Our Inner Toolbox

My most recent blog posts have been devoted to technology adoption and use from the 10,000 foot level. My investigation is making me aware of the research on adoption from the perspective of business, education, and the individual; considered by age, confidence, background, socio-economic status, interests, affiliations and need. Suffice it to say, I have a lot to learn about this research; the conclusions people have made as well as unanswered questions related to adoption.

In this post I present some practical, tangible, and personal practices that support technology adoption and competence. I offer some insights for managing your personal approach to technology.

My Tools

Managing technology has been a professional and personal evolution for me. My personal evolution began in 1987 with an introduction to computers in graduate school. My initial fascination with them grew from writing, spreadsheets and general organization to networking, email and file sharing. I quickly learned that my fascination was not shared by others and that my curiosity marked me as the go to guy when someone needed support. Clearly this was not due to my superior knowledge – I had very little. It was more a question of my willingness and persistence. I valued the resource and had a sense that it would pay off over time.

Institutional Adoption

Fast forward ten years – I found myself working in an advisory capacity to the technology director for the Roaring Fork School District. 5 years later I was hired as the director. My years with the department and as technology director put me in the position of leading software implementations (not to mention software development). I had the opportunity and sometimes dubious task of convincing people that new applications would be useful and worth the time required to learn them. My first assignment was to implement a new phone system across our 11 school sites. Within this project and others, there were a variety of considerations, complications and forces at work. I will delve into these at some other time. Suffice it to say that mistakes were made, and with each project, I learned a lot. One key lesson was that compulsory adoption can put people in a defensive position and create resistance even when skill is not an issue.

Not withstanding the missteps we made in promoting / supporting some computer applications in the school district, I sincerely believe that there is great value in computer applications for institutions and individuals. This belief drives my curiosity to help people through their own adoption process; beyond personal resistance and/or technical confusion. Helping people adopt a new technology or make better use of something they are vaguely familiar with allows me to extend my personal quest with tech tools. Thank goodness I’m no longer expected to make large numbers of people adopt applications without their expressed consent. Now I can work with the willing. Even when knowledge and skill are lacking, consent is a powerful force.

Helping People Choose

I enjoy helping people use technology – they choose; technology that can help them communicate, be creative and informed or that allows them to automate or streamline a task. By virtue of asking for my help, my clients are a step ahead of my former captive audience. They have already made a commitment on some level. They have chosen a particular computer, application and/or goal. They may not be happy with tools they are working with. But they are motivated on some level.

Once a commitment is made, it is important that support and methods are available to overcome inevitable barriers. It’s technology after all! While we can picture the solution working, it doesn’t often work the first time. First there are barriers of time, skill, confusing menus, unfamiliar concepts, and a host of other technical issues. Though the technical barriers can be substantial, the proper frame of mind can help us persist through the learning process. The way we think about our tools, our confidence and learning strategies are essential to our success. A positive attitude, the right environment, adequate focus and self talk strategies come in handy. When I talk about “tools4mind”, I am referring to the software of our brain as much as the hard digital tools. The mind is a much overlooked tool.

Attitude Counts

While we may not consider our frame of mind as important to our success, there is mounting research that lends credence to it. A series of studies were conducted in the 60s and 70s by Walter Mischel at Stanford University. His longitudinal  study found that children who were able to delay gratification showed greater competence / success later in life. Evidence in a 1988 followup study of these children showed:

“Delay of gratification, assessed in a series of experiments when the subjects were in preschool, was related to parental personality ratings obtained a decade later for 95 of these children in adolescence.… Specifically, children who were able to wait longer at age 4 or 5 became adolescents whose parents rated them as more academically and socially competent, verbally fluent, rational, attentive, planful, and able to deal well with frustration and stress.”

In 1990, other follow up studies of these children showed that the the children who waited scored higher on SAT tests.

The original “cookie” study has been replicated and refined. Results have suggested while these traits are pervasive over time, there are environmental factors that mediate the delay of gratification. In other words, if we fail the marshmallow test at 5 years old, we aren’t destined to be an under-achiever. One such study found that previous experience matters:

Children who experienced reliable interactions immediately before the marshmallow task waited on average four times longer—12 versus three minutes—than youngsters in similar but unreliable situations.

Changing the environment by making it more unreliable or reliable had dramatic effects:

“…Children who experienced unreliable interactions with an experimenter waited for a mean time of three minutes and two seconds on the subsequent marshmallow task, while youngsters who experienced reliable interactions held out for 12 minutes and two seconds
…provides strong evidence that children’s wait times reflect rational decision making about the probability of reward.
…If you are used to getting things taken away from you, not waiting is the rational choice.”


