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A Most Pragmatic Theory: Diffusion of Innovation and User Assessment (Part 1)

Posted by on March 4th, 2016 Posted in: News, Practical Evaluation, Qualitative Methods


Seven tomatoes in a row, increasing in maturity from left to right

If your work includes teaching or providing products or services to people, you are in the business of influencing behavior change. In that case, behavior change theories should be one of the tools in your evaluation toolbox. These theories are evidence-based descriptions of how people change and the factors that affect the change process. If you have a handle on these influences, you will be much more effective in gathering data and planning programs or services.

Today and next week, I’m going to talk about my go-to behavioral change theory: Diffusion of Innovations. It was introduced in the 1960s by communication professor Everett Rogers to explain how innovations spread (diffuse) through a population over time. The term innovation is broadly defined as anything new: activities, technologies; resources; or beliefs. There are a number of behavioral change theories that guide work in health and human services, but I particularly like Diffusion of Innovations because it emphasizes how social networks and interpersonal relationships may impact your success in getting people to try something new.

I use Diffusion of Innovations for most user or community assessment studies I design. Next week, we’ll talk about using these concepts to frame community or user assessment studies. This week, I want to cover the basic principles I found to be most helpful.

People change in phases

The heart of behavior change is need.  People adopt an innovation if it that solves a problem or improves quality of life. Adoption is not automatic, however. People change in phases. They first become aware and gather information about an innovation. If it is appealing, they decide to employ it and assess its usefulness. Adoption occurs if the innovation lives up to or exceeds their expectation.

Product characteristics influence phase of adoption

Five criteria impact the rate and success of adoption within a group. First, the innovation must be better than the product or idea it is designed to replace. Second, it must fit well with people’s values, needs and experiences. Innovations that are easy to use will catch on faster, as will technologies or resources that can allow experimentation before the user must commit to it. Finally, if people can easily perceive that the innovation will lead to positive results, they are more likely to use it.

Peers’ opinions matter greatly when it comes to innovation adoptions. Marketers will tell you that mass media spreads information, but people choose to adopt innovations based on recommendations from others who are “just like them.” Conversations and social networks are key channels for spreading information about new products and ideas. If you are going to influence change, you have to identify and use how members of your audience communicate with one another.

Migration of flock of birds flying in V-formation at dusk

Riding the Wave

Segments of a population adopt innovations at different rates. In any given target population, there will be people who will try an innovation immediately just for the pleasure of using something new. They are called innovators. The second speediest are the early adopters, who like to be the trendsetters. They will use an innovation if they perceive it will give them a social edge. They value being the “opinion leaders” of their communities.

Sixty-eight percent of a population comprise the majority.  The first half (early majority) will adopt an innovation once its reliability and usefulness have been established. (For example, these are the folks who wait to update software until the “bugs” have been worked out.) The other half (late majority) are more risk adverse and tend to succumb through peer pressure, which builds as an innovation gathers momentum. The last adopters are called the laggards, who are the most fearful of change. They prefer to stick with what they know. Laggards may have a curmudgeonly name, but Les Robinson of Enabling Change pointed out that they also may be prophetic, so ignore them at your own risk.

Next Step: Diffusion of Innovations and User/Community Assessment

Next week, I will show you how I develop my needs assessment methods around Diffusion of Innovation concepts. In the meantime, here are some sources that might interest you. Everett Rogers and Karyn Scott wrote an article specifically for the NN/LM Pacific Northwest Region that you can read here. Les Robinson’s article has an interesting discussion of the specific needs of the different population segments: Finally, If you want the classic text by Ev Rogers himself, here is the full citation.

Rogers EM.  Diffusion of innovations (5th ed). New York, NY: The Free Press, 2003.

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This project is funded by the National Library of Medicine (NLM), National Institutes of Health (NIH) under cooperative agreement number UG4LM012343 with the University of Washington.

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