The Changing Relationship Between People and Technology
Despite all the clichés about the challenges of change, the truth is that it can be difficult for people to accept impactful alterations to the way they do things. This is particularly true in the mode of interaction we have with technology-based products because many of the changes occur in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. As tech gadgets, applications and services start to impact more aspects of our lives, there’s a growing awareness of the potential harmful impact of overusing tech-related products.
Together, these issues point to the fact that we’re entering an interesting a new phase in the relationship that people have with technology. Interestingly, I expect this phase to be significantly more impacted by common traits of human nature than in the past. Why? Because for technology products to continue to evolve, companies who create them are going to have to be more cognizant of how those products either influence or are influenced by human factors that they haven’t had to think much about in the past.
The way that people now think about and interact with technology is changing and successful companies need to be mindful of these new perspectives. Part of the reason for this shifting perspective is the fact that our increased exposure to tech-based products has altered our expectations. Many of the changes we encounter with today’s new tech products are subtle evolutions of existing products and are hard to appreciate. Over time, a collection of these changes can certainly produce a notable difference but in this age of relatively advanced, mature product categories, individual features or new hardware models often don’t make much of an impression anymore.
Of course, sometimes individual products or even features can have an immediate and profound impact—if not on the market overall, then at least with certain subsections of the market. Smart speakers, such as Amazon’s Echo or Google Home, for example, are arguably one of the better recent examples of this phenomenon, as they quickly became a commonly used device in households all over the world.
While there’s no single (or simple) answer as to what makes certain devices, applications or services have a broader, faster impact than others, I’d argue one consistent thread across most of them is that they connect to some fundamental aspect of human nature better than others. Whether it be a more intuitive means of interaction (as voice-based smart speakers have enabled), more intelligent and accurate means of analyzing information (as AI-based software tools have started to do), or some other type of capability that a wide variety of people can easily relate to, it’s the right kind of connection to how people think and act that helps products be successful.
Conversely, ignoring key aspects of human nature can prevent certain products from either achieving the level of success that some expect, or from evolving in ways that many predict. At a very basic level, many people don’t really like dramatic changes, as mentioned earlier, particularly when it comes to their technology-related products and services. While some of the resistance to change is certainly age-based, the recent challenges Snap faced when they dramatically modified their app’s user interface shows that even young people can be resistant to significant alternations to their technology products.
In the business world, resistance to major changes in technology is particularly pronounced. That’s why, for example, there are still a lot of companies running 1970s- and 1980s-era mainframes and plenty of other much older software. It’s easy to get caught up in the sleek technology of today’s cloud-based, microservice-enabled software environments, but even in the most advanced organizations, those tools typically only represent a tiny fraction of what they’re actually running across the whole company. Tech companies who ignore those realities and don’t provide tools to ease the transition process between older tools and newer ones (after all, it’s human nature to look for an easier way to get a task done—or just avoid it if it appears overwhelming), are bound to face significant challenges.
For consumers, the influences of human nature appear and the impact it has on interactions with technology-driven products and services manifest themselves in an enormous variety of ways. A recent, somewhat controversial, example involves self-driving cars. While few would argue conceptually about the value of autonomous driving features, there are serious and profound questions about how realistic it is to offer semi-autonomous capabilities (such as Tesla’s AutoPilot mode) in cars. As several recent tragic accidents have shown, when people believe they don’t have to actually pay attention while sitting behind the wheel, many stop doing so. The idea that people are going to maintain the level of concentration and focus necessary to very quickly take over in the event of a sudden change in the driving environment goes completely against human nature. In my mind, that makes these semi-autonomous capabilities potentially even more dangerous than regular human-powered driving because it lulls people into a false sense of security. Until the cars can be completely autonomous and require zero interaction on the part of the driver and passengers inside—a capability that’s still a ways off according to most—offering features that go directly against human nature is a mistake.
There are other instances of how human interactions with technology are not as easily defined and well understood as many think. Most people are creatures of habit and once they get comfortable interacting with devices, applications or services, they’re not overly eager to change. One of the most interesting examples involves PCs and tablets. Though many people were quick to write off both desktop and notebook PCs as dinosaurs once tablets like the iPad arrived, it’s now clear that a keyboard-based interaction model is still the preferred method for interacting with powerful computing devices—regardless of the user’s age.
Yet another way in which people’s relationship with technology products and services has changed is just starting to be felt, but I believe it could end up being one of the more profound adjustments in how people interact with technology. In a classic case of “be careful what you wish for,” technology has now given us the ability to have access to most all of the world’s information and all of the world’s people at any time. While that conceptually sounds like an amazing accomplishment—and certainly, in many ways, it is—the harsh reality of that capability is a world that’s grown further apart as opposed to closer together, as most presumed this capability would enable. While the reasons for the growing separation are many and complex, there’s no question that the overuse of technology is starting to take its toll.
As our usage of technology and its influence on all aspects of our lives continues to increase, it’s also leading more people (and companies) to do more public soul-searching about how people interact with tech products and what their expectations for those interactions should be. Just as we’ve started to see ethical questions being raised in the medical field based on advancements in technology there, so too are we starting to see questions about whether “because we can” is really going to be an acceptable answer for many types of advancements in tech.
Despite these concerns, there’s no question that has technology has had a profoundly positive impact on both our personal lives and the world around us. Even potentially challenging upcoming technology advancements like AI (artificial intelligence) are more likely to have a profoundly positive impact for most people than a negative one. But as with virtually everything in life, common sense and human nature tells us that sometimes there’s just too much of a good thing. More importantly, tech companies that can adjust their strategies to better accommodate the growing sophistication in the relationship between people and their products should be posed for a more successful future.