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Why “invisible” technology is a good thing

Tuesday, 2 September 2008 — by

Ubiquitous technologies abound. But for the most part, we just don’t notice them — and here’s why that’s a good thing…

Continuing on from my previous discussion about technology based around twenty-one reasons why the “Digital Revolution” is leaving the consumer behind, I’ll be addressing some of the latter points highlighted by Dave Knox over on the Brazen Careerist, the author of the article.

We must also be conscious of the fact that consumers are rarely grateful for the changes technology brings to their lives. Once something works, they forget it exists.

The reason for this feeds back into some of the previous points; because technology innovation is outstripping consumer comprehension, our expectations are on a false high.

As consumers, we might not fully understand all of what new mobile phones and laptop computers are capable of, but in our minds, we think that almost anything is possible.

Making matters worse would be depictions of technology, like computers, in movies and in TV shows like the CSI franchise, which paint a truly unrealistic vision of what computers can do.

As a product designer by education, I’m all too aware of our forgetfulness, which I call the door handle phenomena; everyone uses a door handle at least once a day, but the only time you realize you’re using one is when it doesn’t work right, or the way you’d expect it to.

While being invisible or ubiquitous isn’t the goal of every business in the consumer electronics industry, that can certainly be a byproduct of their success.

Dave later mentions WiFi as an example of an invisible technology. It’s a good example for the most part, but not entirely ubiquitous, unlike the door handle.

For those that use WiFi regularly like I do, coverage and signal strength are the constant enemy of WiFi. An excellent example of a very visible technology (where visible equates to not being very good) would be Bluetooth.

A lot of people don’t even know what it is, yet it’s present on most mobile phones. When they are made aware, they tend to leave it on all of the time — which usually kills the battery life of their device of choice.

Adding insult to injury, Bluetooth is admittedly a short range wireless technology, but most people don’t care and cite that as a “flaw”.

We must also be careful not to listen too closely to nerds — the early adopters who buy tech when it first comes out. Their thoughts are not those of the general population.

While this is true on the whole as an underlying problem, the overlying problem is features being included on devices, like mobile phones, simply because they’re whizz-bang and have a popular buzzword associated with them.

This is what happens when a product is driven by the sales team, who have little or no grasp of ergonomics, or the real needs of their customers. Yes, their particular demographic might be very familiar with technologies A through Z, but giving them all 26 isn’t always the way to go!

We should think more about how technology spreads from person to person in the population. The resulting infection rate will determine how fast a technology takes off.

There are various names for this class of consumer. If you’re familiar with Social Media, they’re often called Super Advocates. In tech’ circles, they’re referred to as the Early Adopters. While at college, that’s what I was.

If you win these people over, they could unlock a door that opens the way to many more people, since their word carries considerable weight. Also, it’s likely these people have a blog or a presence on some website community somewhere.

Finding out where these people are, who they are and what their needs are and the benefits could be considerable.

While it’s always good to get the feedback from these guys — since they’re most likely to be asking “What if?” — don’t let these people lead you into thinking that what they want is what everyone else needs. They’re far from the consensus.

These people could also be the nerds, too!

Conclusion

The best technologies are those that we aren’t aware of — like the door handle. It’s those stalwarts of our very modern world that we rarely enthuse about, simply because they’re invisible technologies.

Is this a good thing? Yes. If they’re working the way they should work, free of repeated defects and flaws, then leave them to do their thing. Over time, we might improve upon them, we might even make them cheaper, but they’re essentially the same as they were.

Examples would be light bulbs, the pneumatic tyre, ball point pens, vacuum cleaners, bicycles, fabrics, the internal combustion engine and the book.

Of course, this is but a small selection. Also, the reliability of the aforementioned is variable, but on the whole, as a design or an object of engineering, they’ve stood the test of time.

Over time, society has adopted them and we now accept them as essential parts of our lives.

Dave highlights a point concerning the time scale of adoption for certain technologies. In some cases, technologies can take decades to come into their own. A prime example would be the motorcar. Another would be the aeroplane.

I recently wrote a series of articles on the future of mankind, principally dealing with technology. In the final installment, I discussed the power of society to either absorb or repel change, with technology being the change in this instance. As always, the agent of change is a need.

Quantifying that need is something else entirely. Let’s not forget the Gatlin gun and the nuclear bomb both fulfilled needs and they are technologies, too…

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