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Technology and the consumer comprehension curve

The consumer electronics market is one of the most competitive; sometimes driven by true innovations, sometimes by ideas concocted in the sales department. The success of any consumer electrical device or gadget relies on a lot of things being just right. And as for failure, you only need one thing to go wrong — and not understanding the consumer is as big a mistake as you can ever hope to make…

The consumer electronics market is one of the most competitive; sometimes driven by true innovations, sometimes by ideas concocted in the sales department. The success of any consumer electrical device or gadget relies on a lot of things being just right. And as for failure, you only need one thing to go wrong — and not understanding the consumer is as big a mistake as you can ever hope to make…

I read an article by Dave Knox over on the Brazen Careerist that lists twenty-one reasons why the “Digital Revolution” is leaving the consumer behind. As an aside, I could contest the idea of a digital revolution. That’s happened and we now live in the aftermath of that event.

I say aftermath because even though things like consumer electronics have matured as a market, Dave, Wunderman’s “My Brain Hurts”, does highlight twenty-one very good reasons why the thinking behind consumer-facing technology has in some respects stalled, stagnated or hit a wall.

To characterize the digital revolution, it was an event not too dissimilar to an explosion that happened shortly after the advent of the transistor.

Here’s my take on some of the twenty-one points.

Digital technology gets twice as fast, and as capable, and as powerful every eighteen months.

That’s merely a statement and not a problem. Irrespective of the relative speed at which technology is progressing, a good end product will only deliver to you the things you need. However, not all technology is created equally. But still, I don’t see speed as an issue.

Similarly, the complexity of our brains isn’t an issue. The basic physiology of the human brain is mostly unchanged in over 10,000 years and it’s not as if we’re really struggling. Yes, there’s a good case for information overload, but that’s a failure of information management and not our brain.

One result is a widening gap between what technology can do, and what its users — both young and old — understand it can do.

This is a classic problem, as Dave quite rightly highlights when he cites phones, computers, DVRs, VCRs, TVs as examples of how such things create a gulf between the mostly technically literate young and largely technophobic older generation.

However, this isn’t an artifact of our brains. If our brains haven’t changed in 10,000 years, I fail to see how they’re going to step up a gear, or conversely drop down a cog or two in just 2-3 generations.

No, the reason that phones, computers, DVRs, VCRs, TVs are difficult to understand for the older generation is that those people are learning them anew, whereas people even of my generation grew up with them.

These devices are built around concepts we are very familiar with, which does not in anyway mean that these devices are any less difficult to use. As many a usability study has shown over the years, Microsoft Windows has been historically much more complex to learn than the Mac. But if you’re brought up with Windows, as a user, you learn to compensate, so are unaware of the difference.

So in a round-about fashion, the reason these devices are difficult to use is usually because an engineer was given the job of designing their interfaces and not a ergonomist.

Helping consumers understand technology is not easy. They struggle with the demands modern devices and software make of them, and fail to absorb new tech-based concepts.

A common failure of such technologies is that the originator of the devices in question — either by accident, design or oversight — produces something which requires the consumer to learn a new way of doing things, rather than producing something that meets directly with concepts the consumer is already familiar with.

The thing to keep in mind here is that those who leap ahead of the consumer comprehension curve either pull along an elite who have the spending power, patience and tech’ savvy to keep them in black woolen roll neck sweaters and jeans, or they stand alone, wondering where all the early adopters went. So it’s a self-regulating process, to a large extent.

Dave talks about simplicity, which cannot be emphasized enough. Think of the iPod and how the likes of Microsoft panned it for being too simple. They argued that by not having stuff like an FM tuner, or a dictaphone would all but kill the iPod’s chances of success.

Apple are past masters at making complex things simple to use. The original iPod did just one thing, and that was play music. Now look at the iPhone and the iPod Touch, which allows the user to do dozens of different things. Incrementally over time, Apple introduced new features, with many more being added by the thriving 3rd party accessories market that’s sprung up around the iPod line of devices.

Here is where Apple looked at the consumer comprehension curve and added new features in a gradual fashion, so not to overwhelm people, giving them plenty of time to come to terms with what they already have.

Also, from Apple’s point of view, by adding new stuff slowly, they can help themselves avoid bugs and other incompatibilities.

Conclusion

It’s easy to cast technology as some kind of errant child, rebelling against conformity or the agreed rules, but that’s a misunderstanding. Technology is merely the outward realization of an idea conceived by man. Any such error is the error of its creator, not that which is created.

Technology merely is…

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.