I was reading a piece in the WSJ which is a perfect example of a very common mistake in product strategy: The Business Card Will Not Die.

When the tech-savviest people on the planet meet, how do they exchange contact info? The same people who hail taxis by app and pay back friends via email have a wild way of sharing details: They hand over paper business cards.

And the only thing worse than handing over business cards is not having any to hand over. My own new business cards have yet to be printed. But if everyone I meet these days has a smartphone, with memory and wireless capabilities galore, why do I even need these 3.5 x 2 inch pieces of card stock?

The question is phrased as if it were obviously absurd - but it’s not. The article goes into a few of the suggested replacements, and guess what? None of them are as good as the humble business card!

One requires NFC, which not many phones have. Another requires scanning QR codes, which is fiddly. Bumping phones seems like it should work, but I had the app on my phone for a year and never met a single other person who used it. Ditto for the audio tones in Evernote Hello.

If you want to replace a universally-adopted technology, your replacement needs to be not just as good as what you are trying to usurp, but substantially better. Business cards have a very high bar for replacement:

  • Universal compatibility

  • High legibility

  • No battery life constraints

  • No network connectivity requirement

  • No potential security hole

What, security on business cards? Well, yes. Any time you accept data into your device, you run the risk of unwittingly executing malicious code. NFC seems the most vulnerable tech, but a QR code could redirect to a trojan, and do so transparently so that users are not even aware their connection has been hijacked.

In contrast, the business card works as-is in just about any situation. You can exchange cards in a moment, stick them in a pocket with confidence that they will still exist and be legible later, and carry effectively unlimited numbers about until you’re ready to go through them.

This doesn't mean that you’re stuck with the cards, of course. Cards work well as a vector for information, but less well as an archive. For a start, the search capabilities are terrible. Personally, I import the data with Evernote Hello, which makes it easy to scan and OCR the contact info from the card itself, geo-tag the contact, add notes on the conversation, and save the lot in the cloud.

The answer is obvious for business cards, but too many businesses try to do the same sort of thing in other fields. If you get frustrated with explaining how your app is better than existing options, it might be time to take a step back and see whether you’re not better off building a complementary solution instead of attempting a displacement.

Image by Diogo Tavares via Unsplash