The emergence of novel product uses: An investigation of exaptations in IKEA hacks


Exaptation refers to the emergence of novel functionalities in existing products. Exaptations frequently arise in the context of users who creatively modify (or hack) existing products to accommodate new needs. Here we examine how product-first (compared to problem-first) search affects the occurrence of exaptations. In a product-first search, the user identifies the product to be hacked before seeking a viable need. In a problem-first search, the user has a defined problem before seeking a viable solution. We argue that users are more likely to achieve exaptations following a problem-first (compared to a product-first) search. Indeed, with problem-first search, they are less likely to face functional fixedness, and they can leverage their greater awareness of problems that may not have readily adaptable solutions, which leads them to generate exaptations. Using a novel data set comprised of user hacks of IKEA products, we present evidence that hacks originating from a product-first search are less likely to generate exaptations than hacks originating from a problem-first search. We also show that this difference is mitigated when the user has hacking experience or when the IKEA product being hacked is more modular. We also explore how the mitigation happens. Increased hacking experience appears to reduce functional fixedness; meanwhile, increased product modularity increases the likelihood that users will make serendipitous discoveries leading to exaptations. We contribute to the growing literature on exaptation as a source of novelty and discuss the implications of this phenomenon for managing user innovation.

accepted in Management Science
Tian Chan
Tian Chan
Assistant Professor (Information Systems and Operations Management)

Scholar researching and teaching in the areas of operations and innovation management.