The Problem of Complexity

17 Jan ’06

Tyler covers the problem of complexity in consumer electronics in the Toronto Star this week in a piece titled “Relief From Gadget Overload“. Gist:

Nearly $5 billion.

That’s how much more North American consumers would spend on electronic gadgets and digital home entertainment products and services each year if they weren’t so clueless on how to properly use them, or too frightened or busy to try.

“Consumers buy digital products but then fail to get the additional products, content, or services that bring them to life,” according to a recent report from Forrester Research Inc., a U.S.-based technology research firm. “The gap between owning a device and powering it with services and content is staggering.”

The report’s title doubles as its key message: Sell Digital Experiences, Not Products.

(See also a recent piece in the WaPo on this issue). As the resident geek in my family and social circle, I feel the pain – I get a lot of tech support calls. And while I love personal technology, I’m getting tired of reinstalling Windows and keeping the unruly masses of my software tamed and well-mannered. So it’s a topic I’ve written about here often (see here and here, for example).

There’s no question that the increasing sophistication of the machines we use in our daily lives can be a potent force, but there is equally no question that it is enormously wasteful and unproductive to spend so much of our time trying to get the darn stuff to simply work. Whether it’s Windows, or the celphone, or the router, or the digital camera, or the printer (and soon, the TV, the stereo, the fridge, etc.) – it all amounts to the same thing – increasingly, technology intermediates our relationship to the world, and too often it just doesn’t work.

There are signs that some have recognized the opportunity that lies waiting here. In a recent podcast about CES David Pogue of the NYT noted that this year manufacturers seem to be getting the message; many of them are now attempting to duplicate the Apple philosophy of simplicity and beauty in design. Realtechnews recently covered a U.K. upscale retailer’s launch of a service that provides tutorials to its customers. Apple has its own Geniuses, who will help with tasks that some customers find daunting, and of course as Tyler notes we have the Geek Squads of the world to step in when the going gets really rough.

But as technology continues to accelerate, and we continue to deal less and less directly with our world, my sense is that this will get worse before it gets better. Consumers will continue to spend on products they are simply ill-prepared to use. Money will be wasted, time will be spent, and more and more people will feel that the revolution has passed them by. There is an enormous opportunity here for those who have a better way to keep it simple.

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