Nature or Nurture

What are the implications of this study for computer users like you and me? My observations (of myself and others) lead me to believe that persistence is one of the keys to learning technology. In my role as technology director, I supervised 6 technicians of varying technical ability and background. The most common characteristic of the 6 was their desire and focus. While their persistence wasn’t uniform or consistent across all domains, it was evident most of the time. Constantly faced with novel problems, they would hunker down and, through repeated iterations of testing, uncover the secrets of problems and applications. While I didn’t always grasp the content of the problem they were solving, I clearly followed their process. They were pit bulls on the pant leg of technology.

Were my staff born with the ability to focus and persist through digital problems? Or did they develop strategies over time that facilitated their success? Perhaps it was a little of both. Perhaps they were born into secure environments where they trusted that waiting would yield greater satisfaction. Perhaps they were born with brains that favored planning over impulse. My guess is that it was both.

As an adult I have one choice; to find ways to adapt and improve my innate abilities. There is no going back. Brain surgeons and the pharmaceutical companies cannot help me change my brain. Learning to learn, sharpening our brains can make a difference. It is a process of discovery, of practice, and progress. Stay tuned for more.

From Calculating Machines to Personal – Mobile Technology

To understand our relationship with technology, it is helpful to consider how it has evolved and how we have adapted/opted it. While all tools have influenced us, some have had a particular influence on our mental processes. They have provided memory storage, organization for ideas and automation for tasks. With the help of these electronic improvements, we’ve been enabled to use our mental processes differently and use digital tool to make new tools. Calculating machines (the tally stick, counting rods, abacus, and advanced calculators) evolved through the centuries improving the speed, lending innovation and automation in number and symbol organization. They were used in commerce, astronomy and time keeping.

Fast forward to the late 1800s, Herman Hollerith made significant advances to calculating with the development of a mechanical tabulator. Using punch cards, his invention not only calculated but stored numbers. These punch card machines cut years off the calculation of the 1890 census. The company he formed around this technology later became IBM and the technology spread through business and the military. Incredibly, punch card technology was relied upon until the 1980s.

Another important development, the Internet, was conceived and launched as these massive tabulation and storage machines were becoming standard. Contrary to some urban myths, the Internet was not the invention of a singe person or entity. It grew out of the commitment and focus of many visionary researchers. Conceptualized by J.C.R. Licklider in the early 60s, social networking was developed and tested through many iterations, becoming well established by the mid 1980s.

Generations of technology. 1925 - present.
Generations of technology. 1925 – present.

I have excerpted some of this account from a “Brief History of the Internet” authored by some of those pioneers:

In 1966 with ARPANET research there was a growth of network innovation:

“while file transfer and remote login (Telnet) were very important applications, electronic mail has probably had the most significant impact of the innovations from that era. Email provided a new model of how people could communicate with each other, and changed the nature of collaboration, first in the building of the Internet itself (as is discussed below) and later for much of society.”

With the innovation came many new three letter acronyms (TLAs) through the 70s and 80s like TCP, DNS, IGP, and EGP. All represent significant advances in the operation of networks that are still in use today.

“Thus, by 1985, Internet was already well established as a technology supporting a broad community of researchers and developers, and was beginning to be used by other communities for daily computer communications. Electronic mail was being used broadly across several communities, often with different systems, but interconnection between different mail systems was demonstrating the utility of broad based electronic communications between people.”

As the Internet developed, so did computing. As computing came to the personal desktop, the Internet became more accessible to non-engineers with a graphical interface and hyperlinks. The first desktop browser, called Mosaic brought this to the public in 1993.

So, contrary to typical commercial endeavors, the Internet was not created by a single entity to profit a few. Rather it was developed by a federation of researchers, from many countries and disciplines. Not only did they use the system to share information, they used it to create and extend their facility at sharing. They worked to lay a groundwork that would further more development of the same spirit, creating “a general infrastructure on which new applications could be conceived”.

Reading the “Brief History…” you can appreciate the community of people and their strong intention to build it as a public space; accessible, “free”, democratic and transparent for future developers.

“The Internet as we now know it embodies a key underlying technical idea, namely that of open architecture networking. …In an open-architecture network, the individual networks may be separately designed and developed and each may have its own unique interface which it may offer to users and/or other providers, including other Internet providers.”

Whether we acknowledge it or not, the advances in mobile and network technology that we enjoy are predicated upon this “open architecture”. It would be easy to overlook how well our computers, mobile phones, tablets and all the applications operate. The fact that you can keep up to date with family and friends on social networks is thanks to these people and these standards and values. Your video calls, “likes”, medical information, and entertainment are available at the click of a mouse, touch of a screen.

