goodenough Wired Magazine has delivered more insightful articles in the last couple of years than any other magazine, offline or online. Take a few minutes to read a fascinating piece in this month’s issue, “The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple Is Just Fine.”

Traditionally when we pictured high quality products, we’ve always understood that they were the products with the highest fidelity or the most power or the most features.

Right in front of our eyes, in more markets than you expect, there is a transformation underway: the products that are succeeding are the ones that trade power or fidelity for low price, flexibility, and convenience. It’s not news to have successful products that are focused on low price or convenience, of course, but the article finds evidence that it’s possible to be successful in some unexpected markets with products or services that are “good enough” by the traditional measures of quality. The shift is causing the very notion of “high quality” to be redefined.

The article starts with the shift in music to compressed formats like mp3, which frequently are not as rich sounding as uncompressed files or CDs. They changed the recording industry because they brought music onto computers and handheld devices and made it easier to share music with friends, which turned out to be more important than the traditional measure of high fidelity. Given all of their other advantages, mp3 files sound good enough. In fact, our very understanding of sound quality is changing:

There’s evidence that consumers are simply adapting to the MP3’s thin sound. Jonathan Berger, a professor of music at Stanford University, recently completed a six-year study of his students. Every year he asked new arrivals in his class to listen to the same musical excerpts played in a variety of digital formats—from standard MP3s to high-fidelity uncompressed files—and rate their preferences. Every year, he reports, more and more students preferred the sound of MP3s, particularly for rock music. They’ve grown accustomed to what Berger calls the percussive sizzle—aka distortion—found in compressed music. To them, that’s what music is supposed to sound like.

Maybe you’ve seen the Flip camcorder, a dirt cheap device that takes low quality videos using controls that barely go beyond an on/off button. The videos are good enough for YouTube – and the Flip devices are the best-selling video cameras in the U.S. Competitors who had been releasing camcorders with ever-higher resolution and more features were caught flat-footed and are now frantically reversing course.

I was even more interested in the article’s description of a law firm that is developing a way to offer assistance in simple transactions without the expense of a traditional attorney/client relationship, in a way that is good enough for many situations. And there is a fascinating description of an experiment with delivering good enough medical services:

In the case of health care, the Good Enough mindset can be seen in a new initiative by Kaiser Permanente. The largest not-for-profit medical organization in the country, Kaiser has long relied on a simple strategy of building complete, self-sustaining hospitals—employing 50 doctors or more—in each region it serves. “It’s an efficient model,” says Michele Flanagin, Kaiser’s vice president of delivery systems strategy. “It offers one-stop shopping: pharmacy and radiology and everything you want from health care in one building.” But that approach forces patients who don’t live near a hospital to drive a long way for even the most routine doctor’s appointment.

As it happens, though, Kaiser has become one of the most technologically advanced health care providers in the country, digitizing everything from patient records and doctors’ notes to lab data and prescriptions and putting it all online. The system is networked, so patients can email their doctor, check lab results, and make appointments from their PC or mobile Web device. Getting a referral doesn’t mean carrying medical records from one doctor to another, as it does at many hospitals.

In 2007, Flanagin and her colleagues wondered what would happen if, instead of building a hospital in a new area, Kaiser just leased space in a strip mall, set up a high tech office, and hired two doctors to staff it. Thanks to the digitization of records, patients could go to this “microclinic” for most of their needs and seamlessly transition to a hospital farther away when necessary. So Flanagin and her team began a series of trials to see what such an office could do. They cut everything they could out of the clinics: no pharmacy, no radiology. They even explored cutting the receptionist in favor of an ATM-like kiosk where patients would check in with their Kaiser card.

What they found is that the system performed very well. Two doctors working out of a microclinic could meet 80 percent of a typical patient’s needs. With a hi-def video conferencing add-on, members could even link to a nearby hospital for a quick consult with a specialist. Patients would still need to travel to a full-size facility for major trauma, surgery, or access to expensive diagnostic equipment, but those are situations that arise infrequently.

If that 80 percent number rings a bell, it’s because of the famous Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule. And it happens to be a recurring theme in Good Enough products. You can think of it this way: 20 percent of the effort, features, or investment often delivers 80 percent of the value to consumers. That means you can drastically simplify a product or service in order to make it more accessible and still keep 80 percent of what users want—making it Good Enough—which is exactly what Kaiser did.

Flanagin believes these clinics will enable Kaiser to add thousands of new members. And they’ll do it for less. The per-member cost at a microclinic is roughly half that of a full Kaiser hospital. The first microclinic is set to open in Hawaii early next year. Medical care is now poised for its own manifestation of the MP3 effect.

The phenomenon certainly won’t stop with hospitals, lawyers, and military campaigns. As more and more industries move their business online, they too will find success in Good Enough tools that focus on maximizing accessibility. It’s a reflection of our new value system. We’ve changed. To benefit from the MP3 effect, companies will have to change as well.

Read the article! It might describe something that will affect your business, too.

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