CEO Mistakes: I Built A Talking Sign That Drove People Nuts

In the late-1980s, I was a young CEO looking to develop an innovative product that would differentiate us in the market. In the compliance-driven safety and warning signs business, everything pretty much looked the same. So I did a lot of research, conferred with customers, and came up with a killer concept.

The research indicated a major problem with signs. People don’t read them; they walk by them every day and ignore them. How could we make them take notice? The solution, we decided, was a talking sign.

We ran it by our customers for their feedback. They agreed it was a super-cool idea. So we developed a prototype and took it out in the field. When someone was proximate to the sign, it communicated the message written on it. The feedback was positive, but customers wanted scientific data to be sure the product succeeded.

“Here’s where we failed. Nobody wanted a sign that talked to them, day in and day out.”

We recruited a professor of behavioral sciences from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to study the sign in the lab. We provided three signs: Caution! Wear Safety Glasses! and Wear Gloves Before Transferring Chemicals! More than one hundred students participated. The first experiment involved a basic sign without sound. Students were measured to determine if they heeded the sign’s warning. The second experiment involved a group of students who were measured to determine if they heeded the sign with sound. The results were what we’d expected. Only one-quarter of students with the regular sign did what the sign warned, whereas all of the students responded to the sign with sound. So we took it to market.

Here’s where we failed. Nobody wanted a sign that talked to them, day in and day out. Every day the same people encountered the talking sign and eventually they just stopped listening. We’d invested a lot of time, capital and enthusiasm and we did everything right—market research and scientific tests. Where we went wrong was not considering common sense and others’ use of talking warning systems that also flopped. Chrysler, for instance, had a talking voice instead of a chiming bell telling people to put their seatbelts on. People hated having someone tell them what to do.

But here’s the great thing. Even though it failed, the sign differentiated us as an innovator. The word of mouth was incredible. To this day people still remember that damn talking sign; it left an indelible impression. The product failed, but the strategic objective succeeded.

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