While the “Founding Fathers” of the Internet could not predict the particular course of “App” development, they established a framework and an environment that was conducive to it’s growth. While we might be challenged by the speed at which technology is evolving, I hope we can stay grounded in the values that keep it open and available to the masses.

Internet Strong
Internet Society


Technology Adoption – the devils in the details

P1030472-refinedge-trimmedWhat leads people to adopt a particular technology? The more I think about it, the less rational and more complex it appears. The complexity is driven not only by the consumer. It is shaped in the development, support, opinion, sales and delivery of these gadgets. Choice is not simply in the mind of a rational consumer, matching a particular need within a set of well understood options. Rather, choice is obscured by an overwhelming number of options, with enticing and sometimes misleading and obscure features. Most products are more complicated than neat marketing would lead us to believe. Even without the hype and simplification of the commercial message, choice is obscured by our lack of knowledge and insight into what we need and what is available and how much time it will take to master the tool.

The hallmark of digital technology is innovation. Novel by definition, some features go beyond the range of our current understanding. Adoption is a chicken and egg proposition. How do we know we want something when it is beyond the range of our understanding? How can we make an effective choice without first hand experience with the tool? As I said in my last blog installment, it has been argued that novelty is an incentive to adoption. While it makes sense that novelty is compelling, there must be a limit. Understanding how individuals and groups control and avoid novelty may help reveal some keys to adoption.

What are the forces behind development and adoption? Behind the veil of gadgets and gizmos, software and “cloud” services swirls a diversity of human fantasies, schemes and desire. Developers aim to design the next great application and solution. They are supported by the schemes of marketing and venture capitalists – looking for a return on their investment. The desires and whims of consumers is only one aspect of the overall picture, as they try to satisfy an itch or meet some technical, social, communication, information or entertainment need. Developers, marketers and consumers are not necessarily working toward the same goal, despite our assumption that they are. Developers may not understand the range of consumer needs and advertisers don’t necessarily have our best interest in mind. Granted, there is some connection. They must have some investment in what the consumer desires. But this concern is only one of many considerations. They appear more interested in what might entice us, over what we want. Advertising is aimed at creating new desires and emotional hooks; appealing to our desire for quick and fashionable fixes.

The disconnect between consumers and developers is revealed in some research explaining why people adopt technology. Understanding how generations and genders choose technology reveals more about their motivations and their interests. There is evidence that Gen X and Y are much more likely to innovate or fall behind a message from the cutting edge, beckoning them to be the first. They are more willing to risk an adventure into new territory. But this cutting edge behavior should not be mistaken as an indication that they are adopting technology at a faster rate. An October 31, 2013 report from Gartner states:

“In recent years, technology decision makers have focused their work largely on the perceived wants and needs of younger demographics. They have created and sold products targeted explicitly at an already-saturated market of financially poor “digital natives” in Generations X and Y,” Mr. Furlonger said. “This emphasis on the young is unsurprising, since many technologists are themselves part of these younger age groups. However, it is a very serious mistake, because it neglects the most promising technology market demographic of all: the affluent, increasingly technologically sophisticated older generation we are calling the ‘silver surfers’.”

The report goes on to describe how 76% of “Silver Surfers” in Australia use Facebook to keep in touch with family. They are using technology to stay or get in touch with family and friends and “find support in times of poor health and chronic disease”. This movement, “to enhance communication and reduce isolation” is a key drive (motivation) for a growing number of people over 50 to adopt technology. I’m curious whether developers recognize and cater to this need and the peculiarities of boomers slow and deliberate adoption rate. One key to understanding this group may be understanding the tools they ARE familiar with. Rather than building a completely novel solution, perhaps developers should take time to study the habits, traditional tools and primary motivations of this group.

Not only does Gartner suggest a second look at the over 50 crowd, Joseph Coughlin, director of MITs “AgeLab” describes another reason for uneven adoption of particular technology (“Does Age Predict Technology Adoption?”, July 27, 2013):

“Most younger buyers never used vinyl, 8-tracks, cassettes, or as painful as it may be for anyone over 30 to hear, CDs, to listen to their music. Young music lovers come fresh and ready to embrace new media and devices because they have no mental model – experience and an understanding of how something should look and work – to reconcile or adjust in order to learn something new. Essentially, they have nothing to give up or relearn in order to adopt something new.”

