Fred Wilson is:

June 15, 2009 at 10:20 pm | In authenticity, ideas, innovation, media, web | 3 Comments

Holy cow, yet another great learning-and-thinking experience, courtesy of  Fred Wilson‘s recent post, What Drives Consumer Adoption of New Technologies?, and the many amazing people who comment there! Reading avc.com regularly is like participating in an interdisciplinary college seminar – and even though  you never know in advance what’s coming up on the syllabus, the conversation is bound to get really interesting several times a week.

Last week (on June 9) Fred asked What drives consumer adoption of new technologies? He had been invited by a major media company to participate in a panel discussion set to start at 10 a.m. that day. Without further ado he gave his readers a couple of hours to talk about the topic. And, boy, did he get a lot of great feedback. The online conversation continued well past the real life meeting, too.

In his post he observed that:

…consumers are driven to new experiences that are simple and useful and/or entertaining. It is not enough to be the first to market with a new technology. You have to be the first to market with a version of the technology that is simple and easy to use.

I was struck by some of the themes that commenters developed in response to this observation, especially when I thought about them in relation to one another. It seems late in the day to add to the original post’s comments thread, so I’ll spin this out here, instead.

One commenter, Jennifer Johnson of  Hashtag Media alluded to Kathy Sierra when she mentioned that great consumer products create passionate users (a reference that was picked up by another commenter, John Lewis).

Cue Twitter.

Kathy Sierra became a Twitter user with some initial reluctance, for she recognized that Twitter is “a near-perfect example of the psychological principle of intermittent variable reward, the key addictive element of slot machines.” Intermittent variable reward works to keep users coming back again and again:

…behavior reinforced intermittently (as opposed to consistently) is the most difficult to extinguish. In other words, intermittent rewards beat predictable rewards. It’s the basis of most animal training, but applies to humans as well… which is why slot machines are so appealing, and one needn’t be addicted to feel it. (more…)

With applications like Twitter, your brain also gets extremely rapid hits – and they are variable: not every visit or scan of the tweets is rewarding every time. But you know the tweets keep coming, and you know that often enough they’re studded with “hits” that provide pleasure. Addictiveness – including relatively easy access to getting those hits and rewards – is probably an ingredient in making successful consumer technology, particularly if it’s social media. (Fred Wilson himself refers to his Twitter habit as snacking… like those potato chips no one can eat just one of? Busted!)

So what about widgets and gadgets and things, and how they’re designed? Consider addictive qualities or “brain-state qualities” in relation to a comment made by Jules Pieri, the founder and CEO of Daily Grommet. She commented from the perspective of an industrial designer:

Here is the core truth about simplicity. When a product is pleasing to approach (which is created by a lot of qualities, foremost of which is simplicity) people get a psychological response to “engage”. It’s simple but unconscious stuff. “Hmm. I think I can do this. This is friendly.” The interesting part is that if you can elicit that response through UI, form factor and sheer disciplined editing of functionality down to its core essence, people will actually dig deeper, spend more time, and uncover MORE functionality from a simple product than from a more fully featured one. So they get more feature usage from a product with, objectively, less functionality. Designers understand this. Engineers usually struggle with it. (But not the best ones.) (link)

Now think about those insights in relation to Kathy Sierra’s observation on addictiveness (the quality that keeps you coming back). If you can design a product or UI with Jules Pieri’s insights in mind, and simultaneously channel Kathy Sierra in order to bake in the qualities of addiction/ gratification/ rapid pleasure, your product has a head start for sure.

The design has to be friction-free and unobtrusive to the point of disappearing. But if the item delivers (provides pleasure) once the user starts working with it – as the iPhone’s interface and shape does, for example – then the user-experience that speaks directly to brain-state can take over. It’s all about the brain – we’re in the age of neuroscience after all.

But where is all this taking us, and do we really care? To the Lotus Eaters all leaves gleam like brand new Apples, and when we ingest them they release their magic right into the brain. We seem to get “more” – but “more what”? More self-expression? Self-revelation? More information, and still more information?

Here’s where it could get heavy, dear reader. It’s hardly possible to let 20th century theory constrain something as disruptive as the web-based and neuroscience-based revolution we’re living through now …but that’s not to say older theory doesn’t have some intriguing insights worth thinking about!

Sure enough, another commenter, Shana (no profile info available yet), responded to a comment by John Dodds (also no profile available – yet) by referencing Michel Foucault. Dodds had written that “simplicity and purpose” drive consumers to adopt new technologies. Later he added that he had written purpose rather than utility

because that Benthamite concept [utility] seems to have been corrupted into relating to commercial productivity. Originally it was much more to do with being worthwhile by whatever criteria one chose to expend one’s credit – be that cash or time. Something entirely frivolous and trivial can have utility if you value those traits.” (link)

It was the introduction of Jeremy Bentham (the reference to Benthamite concept) that prompted Shana to bring up Foucault, whose book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison was inspired by Bentham’s Panopticon. Wikipedia’s definition of the Panopticon is nicely succinct: “The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell whether they are being watched, thereby conveying what one architect has called the ‘sentiment of an invisible omniscience.’” (source)

So Shana asked the following questions:

All of these products [consumer technologies] so far bring together community. A good number of them actually track behavior- should we be concerned? One thought that I have been having is that the power of searching leaves us vulnerable to the fact that we are currently in a system where we

a) are trying to attract the guard of the Panopticon’s attention
b) which leaves us vulnerable to the guy who isn’t. he can look on behalf on the guard, underneath, at our vulnerabilities.

