Thursday, April 26, 2007

Getting technology to work

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2007

Exciting news this week.  I’ve got a new mobile phone.  And as you might expect, although I’m generally a bit bah-humbug about stuff like this, underneath this bluff exterior beats the heart of a nine year-old boy.

Like most mobile phones these days, the fact that it can be used to ring one’s mum is a minor consideration in the feature set it offers.

This one has sat-nav.  It’s got wi-fi (so I can surf the web faster, cheaper, and connect to my home or work network).  It’s got a radio, an MP3 player, spreadsheets, powerpoint, a TV.  Is there anything it doesn’t have?

Well it hasn’t got a user who can make the damn thing work.

It came with a 135-page instruction booklet, and disappointingly (I am a bloke, after all) I’ve had to read parts of it, although it still hasn’t helped with some of the more esoteric functions.

It’s often said that if you want your video programming, talk to a six year-old.  Children it’s claimed, are simply more adept at absorbing and using technology than adults.  But there are good reasons for this.  Kids are happy to spend hours and hours figuring stuff out – most adults simply haven’t the time.  We may have lost the inclination, but it’s largely because the pressures of everyday life give us other priorities.

So when I hear an adult say they “can’t” work some gadget or other, it’s really an excuse – what they mean is they can’t be bothered to spend the time learning.

At this point, I can sense the collective heating of necks under collars of Marketing’s readers, so let me be clear.  This isn’t a criticism.  It’s your right as a consumer.

It is the God-given right of every punter to be able to pick up any new gadget, and be able to figure it out in five minutes.  We don’t like instruction books, don’t want help - we are impatient to get on with the business of consuming. 

And as it is with hardware, so it is with software.  It is the natural prerogative of every user to visit a website and be able to find their way around it without any instructions, getting straight to what they want.

Of course, there is a rare breed who are prepared to trade off ease of use for the distinction of having something others lack.  These early adopters put up with the shortcomings of bleeding edge products and wear their ability to endure these as a badge of pride.

But these folk are the exception.  The vast mass of us live in the instant gratification society, and digital things are right at the sharp end.  We are not prepared to endure a moment’s downtime, and we don’t reward anything other than perfect service.

For a website, the challenge is a little like asking an architect to design a department store where any department is accessible within three steps of the front door, and where even a completely new visitor will know instinctively where to find the bed linen.

For the product designer, it’s the ability to create new features for a product that users will be able to work without any learning investment on their part.  The best example of this is the iPod – a device that succeeded partly because it looked cool, but mostly because its operation was so simple that instructions were surplus to requirements.  Many MP3 players had preceded the iPod, but none had really satisfied the mass market’s desire for the zero learning investment product.

And this is what the mobile market needs.  2007 has been trumpeted by many as the year that the mobile internet arrives, and there’s always a temptation to believe that if enough money is thrown at a market, it will take off.  If this is true, then take-off has got to be sometime soon.  It’s just that first, I’ve got to get the damn thing to work.

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