These studies are consistent with my experience, teaching and supporting people over 50; the cost of relearning and replacing tools that have always worked for them. While I am prone to adopting tools when they are newly released, I also, am more adept and less frustrated when those tools are familiar in some way. My understanding of the similarities between programs, operating systems, peripheral devices, and interfaces helps me to navigate new tools. While I may be quick to adopt the majority of tools, I am no different in my reliance on past experience and familiarity. When my students sit down to a Mac laptop, they have to adapt to the keyboard, trackpad and screen. However different the trackpad is to a seasoned laptop user, it is a significant hurdle to the novice. My students are determined to use the computer and smart device for communication but it is a stretch from their experience.

In my work, supporting people with technology, I help them sift through options, hoping to find the perfect tool. Most aren’t sure what the options are, much less which option best fits their needs. I propose the following questions to match need to purchase:

  • What need are you trying to meet?
  • What electronic device, software, or other tool (pen and paper) are you considering?
  • What is the final product you wish to create? A notebook, gallery, image or publication, web page, scrap book, video, drawing, database (contact list, photos, book keeping).
  • Are you most familiar with:
    • Windows
    • Macintosh
    • Desktop Computer
    • Laptop Tablet – iPad or otherwise
    • Smart Phone
  • What choices do you favor?
  • What advantages are there with that choice? (familiarity, support available (from friend/relative/consultant), price, reliability, functionality with other tools you use, cool-factor, ease of use)
  • Do you expect that the tool will take some time to learn? to master?
  • How do you plan to learn the tool? Where will you access support?
  • As I work with people, I will keep my eyes open to these answers.

Digital Divide – is it experience or age?

What motivates us to adopt a new technology? Why do some people avoid, resist, or complain about innovation while others revel in it? Is our motivation to adopt a technology a function of our age or our experience? Can these barriers be overcome?

The holidays are approaching. As they do, the latest promotion sits on the horizon, ready to fill our stocking and land under our tree. Taking a quick look on the hottest items at Amazon at this moment (November 21), you will find the Kindle Fire, cameras, hard drives, video consoles, computer monitors, computers, phones, AppleTVs and on and on. Granted some of these devices are driven by the previous adoption of some other technology. Others represent particular interest or niche.

Much of the research and speculation on what drives consumers understandably comes from venture capitalists and marketing wonks. In an effort to answer the adoption question, venture capitalist Fred Wilson speculates that adoption is driven by the delivery of an experience that consumers have never had before COUPLED WITH a version that is simple and easy to use. While this argument is plausible, it fails to address the particular balance of familiarity, ease of use and novelty. Advertisers do their best  to convince us that their product provides a novel experience; “New – Improved!”. At the same time, they claim that this novel experience is simple and easy. I’m not saying that these two cannot be balance. I would maintain that it rare. More often people are confounded with the novelty. I understand why advertisers do their best to promote their product as novel and easy to use. I simply don’t often see adopters who express that satisfaction.

Novelty (compelling innovation) and ease of use is in the eyes of the beholder (prospective or actual adopter). While the product itself sets the bar, the reality of the experience is in the mind and hands of the person making the choice. Most of us have watched a child or adolescent manipulate a phone or computer. This phenomena is so pervasive that the term “digital divide” has been coined to explain the demographics of adoption. The theory is that there is a line in the sand of age that places us on the side of adopter or luddite. Sounds pretty permanent doesn’t it.

Another explanation, and one I feel has more merit is, “It is not the age of the user but the user’s experience and that predicts acceptance or adoption of a device.”  Joseph F. Coughlin, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab, makes this case in a July 27, 2013 post. My personal and professional experience supports this perspective. Children, adolescents, and adults display a very wide array of skill in adoption and in adapting as technology changes. I have met adults who panic when Google changes the look their interface (location of buttons, menus and shortcuts) and adults who consume the latest innovation with a passion. I believe that the answer to adoption / motivation / technology question lies with this spectrum of adults.

I am motivated to understand how I can bridge this experience gap. As a trainer and consultant, working with the over 45 crowd, This understanding will help me help them. My intuition tells me that the more I understand a persons background and experience with various forms of tools – digital and otherwise – the more effective I will be in helping them move along. As a social worker I used to conduct “social surveys” in order to individualize my counseling and support. Perhaps we need to develop a “digital social survey” or more generically a “vocational history survey”. This may help to identify aptitudes that lend support to effective adoption.

Command-Tab to switch between application


One of my most often used key commands is the Command-Tab combination. Holding down the Command Key and pressing the tab key will display all of the applications you are currently running on your computer.

Here is a short video describing the utility of this trick.

Key CommandsThere are a plethora of keyboard commands listed at MacRumors. If you find yourself repeatedly doing some operation that requires clicking your mouse often, you will save time by locating (and practicing) these commands.