Northern Colorado Business Report
“A consumer’s guide to adoption of technology, part 2”
By Kai Staats
6 May 2011

This is the second of a multi-part series in what I hope will unfold as a guide to the adoption of technology into one’s personal life. This is not the typical guide which compares the speed of wifi networks or the quality of LCD screens. Rather, this is a guide for you, the consumer, as a window into your own behavior when considering the technology you wish to adopt.

As mentioned in the prior column, Henry Dreyfuss in “Designing for People” (1955) offered five points by which products could be designed and developed: 1) Utility and Safety, 2) Maintenance, 3) Cost, 4) Sales and Appeal, and 5) Appearance.

What Dreyfuss may not have known is that Appeal would fifty years later gain a momentum so strong that consumers find themselves compelled to replace perfectly functional products every 18-24 months due to the allure of Utility and Appearance. Maintenance becomes irrelevant as nearly all consumer electronics are disposable, designed to be neither repaired nor upgraded.

What concerns me most is not the speed at which we purchase goods, but how we are affected by the use of these products. I have prepared 10 questions to get the gears turning:

  1. Does it save time?
  2. Does it provide a foundation for education, entertainment, or improved safety?
  3. How do I feel when I use this product? (or does it cause me to reduce or increase my stress?)
  4. Does it help me to better understand or improve myself?
  5. Does it help me to better understand or help others to improve themselves?
  6. Does it improve my communication with others?
  7. How did I perform this function without this device?
  8. Does it improve upon a former means of doing so?
  9. What is the worst thing that would happen if I don’t purchase it?
  10. If I wait three weeks, will I still have a need or desire to purchase it?

Despite the fact that all phone models are moving toward smart phone capabilities, let’s look at the upgrade from an older model to a smart phone as an example of how to apply the first three questions.

Does it save time? Hard to say. One could argue that you can do more in less time with so many functions at your fingertips, but as I offered last fall in “The Myth of Free Time,” we tend to just fill that space with doing more things. There are seldom, if ever, inventions which truly save time. In part because they only add complexity to our lives; in part because we just fill that void with doing more. If smart phones actually saved time, people would be using them less, not more.

Education? Entertainment? Safety? Yes. Yes. And maybe. A smart phone can provide a weather update for mountain travel, but you are likely to use it while driving which is both dangerous and increasingly illegal. Again, the potential is there, but the consumer gets in the mix and the value-ad is undermined by human behavior.

Number 3 is complex. This is one that we talk about in the form of complaint, but seem to be helpless to do anything about. Let’s ask the same question applied to other devices, and see how we respond. “How does my car make me feel?” Safe, comfortable, content, even at home, if it is in good condition and runs well. Frustrated, angry, scared, even embarrassed if it is in need of repair and often fails to perform its basic functions.

You may not believe you have a relationship with your microwave oven, but when it warms a cup of coffee or fills the kitchen with the aroma of a hot bowl of soup, chances are you have a smile on your face when the oven door opens wide. But if the buttons on your oven are temperamental, or the insides nasty due to lack of cleaning, then perhaps you cringe at the very thought of the noontime meal.

Concerning your mobile phone: Does it feel good in your hand, or is it awkward to hold? Do you find it to be intuitive and seemingly designed just for you? Or do you get lost in the interface, often wondering why your friend’s number is missing, again!? Does it always work, no matter where you go? Or does it lock-up, hang-up, and get beat-up (as you slam it against the wall)? Do you carry it with pride? Or does your body tense every time it rings because you have not, after six months, determined how to change the ring tone?

Let’s return to How does the upgrade to a smart phone benefit you? Will you immediately use text messaging, email, news feeds, calendar, camera, and video conferencing? Or will you determine that simply because these functions are available, you may choose not to use them? Most important, do you feel compelled to check email just one more time, because it is right there, in the palm of your hand? Do you often interrupt face-to-face conversations to answer a quick email? Or are you comforted and relaxed knowing that your entire digital world is within reach, at all times?

I recommend paying more attention to how you feel, in the moment, when using your phone than whether or not it has a larger memory capacity or higher resolution camera. Remember, Responsibility begins with designers and ends with consumers. Be responsible to you.