Another example of how Facebook and Friendster responded differently to the misuse of their services was when customers independently started to create accounts for their pets. Friendster managers acted swiftly and shut down such accounts, angering users, while Facebook managers acting just as swiftly to support pet sites by encouraging the development of new Dogbook and Catbook applications. By 2012, there were an estimated 22.9 million misclassified accounts including millions created for pets.[17]



In using a product or service, we are afforded the opportunity to use it in ways not originally expected by the designers or producers. Often we do this to further the utility of it but sometimes we do it to better display our identities. For example, animal lovers may be driven to create pet pages on either Friendster or Facebook, because of what it says about the degree to which they love and care about their animals or in order to share their love of pets with friends who have similar interests. On the other hand, one may extend the utility of a pocketknife to remove a screw when a screwdriver is not available. Regardless of the user’s motivation, the designer or manufacturer can take cues from this bricolage to better fit the customer’s needs in the next version.

While the use of customers as participants in a service or product development cycle is not new (e.g. public services[18] and chip manufacturing[19]), the facilitation of bricolage by customers as a source of innovation is still in its very early stages of investigation and dissemination. The facilitation of users to find new uses of existing functionality is ingenious for its simplicity and maximization of resources. Companies looking to increase the pace of innovation can take advantage of consumers’ willingness to be the source of innovative ideas through their use of a product or service in a manner that suits their needs rather than how the product was originally intended to be used. The most difficult step to harness the power of customer innovation is to disabuse ourselves of the notion that customers using the product in a novel way is misuse and embrace the notion that customers may only be attempting to innovate on our behalf to meet their own needs.


[1] Young, J., How to be Ingenious. RSA Projects, 2011.

[2] Baregheh, A., J. Rowley, and S. Sambrook, “Towards a Multidisciplinary Definition of Innovation,” Management Decision, 47(8) (2009): 1323-1339.

[3] Homer-Dixon, T., The Ingenuity Gap: Facing the Economic, Environmental, and Other Challenges of an Increasingly Complex and Unpredictable World, (Vintage: New York 2002).

[4] Homer-Dixon, T., “The End of Ingenuity,” New York Times, November 29, 2006, Opinion section.

[5] Thornberry, N.E., Corporate Entrepreneurship: Teaching Managers to be Entrepreneurs,” Journal of Management Development, 22(4) (2003): 329-344.

[6] Franke, N. and E. Hippel, “Satisfying Heterogeneous User Needs via Innovation Toolkits: The Case of Apache Security Software,” Research Policy, 32(7) (2003): 1199-1215.

[7] Von Hippel, E., S. Thomke, and M. Sonnack, “Creating Breakthroughs at 3M,” Harvard Business Review, 77 (1999): 47-57.

[8] Burt, R.S., Brokerage and Closure: An Introduction to Social Capital, (Oxford University Press: Oxford, England, 2005).

[9] Von Hippel, E., Democratizing Innovation, (MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2005).

[10] Lyytinen, K., “HCI Research: Future Directions that Matter,” AIS Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction, 2(2) (2010): 2.

[11] Adams, M.E., G.S. Day, and D. Dougherty, “Enhancing New Product Development Performance: An Organizational Learning Perspective,” Journal of Product Innovation Management, 15(5) (1998): 403-422.

[12] Davis, F., “Perceived Usefulness, Perceived Ease of Use, and User Acceptance of Information Technology,” MIS quarterly, 13(3) (1989): 319-340.

[13] Featherman, M.S. and P.A. Pavlou, “Predicting E-services Adoption: A Perceived Risk Facets Perspective,” International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 59(4) (2003): 451-474.

[14] Fisher, M., et al., “The Co-production of Social Contagion: A Comparative Analysis of Two Social Networking Sites,” Academy of Management OCIS E-commerce and Service Innovation Session, 2011.

[15] Magnusson, P.R., “Benefits of Involving Users in Service Innovation,” European Journal of Innovation Management, 6(4) (2003): 228-238.

[16] Bouchikhi, H., “A Constructivist Framework for Understanding Entrepreneurship Performance. Organization Studies, 14(4) (1993): 549.

[17] Kelly, H. “83 million Facebook Accounts are Fakes and Dupes,” CNN Tech, August 2, 2012, http://articles.cnn.com/2012-08-02/tech/tech_social-media_facebook-fake-accounts_1_facebook-accounts-facebook-profiles-facebook-estimates.

[18] Boyle, D. and M. Harris, “The Challenge of Co-Production,” (New Economics Foundation: London, 2009).

[19] Kreiner, K. and K. Tryggestad, “The Co-production of Chip and Society: Unpacking Packaged Knowledge, Scandinavian Journal of Management, 18(3) 2002): 421-449.

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Authors of the article
Michael Fisher, PhD
Michael Fisher, PhD, is co-founder of the management and technology consulting firm AKF Partners (www.akfpartners.com) and a guest lecturer at the Weatherhead School of Management. His research is focused on identifying the factors involved in customer driven growth and is the subject of a forthcoming book to be published by Palgrave Macmillan (www.misuse4growth.com). Fisher has served as the CTO of Quigo, a startup Internet advertising company acquired by AOL and as VP of Engineering & Architecture for PayPal, Inc., an eBay company. Michael received a PhD and MBA from Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management, an MS in Information Systems from Hawaii-Pacific University, and a BS in Computer Science from the United States Military Academy (West Point).
Marty Abbott, DM
Marty Abbott, DM, is a co-founding partner in the management and technology consulting firm, AKF Partners (www.akfpartners.com). AKF Partners helps companies grow their products, technology, organizations, and processes to meet the demand of hyper-growth in the digital age. Abbott was previously COO of Quigo, an advertising technology firm sold to AOL and SVP/CTO of eBay. He is a research fellow at the Case Western Reserve University focused on customer driven growth. He has a Doctor of Management (DM) from Case Western Reserve University, an MS in Computer Engineering from the University of Florida, a BS in Computer Science from the United States Military Academy (West Point) and is a graduate of the Harvard Business School’s Executive Education Program (Program for Management Development).
Kalle Lyytinen, PhD
Kalle Lyytinen, PhD, is the Iris S. Wofstein Professor of Information Systems at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and the Director of CWRU’s Doctorate and PhD in Management programs. He has published over 250 scientific articles and conference papers, and has edited or written eleven books on information systems, system design, method engineering, organizational implementation, risk assessment, computer-supported cooperative work, standardization, and ubiquitous computing. His work helps organizations identify, absorb, manage, implement, and transform technology. Lyytinen received his graduate (PhD, Econ. Lic. And MS) education in computer science and business economics at University of Jyväskylä, Finland. He also holds a PhD h.c. from Umeå University.
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