By nature of what I do for a living, I spend a lot of time thinking about the future. As a part of that exercise I like to employ a tactic I call live the future now. I’ll explain. Part of how I attempt to create a vision for the future and analyze opportunities and weaknesses of solutions is to try to use existing technology to do things I believe we will do in the future. This is why I am currently using tablets in and around my house in ways that seem unorthodox, or “crazy” as some have told me. I’m trying to get a sense of how these devices may evolve. For example I believe someday a tablet computer will exist in every room. They may also be communal and thus may be mounted on walls, refrigerators, in bathrooms, etc. This is why I literally have 15 tablets in some use around my house (or perhaps that is simply how I justify it).
In the early 2000’s, quite a bit of my research focus was the digital home. I spent a lot of time piecing together solutions in an attempt to stream HD videos wirelessly to all my displays in my house (which was 4 at the time) because I knew wireless whole home video would someday be a reality. I used any and all technologies I could get my hands on as I attempted to build the most connected and automated digital home possible. I basically used my own house as a lab. Interestingly, 10 years later and we still aren’t close to mass market commercialization of the digital home I envisioned and tried to create. It was a painful experience trying to create this digital home back then and many man hours were spent connecting DMAs (digital media adapters as they were called), home theatre PCs, 5ghz proprietary line of sight video points, beam antennas, and many more technologies.
This exercise was valuable and it was all based in an attempt to live the future now so I could learn and observe the potential of certain experiences. The point, however, was an attempt at technological ethnography of the mass market of tomorrow.
Understanding the Mass Market of Tomorrow
One of the most critical things any company can do is seek to understand the needs, wants, and desires of their customers of tomorrow. This is generally why RND labs exist. A key component of any RND lab are individuals with a vision of how the mass market may use their innovations based on tomorrow’s customers needs, wants, and desires. This is often done very poorly by many technology companies.
Understanding what the current mass market needs is important for the short term. Understanding the mass market of tomorrow is important for the long term. This practice is at the core of what we do at Creative Strategies, and it is why I engage in the practice of attempting to live our technological future in the present as much as possible.
There are two approaches a company can take to understand the mass market of tomorrow. One is to do it solely inside the companies walls. Apple does this for example but so does Microsoft and many other technology companies. This model is traditional but as I pointed out above, requires incredible insight and understanding about the future market in order to know what to commercialize and what to scrap. Apple is perhaps one of the only companies who has continually done this well. Some companies may actually test their products with large groups of employees in order to broaden their sample size as well. Palm used to do this, and I am sure many others do this as well.
The other approach, and the one I think is extremely interesting, is Google’s approach. Google does their RND out in public. ChromeBooks and Google Glass are two prime examples of this. These products may have mass market potential, or they may not, but a great way to find out is to test it with people and observe their behaviors and translate that into learnings. Call it market research with the help of the broad public. Things the market likes, keep. Things the market doesn’t like, don’t keep. Testing future products on actual future consumers and learning from their observations is an extremely interesting way to do future use case research. I appreciate that Google does their RND in public. I also applaud their ability to get people to pay for the privilege of doing their homework for them.
Most consumers don’t know what they want until the see it or experience it. It’s extremely hard in internal RND labs to truly understand mass market sentiment. This is why I think Google’s approach is so interesting. Competitors can learn from this and adapt, which is a risk. But I like the direction they are taking. Regardless of your opinion of the products themselves or Google, I like the idea that Google is getting back to its roots.