Let’s start by positing the idea that Thomas Kuhn is right when he talks of paradigm shift – that ideas don’t simply change slowly over time, but instead occasionally move with seismic speed, size and repercussions. That the progression from Newton to Einstein could never be accomplished piecemeal, but had to happen by an instantaneous leap.
Let’s split this concept in two directions which will interact with it differently – that it’s not only theories that can operate in this way, but also products. Let’s think for a moment why a theory reaches the point where one can tell a paradigm shift is about to take place… Normally it’s because a large-scale incongruity of data appears that seems to contradict the theory. Small scale contradictions emerge all the time – and they can be treated as exceptions (or more precisely circumstances where the theory is unlikely to fall down, but where it seems likely that there is more going on than we are able to perceive initially). But the more minor contradictions that emerge, the more special circumstances that appear, the more likely it is that someone will try to resolve them with a higher level theory that will encompass more of them…
What’s the equivalent for products? I would argue that the mark of a stale paradigm – one in which there is significant need for a paradigm shift – would be one in which one (or both) of two things happens. Firstly branding could emerge as the most important aspect of the product itself – with a complete absence of reasons to distinguish between two products (since both accomplish precisely the same function) then the arms race moves into pure marketing. This is a significant difference between products and theories, in that there can be two products that are essentially identical (or functionally competing for the same mindshare in the same area) in which neither can in and of itself ever be dismissed on any grounds other than taste.
The second (and more interesting) aspect might be that the product would experience non-essential feature-creep – the complementary opposite (mirror-image) of the flaws in the theoretical paradigm – minor issues with the way they are used or interacted with that are resolved by the partial dilution – or working around – of the initial paradigm. Thus a product might evolve hundreds of secondary features, none of which are crucial to its use, and which are mostly used by very niche audiences or by all audiences on very rare occasions. A side effect of this might be a market saturated with apparently radically different solutions to the same marginal problems, none of which achieve any apparent dominance simply because none of them have enough of an edge over any other.
Classic examples of stale paradigms? Shoes (evidence is branding and redundant feature-creep), Word Processors (evidence is redundant feature-creep) and Community websites (evidence is massive feature-creep [cf. Infopop‘s Ultimate Bulletin Board] and a recent proliferation of subtly different community applications, none of which have achieved paradigmatic dominance).