adoption patterns

How to find clients who are innovators

From recent discussions with designers and their clients it’s obvious the majority of businesses are looking at where they are, where they were and where they want to go. While many businesses have an aspiration to change some will lack the courage to make the leap. So how do we find the clients who are innovators?

Seeking new directions for a design agency means identifying innovator clients who want to make that leap and adopt a new approach.

This thinking led me to research patterns in clients and their adoption of a new idea, product or service.

Adoption patterns

We started with the question; “How do we find clients who are innovators and ready to adopt a human centred design approach?”.

This led to the discovery of a massive volume of research into ‘adoption patterns’ — adoption patterns are the personality traits that help understand how people will accept a new innovation

Everett M Rogers, a communication scholar and sociologist, studied these adoption patterns. In his book, Diffusion of Innovations, he describes five types of adopter for products/services and provides insight into each of those types.

Rogers states the adoption of innovation varies throughout the course of the product/service life cycle, and he identified five patterns

  1. Innovators
  2. Early Adopters
  3. Early Majority
  4. Late Majority
  5. Laggards

Innovators (2.5%)

  • A “venturesome” approach to change
  • Quick to take up new ideas, knowledge and technologies
  • Cope with uncertainty and failure
  • Risk-takers
  • Play an important role in introducing innovations into the system and plays a gatekeeper role in the flow of information in a social system.

Early Adopters (13.5%)

  • “Respected” members of the system
  • Represent opinion leaders and are more integrated into the social system than innovators
  • Provide advice and information to others about innovations
  • Are already aware of the need to change and so are very comfortable adopting new ideas
  • Early adopters help trigger the critical mass when they adopt an innovation (i.e. considered a “stamp of approval”)
  • Has a central position in the social system (communication network).

Early Majority (34%)

  • “Deliberate” need to see evidence, think about and be convinced by others before being willing to adopt
  • Adopt innovations before the average person
  • Rarely perform leadership roles
  • Serve as important links in the diffusion process as they are the connection between very early and the relatively late adopters.

Late Majority (34% of social system population)

  • “Sceptical” cautious about change and have a questioning attitude to innovations
  • Adopt new ideas just after the average person
  • Adoption may result from peer pressure or economic necessity rather than motivation for change
  • Innovation must be well supported by social norms to be desirable
  • Possibly have few resources therefore most of the uncertainty of the innovation must be removed before the late majority feel comfortable with adopting innovations.

Laggards (16%)

  • “Traditional” in that they are bound by tradition and are very conservative
  • They are not opinion leaders and mostly considered ‘isolates’ in a social network sense (not connected strongly or to many other system members)
  • The points of reference for laggards is the past
  • Laggards are very sceptical of change and are the hardest group to motivate to adopt innovations
  • They take a lengthy amount of time to adopt in association with awareness of innovation
  • Laggards demonstrate resistance towards innovations and are risk averse
  • They are in a vulnerable economic situation, therefore access to resources is constricted
  • Blame for not adopting can be located at the individual and system level.

Case study: how we used adoption patterns

Recently, in a workshop with a Sydney design agency, we helped to develop a series of empathy maps on current and prospective clients.

We began by asking which clients were likely to adopt a design-centred approach to their whole business. We were looking for clients who are innovators.

The empathy maps made it easier to identify clients who are innovators. We rejected those in the Late Majority and Laggard categories even though it was 50% of the potential clients because their attitude would make it a much harder sell.

That left 20 client contacts in the three remaining categories; Innovators, Early Adopters and Early Majority.

We developed a communication plan for each category. The plan has a staged timeline starting with Innovators, then Early Adopters and finally Early Majority.

Most were in the Early Majority category but realistically, we knew they would be harder to get onboard so started with the low hanging fruit. We rolled out parallel communication plans for the Innovators and Early Adopters. The aim was to get enough work from these two categories, if not, we’d move to the next.


Empathy mapping to identify patterns is a very simple way to identify clients who are innovators and early adopters. The hard work is devising a communication strategy for each of the groups and then implementing it.


This is an interesting article from Stanford University.

An article that shows how adoption patterns can be used in software development. Has some good parallels for designers.

A detailed analysis of adoption patterns and how they relate to decision making. Well worth the read to get inside a clients’ head.


Greg Branson

If this article was of interest, you may also like:

An overview of empathy mapping.

The content plan for Early adopters will need to explain design value.

The language used to communicate needs to get you into the boardroom.

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Greg Branson

Greg’s passion is the research and development of methods that improve design management and the role of design in business.

Greg has developed The Design Business School to help owners manage their business better along with showing designers how to get more involved in the studio and develop their career path. Contact Greg.

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