Is the loudness of all the information of the internet getting in the way that someone with enough power can use it for harm?

Should we develop products that also encourage segmentation to amplify as well take away certain powers of the “Guard in the tower?”

Or in other words- should we develop products and systems on the internet that afford privacy as well as community at the same time? (link)

Great questions. As for answers – that’s a trickier proposition.

In an April 2004 post called C’mon, Confess about Foucault, art historians, and sex (not necessarily in that order), I wrote:

Understand this: whatever is translated into discourse is instrumentalized as social control. It is not the case that chatter about your sexuality or your neuroses or your deepest darkest secrets makes society a freer place. It instead makes it a more fully explored, more discursive place, which in turn contributes to mechanisms of control. People and their exposures are turning into social maps, we’re less multi-dimensional and increasingly flattened into a one-dimensional discursive space. At the same time, however, I would add an idealistic qualifier that probably wouldn’t sit too well with Foucault: while your confessions strengthen societal mapping (and hence control), there is the one-off/ one-in-a-million possibility that they just might liberate you, individually. It probably happens very rarely, but therein lies the dialectical rub. People might yet be capable of surprising others. (link)

That’s the Panopticon argument: everyone is watching everyone, which internalizes control even as individuals are free to reveal more about themselves than ever before.

I gave warning that this gets heavy, didn’t I? And I did wonder whether Foucault’s 20th century theory can be brought to bear (uncritically) on disruptive technologies such as the ones we’re seeing in the 21st century. And I’m much more critical these days of 20th century totalizing theories than I am of 21st century technology. Those theories still work insofar as we still worry about authenticity and about who we “really” are. So, if that’s a question you didn’t give up on when you turned 30 (or whatever), you’re in luck: there’s a massive body of theory to slake – but also feed – your anxieties. Measure your doses…

On the edge of “iffyness” we now have reality mining – which means there’s hardly anything that can’t become discursive, and if it’s discursive, it can become subject to Foucault’s critique. Reality mining is actually an interesting way to put it. In Pomo goes to market (December 2006) I wrote (again, apropos of Foucault):

The individual becomes the artist of his (her) own life, but the price is that we’re in charge of just a (relatively special) niche. Extinguishing the tutelage of authority in favor of a mastery of domain (the niche), we seem to have flattened the mountains and valleys of the past, exchanging them for a rupture-free landscape that somehow seems curiously the same, wherever we go. (link)

So is reality mining the strip mining of those mountains and valleys?

But all this “heaviness” aside, am I pessimistic? Not really. Either we are truly fucked or we’re living through an incredibly interesting revolution – and I’m hedging my bets that it’s the latter.

We’re learning so much about brain states and neurobiology – we might actually get a handle on addiction. If social media and new consumer technologies help us understand how that works, who’s to say that what they offer isn’t of great value? And is it any different than when people started using earlier (new) technologies to learn? People used to think books could be “harmful” because book-learnin’ was “unnatural” and a conduit for strange and dangerous ideas.

…Meanwhile, back once more to Fred Wilson’s post, to his blog and its amazing comments board. I’m going to suggest, cheekily, another analogy – one I hope Fred Wilson doesn’t mind, and which I make because of his ability to attract such an amazing community of users (that is, people who comment).

I’d suggest that his comments board itself becomes addictive, and that it actually shows the benefits of “addiction.” Users feel the need to check in frequently, to see who is adding to the conversation. The Disqus commenting system that avc.com uses has built-in features that enable tracking, as well as finding out more information about users, and that allows dissemination into other media like Twitter, Facebook, and so on. If you make a comment that someone else replies to, Disqus sends you a notification, so you feel compelled to go back, check again, read, think, perhaps respond. In this situation, you’re addicted to a conversation that enables the acquisition of more information, and also of learning.

And as to the title of this post, Fred Wilson Is:?  Listen again to Jules Pieri’s description of great industrial design:

When a product is pleasing to approach (which is created by a lot of qualities, foremost of which is simplicity) people get a psychological response to “engage”. It’s simple but unconscious stuff. “Hmm. I think I can do this. This is friendly.” The interesting part is that if you can elicit that response through UI, form factor and sheer disciplined editing of functionality down to its core essence, people will actually dig deeper…

What avc.com manages to achieve could be described as Fred Wilson Is: the friendly interface: deceptively “simple” (I mean that in the best sense) and usually laconic (which means cool, not hot). The coolness (vs a hotter, flame-ish environment) ensures that users/ readers aren’t intimidated, that they can participate freely. So Fred Wilson Is: cool, maybe even a cool brand, and, as Kathy Sierra might say, helps the user kick ass.

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