Technology That Helps, Please?

All this talk about new electronics this week at CES has me pretty frustrated at the lack of ideas that are in line with the actual needs of consumers. Not many electronics companies are really designing to aid people’s daily lives. Rather, more of them are trying to create a bloated, needless marketplace for technology we don’t need and sometimes even takes us back a few steps.

In my opinion, there’s two problems here:

1) There’s not enough behavioral studies, ethnographic research or just basic observation going on to decipher the needs of users on a day-to-day basis.

2) Consumers, lined with bloated credit over the years, have bought into the idea that every facet of their life can be improved by purchasing some new device or service that promises something faster, smaller, larger and/or more lifelike for cheaper. 

The solution to the first problem is simple. Companies need to identify true innovators in the industry, find out what they’re thinking and, more importantly, why they’re thinking that way. For example, when Steve Jobs said that Blu-Ray doesn’t make sense for MacBooks he’s saying more than one thing. First, and most obvious, Blu-Ray competes with HD movies from the iTunes store and that doesn’t make sense for Apple’s bottom-line. More importantly though, the demand for Blu-Ray is overblown. I, like a lot of friends, have the perfect setup for watching Blu-Ray media but aren’t collecting or renting a lot of HD movies on Blu-Ray. Why? Well, why do that when digital movies and rentals are available (legally and illegally) right from my couch?  People are downloading way more movies than buying Blu-Ray discs, despite the trade-off in quality because it’s easier. Jobs knows that placating the majority* means supplying for the true demand (convenience for now, picture quality when it’s convenient) and, in turn, making the most out of his business. This is what’s at the core of user experience design; Among other myths, it’s not just about the user, but also creating a legitimate market ecosystem based on real needs and behaviors.

As for us, the consumer, we need to really look at what a new service or product is offering and think, “Am I really going to use this?”  Aside from the Palm Pre and networked-TVs, nothing in Gizmodo’s Top 10 of CES Day 1 will actually make my life better. By curbing our consumption (easier done in the current economic climate) we can use the ultimate message, dollars, to tell companies what not to waste their time and effort on.

So what technology out there would I like to see that actually helps? At the the top of the list I’d love to see advances in cloud computing so, like Gmail, my preferences, data and software can be ubiquitously available whether I’m at work, on the go, or at home. 

Also, it would be nice to see offices ditch horrible, single-packet coffee machines in lieu of a nice, big, French-Press coffee pot.

*It should be noted that people, like myself, still like to make a trip to the local video store and I’m not suggesting that digital downloads replace that. Just like people still like sending and receiving cards and letters over email, the video store still has it’s place. But even rental stores can update by offering digital movies on USB or via email. Because you’re really going for the human interaction, expert opinion and maybe some snacks, not for the specific media format that they offer.
  • Greg Washington

    At this point, there are more than a handful of devices that can make the life of any given customer easier, but it’s not the tools. it’s how you use them. Metaphorically speaking, a “good” carpenter can make a beautiful table with only a hammer and few nails.

    The problem therein seems to be that companies aren’t making tools for the experienced carpenter or should I say the well organized individual. At this point technology companies seem to be competing with or against one another, rather than actually trying to figure out what the market needs.

    But without hate there is no love and we can’t define good technology without defining bad technology. So at the very least, all the bullshit that bubbles out of CES will help to clearly define the line between bullshit, and greatness… like the Palm Pre.