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.